Training the Adult Mind

Tell me, I’ll forget; show me, I’ll remember; involve me, I’ll understand

The strange and beautiful mind

Study after study has demonstrated that the human mind simply can not retain or learn forced information. Only the willing mind will accept and retain new information for the long haul.

From birth to early adolescents our brain is like massive sponge soaking in anything and everything we come in contact with. The rate of cognitive development during this time is nearly impossible to repeat as we grow older and “wiser.”

The rate of development is astonishing considering the flat line that comes with early adult-hood in most individuals. Part of the issue is of course is our genetic make-up and environment, but another part correlates directly to interest levels. As we grow older our interests levels funnel down, eliminating most of the world around us. As we construct these internal barriers, we change our development process and alter our learning behaviors.

Cleaning the flood with a wet sponge

The challenge then for safety managers is to develop effective methods to soak in a little bit more information, into an already saturated and uninterested mind.

This can be a difficult and frustrating task for even the most tenured safety managers who simply want to help.

The goal of any successful training program is to ultimately change behavior through various methods, including education and training. The trainer is responsible for teaching the trainee the reason why a change in behavior is needed both on and off the job.

But, how do you get adults to learn and alter their pre-programmed behaviors?

Traditional methods of standing up and lecturing to a large group have proven to be ineffective for the adult learner. For an adult to learn, they must be involved in the learning process. They need to understand why it’s important for them to learn this new information and the benefit that will result from it.

Studies show that employees forget 80 percent of what they have been told within 24 hours after the training, but retain 90 percent if there is hands-on involvement


Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997), often referred to as the founding father of adult learning, helped popularize an old European concept of Andragogy, meaning “the art and science of helping adults learn.”

Knowles was convinced that adults learn different from children. He spent the majority of his life developing methods and theories to help others educate adults effectively. He used Andragogy as a premiss to lay out his assumptions of the adult learner.

The five andragogical assumptions of the adult learner:

  1. Self-concept: As a person matures his self concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward on of being a self-directed human being.
  2. Experience: As a person matures he accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to learn: As a person matures his readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his social roles.
  4. Orientation to learning: As a person matures his time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his orientation toward learning shifts from one of the subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness.
  5. Motivation to learn: (Added later) As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal.

Know your audience

Understanding how the adult learner works is only part of design. A safety trainer’s success also relies on how well they know their trainees. A good trainer is enthused, is creative in their approach to training, has a willingness to work with people, knows the material, has a desire to help people learn, and understands how to effectively attract the adult learner’s attention.

The last part is key, because without motivation and interest from the group, the safety training is pointless. A good trainer will involve the group by asking  open-ended questions. They make the group think and generate internal questions, which help retain, and apply the information being delivered.

Strong body language is also important. How well the trainer uses their voice, eyes, hands, face and body will also have an affect on how well the participants stay engaged into the presentation.

Education vs Training

As you try to relay your message to your audience it is important to consider the distinction between education and training. When you educate someone, you explain the “why.” When you train someone, you show them “how.”

Several scholars believe that you can’t effectively train someone without educating them first. This theory mainly stems from behavior-based safety coaching methods, but when combined with what we know from how adults tend to learn, makes a lot of sense.

Consider the last assumption Knowles added to his list, motivation. One’s motivation to learn a new procedure or belief in a safety culture can be increased when one has an understanding the bottom line rationale or principle behind it. If an employee has no understanding of the rationale behind the procedure they are less likely to engage themselves in the training, thus eliminating the effort of the safety trainer.

A safety trainer is well rehearsed to the ins and outs of safety and compliance, but without a clear understanding of how to train, their knowledge becomes meaningless. The information provided is only a sample of the many studies and theories behind adult learning theories.

We are all unique to the learning process, each with their own rationale for motivation and interest levels. Developing the means to engage your audience and effectively convey your message into a sustainable behavior change, is the ultimate challenge for any safety trainer. Finding what works best for your audience might involve extra time and effort, but the end result is the difference between an invested and successful safety culture, and a group of individuals who think you are just wasting their time.

Sources: Industrial Safety & Hygiene News, July 2007 v41 i7 p46(1), Geller, S., Perdue, S.R. & French, A. (2004). Behavior-Based Safety Coaching. Professional Safety, 49(7), 42-49. http://infed.org

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