The Evolution of Learning: 5 Things Coaches Need to Know

A hundred years ago the word “education” may have conjured up images of chalk and slate in school-houses, or strict nuns rapping students on their knuckles.  It was a different world.

Just a few years ago, the phrases “employee coaching” or “learning and development” may have conjured up now almost equally antiquated learning techniques for adults: classrooms or conference rooms packed with employees being lectured at with the assistance of Powerpoint or Post-it notes.

Employee development has evolved significantly in just a few years. Embracing theories of adult learning and the flexibility provided by technology and the cloud— organizations have been able to optimize how learners learn at work. We are now incorporating new concepts like micro-learning, flex-learning, and self-directed learning into our every-day coaching vocabulary.

It is as distant from Powerpoints and Post-its as the knuckle-rapping and chalkboards are.

But despite these advances, many organizations have not yet evolved with technology and learning theory. Has yours?

Here are five things you should know about how adult learners—your employees and coachees—will thrive best in today’s organizations.

  1. Adult learners don’t learn like child learners.
    According to scholars, the way adults learn is very different than how we learn when we are kids. Adults have their own life experiences and want to apply them— thinking critically and applying, questioning, and testing what they are told.

    Unlike children, who learn what they are taught and trust that it will all someday have use, adults need to understand the relevance of what we are learning and will tune out coaching or modules that we feel are not useful to us. Adults also tend to be much more afraid of failing, often to the point of nervousness.
    We are also more limited by competing demands for our time and attention.

    All this means we have to design learning and coaching not according to how we were taught in the past, but in accordance with how adults are best likely to learn, today.
    1. Without reinforcement, we forget 79% of what we learn.
      It’s a depressing statistic, but according to studies, people have a steep “forgetting curve”—losing about 40% of what we learn in the first 20 minutes and 77% of what we learned within a day and 79% within a month.

      But if coaches and trainers make an effort—combining individualized teaching techniques with repetition and application—scholars say, we can impact those numbers by double digits.

      Absorption and retention rates depend on many variables that you should consider:

- The type of material that is being learned
- The format in which the information is being presented
- The repetition of the information over time
- The learner’s prior knowledge and context
- The learner’s motivation to learn
- The learner’s cognitive ability
- The power of the learning methods and technology used
- The opportunity for the learner to apply the knowledge gained

Individuals also learn in different ways. For example, you may be a more visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (touch based) learner. You may be someone who learns best in a social environment—interacting with peers— or someone who prefers to learn alone. So, it is important to create many different ways for your coachees and employees to access the information you want them to absorb—according to their own preference.

  1. The lines between training, coaching, and management have blurred.
    Years ago a company had trainers, or it didn’t. We had access to coaches, or we didn’t. Today, with an assist from cloud platforms for coaching, feedback and LMS, managers are often called upon to serve in all these roles. But that means managers must also be taught how to effectively reach and teach their employees. 

    Too many companies assign the responsibility without offering the resources. Don’t neglect this important layer of training!
  2. Technology is critical to flexing to fit diverse learning needs.
    If you’re calling on managers to coach, encourage, manage and develop employees, simply training them isn’t enough. You must give them access to the critical tools they need to offer feedback and coaching that can integrate seamlessly with a robust LMS and even provide an assist to managers by offering them suggestions for development tracks and learning modules.

    Do you have a flexible, cloud platform for coaching that can adapt to the needs of adult learners and their managers?
  1. How we learn may change, according to our role and tenure.
    How we absorb and learn also will likely change over time—not just from childhood to adulthood but depending on our role and tenure in our jobs. In one series of studies, scholars noted college students changed in their approach to learning as they progressed through college.

    Students began with an approach based on “duality”—common among young learners or beginners, who have a clear view that the teacher will tell them the difference between right and wrong. But over time, and with experience, they evolved towards “multiplicity”, where they recognized that context is important, and that their environment, their peers and their own experience were also valuable sources of knowledge.  Likewise, in your organization an entry-level beginner will have different needs than a seasoned mid-level employee.

    Be sure you are not using a one-size-fits-all coaching and feedback style but are adapting your coaching plans to meet your employees where they currently are.

Want to learn more about the different theories of adult learning and how you can best meet the needs of learners on your team or in your organization?

Look for our new eGuide: Adult Learning 101: Basics Every Coach & Manager Should Know About How Your Employees Learn coming to you soon!