Adult learning from the mouths of babes that help you get the best results

Derek Robertson.jpg

Derek Robertson , CEO

(Chartered FCIPD, MCMI, MInstLM, NLP Practitioner and Coach) 

Author of The Great Cape Escapade (A Fable about effective meetings)

4 min read

01 September, 2021



September means organisations in budget mode for next year.  Senior teams will scrutinise people development recommendations, hopefully with an investment mindset and not a cost that's easy to cut.  To support you, let's remind ourselves of how adults learn (best).  This will help you separate quality training from the well-meaning amateurs and impostors.  Training has to pay its way, so understanding adult learning is important.  Important to your learners, your organisation’s performance and your personal success.

Look to our rug rats

Toddlers are learning machines.  No lectures, no theories, no PowerPoint slides, no sit passively for 2 hours till break.  Instead they use their whole body to learn.  Give a toddler and everyday item like a colourful torch and what will they do?

Yes you already know they will (in no particular order):

  • Feel all over it
  • Bash it on another surface
  • Bash it on their head
  • Throw it
  • Put it in their mouth

And when they find the ‘on’ switch . . .

  • Flash it on other surfaces
  • Flash it in their eyes
  • Flash it slowly and quickly
  • Flash it on their pet dog
  • Feel the slight heat on the glass protecting the bulb

As time passes they go from silence to mumbling to themselves.  If they can talk, they will engage you in conversation about it with giggles, words and bits of words from their growing vocabulary.

And afterward they will talk to themselves about what they learned:

  • Pressing buttons causes other stuff to happen
  • Flashing a light onto the wall at different speeds is fun
  • I can get Bonzo (the dog) to move by flashing the torch at him
  • Bright lights in my eyes are not good
  • A torch is not food
  • Hitting myself with hard objects isn’t fun

And then decide on actions:

  • I’ll avoid bright lights in my eyes
  • When I see other buttons I’ll press them to see what happens
  • Never try and eat a torch again
  • Don't hit myself with hard things

Childlike never childish

Our rug rats set the scene for how we learn best and also how lesser training providers get these principles so wrong.  In essence:

Traditional training Effective training

Theory, models and input

Discussion (The trainer's agenda)

Do or see something (if there is time)

Action plan (maybe)

Experiences (multisensory)

Discussion (focused on the participant's world)

Context (perhaps with a model or theory)

Action plan 


Colin Rose captures it well by encouraging training that’s childlike but never childish.  Why training doesn’t follow how we naturally learn isn’t a mystery.  Check our blog to find out.  What is a mystery is why so many organisations settle for poor training designs and trainers.


Practicing what we preach here is the theory.  Malcolm Knowles gives the academic rigour to what we know from our experience to be true.  I’ve taken his adult learning work into our team's design and delivcery as:

  • Adults bring a great deal of experience to the learning environment.  Facilitators must use them as a resource or the participants get bored
  • Adults expect to have lots of say over their training and how it ought to happen.  They are no longer toddlers so engage them
  • Bring some participants into the design and running of their training
  • Clearly show learners the applications for new learning: how will it make their lives easier – straight away
  • Adult learners expect to have lots of influence on how to evaluate their learning
  • Adults expect to give feedback on their training and for actions to result.

Your takeaways

  • Remember how toddlers show us the way to effective learning
  • Be super interested in the training designs and trainers you commission
  • Use the Knowles’ bullet points above to see how well your key trainings stack up against adult learning principles

Final thought

Training is like motor cars, just because you have one doesn’t mean you’ll get to your destination.  Investing in the best quality you can will help make sure your training gets to its end point successfully.  Here endeth the analogy.

Your next action

Check out the following resources and downloads to help you:

  1. Take the stress out of securing leadership training budget
  2. Six secrets to choosing a quality training provider
  3. Five useful tips from the experts to get passed “No”
  4. Blog: Time to end the factory model of training


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