6 Hot Topics To Achieve The Best Results With Adult Learners

We have all been there-- those meetings where we would rather stab our eye out than have someone read a text heavy Powerpoint to us. Equally irritating is having to listen to a monotone speaker drone on and on, minute after minute. Most adults “required” to attend professional development events have endured such things, but clearly there has to be a better way.

The drive to find that “better way” has been our inspiration as we try to make adult learning a little-- well a lot-- different. The big lesson for us has been that one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter training does not work. Instead, our focus has been on personalizing and differentiating professional development in order to best meet the unique needs of our participants.

Hot topic #1: FOOD

Food is huge at our school as it is in most workplace meetings. It’s a natural thing. People gather around food; it’s an ice-breaker or a commonality. It makes people feel more at ease and less formal when having critical conversations. The shared human experience of “breaking bread” together sets a tone of community and trust. On our teacher leader team we had one member who had valuable contributions within our planning sessions, but does not always feel comfortable leading full group activities. At her suggestion, she became our hospitality chair person and took over planning the food at each professional development event, which turned out to be great for the morale of everyone involved.

What we learned about serving food at professional development events:

  • If the meeting is a half day starting in the morning, we suggest a continental breakfast and a snack.
  • If the meeting is a half day starting in the afternoon, a snack is fine (unless the school did not have lunch-then lunch and a snack should be served).
  • If the meeting is a full day, a continental breakfast, a lunch and two snacks should be served.

Next, the types of food being served needs to be carefully thought about. While it may be tempting to pick up last minute donuts on the way, the danger is a room full of people on a sugar crash 30 minutes later. Additionally, there are likely people in the group who have dietary needs and preferences. By paying attention to this, there is an opportunity to make a connection and build a stronger community.

This school year I (Theresa) have been trying to make healthier choices in my eating. Our co-teacher responsible for hospitality noticed I was not getting any food when I arrived at professional development events. One time I brought my own snack -- a little string cheese, and she asked what kind it was. At the next meeting, I was quick to notice string cheese was part of the spread and realized she had added it for me.  -- Wow! Her gesture filled me with a sense of belonging and a positive energy -- it just made my day!

If the goal is to have a productive professional development meeting, then participants need to have healthy choices. For breakfast, we suggest choices like fruit, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, and nuts. For lunch and dinner, try salads, soups (broth based), lean meats, veggies, fruit, nuts, etc. These types of choices will feed the brain and help make for more productive meetings.

Hot topic #2: Engagement

The next hot topic when planning for adult learners is keeping the learners engaged. What we learned is HUGE -- Appropriate variations of best practices for students are both engaging and inspiring for teachers to experience. Therefore, if we want teachers to use text coding in the classroom - we use that as a strategy in our trainings. If we want teachers to jigsaw articles - we have them try it out during professional development. We use graphic organizers, non-linguistic representation and lots of collaboration during our professional development time because we want teachers to take these things back to their classrooms.

We know however, that if we stand up in front of the group and teach them how to do something like jigsaw articles, they will zone out. Therefore we try to embed the strategy by just using it.

Here is an example activity that could be used for a PD on close reading in the content areas:

  • Start with articles about close reading - maybe 5 - on each table.
  • As faculty arrive have them each choose an article to read.
  • When finished have each person write a quick reflection in response to the article they read including something they could use in their classroom (set a timer for about 4 minutes).
  • Have everyone pass their reflections to the person on their left. This time they should read their peer’s reflection and then write a response. It helps to post possible questions to consider:
    • Have you used this strategy?

    • What questions do you have?

    • How could you use this idea in your classroom?

  • Was there something from your original article that builds upon what you are reading now?

  • Keep rotating for a set amount of time or until everyone at the table has read and added to each reflection.
  • Create a digital archive of each reflection and each article so that participants can go back when lesson planning later.

Tips for Engaging Adult Learners:

  • Set norms.

  • Share the agenda and objectives.

  • Use effective delivery methods.

  • Empower the learners.

  • Provide feedback.

  • Ensure accountability.

Hot topic #3: Norms

One of the biggest improvements that we made this year in professional development came from one norm-- “There will be no blaming the students.” Our principal lead the original discussion that helped us set the norm and that had a huge impact on the collective acceptance and adherence to its message.

As Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome say in their book Kids Deserve It, "What if we looked for solutions instead of complaining about what's wrong?" With that norm in place we got much further in figuring out what could be possible. For us, it kept us from getting stuck and instead helped us to consistently move forward. In the past, the “blame game” made us feel helpless, but the question, “What could be possible?” kept us looking for solutions to improving student learning. The data moved front and center along with reflection on instructional practices and what it would take to reach the goal. We learned that when the focus is on what is possible, the results can be almost magical.

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This isn’t to say that the norm is never revisited. Adults, just like students, need to be reminded from time to time. It is easy to fall back into that pit of making excuses and blaming others. It’s hard work to look at our own practices and admit what we are doing may not be working for all our students. However, with a collective norm agreement to abstain from pointing the finger at students, essentially taking blame out of the scenario, big strides can take place in providing the best possible education for all students.

There definitely can be more norms; this one just worked well for our adult learners. It took care of a lot of problems we had seen in previous sessions. Do what is right for your school environment.

Hot topic #5: Relevance

This is where we want to make sure we are not shooting at a target while wearing a blindfold. The participants should all be on the same page. The agenda should lay out the plan for the day, specifically noting starting and ending times. There should also be break and eating times if applicable and activity times. Don’t forget to budget for transitioning from one activity to the next, and please keep track of time. Ending early always makes for happy participants.

Right after the agenda we share the objectives for the day. As teachers, we use to have 30 students walking into our room asking what we are doing for the day. This was before we started posting objectives and learning targets. They are a lifesaver for sanity. People are curious by nature, and posting objectives allows the adult learners to focus rather than wonder what they will be subjected to that day. According to the authors of Classroom Instruction That Works,  

“Setting objectives is the process of establishing a direction to guide learning (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002). When teachers communicate objectives for student learning, students can more easily the connections between what they are doing in class and what they are supposed to learn. They can gauge their starting point in relation to the learning objectives and determine what they need to pay attention to and where they might need help from the teacher or others. This clarity helps decrease anxiety about their ability to succeed. In addition, students build intrinsic motivation when they set personal learning objectives.” This holds true for adult learners as well. When facilitators post objectives, adult learners, specifically teachers, can connect what they are doing in the classroom to what they are supposed to be learning in the session.

Effective Delivery Methods: If we take John Hattie’s work Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning and apply it to adult learning as well as student learning, we can come away with some highly effective professional development.

  • Provide Clarity: This is where the objectives, goals, and agenda come into play. The learners will have a clear direction and purpose.

  • Model (Direct Instruction/ Explicitly Teaching): We can’t forget that we need to teach adult learners what they need to learn too.

  • Engage: Learning should be positive for both our students and our peers. Always be on the lookout for how to make PD valuable and fun!

  • Provide Feedback: This needs to be timely and both from the teachers and the administrators.

  • No More One-and-Done: Begin with the end in mind and create a year-long plan that builds toward that goal.

  • Apply to the Classroom: Embed strategies as well as content that can be used in the classroom.

  • Collaborate: Create reasons for teachers to get out of their silos and share their expertise.

  • Build Capacity: Do whatever it takes to grow a culture of innovation and reflection within the school. Student learning goes up when teachers maximize what is right and focus on what is possible.

Hot topic #6: Empowerment

Just like students, adults want a voice and a choice in their learning. Empower adult learners to do just that. Involve teachers in the professional development planning as much as possible.

  • Encourage teachers to share what they are doing in the classroom with their peers as teacher leaders.

  • Support collaboration to foster community.

  • Recognize teachers as experts who can make decisions in curriculum, grading practices, policies, etc.

  • Celebrate growth through a culture of innovation, trust, and the power of “yet.”

Feedback: Remember that teachers need formative feedback just like the students.  PD is pointless if it’s something that happens at a meeting and then is left, ignored in a folder, or dumped in the recycling bin. Faculty leaders, coaches, and administrators should make every effort to review the work that comes out of PD activities and then recognize, celebrate and grow the faculty. This a a great way to identify growing experts and address questions that come out of the work that is being done.

Accountability: The best way to sabotage your PD is to allow teachers to think it does not matter. Make sure everything you do has a purpose that builds toward a clear goal and that everyone is accountable for ensuring progress toward that goal.

One of my (Rachel) pet peeves as a teacher is working my butt off to meet an expectation set forth at a professional development session only to see my peers not meet that same expectation. Now, I know this could be for a variety of reasons. There could be time management issues, a lack of systems, fear of failure, etc.  Regardless of the reason, it can be a divisive aspect in any staff. Planning for accountability is a must when planning for adult learners.