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Can You Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?

College professors share a pet peeve. They don’t like it when the students attending their lectures spend time on-screen instead of giving them their rapt attention.

One professor from Northwestern told me his strategy is to turn down the lights so he can see the ominous glow of a cell phone that’s meant to be concealed in a student’s lap. A Cornell professor addressing a group I facilitate recently shared that he stands at the back of the room when other professors are on stage and, from that vantage point, he’s seen online porn and a wide variety of other non-academic pursuits during lectures.

At a state college, I’m told that large lecture halls no longer have wireless access and that there is a movement toward blocking cell phone reception, too. Even professors who make their lectures available as podcasts feel strongly that students should pay attention during their live lectures.

I think these professors and schools have it all wrong.

The problem isn’t that students have access. It’s that they use it. They aren’t engaged enough in the lecture to want to focus fully on what’s being said. (By the way, this may also be true in high schools or even middle schools!)

In most college classes, teaching is the focus. Not learning. Not on how to effectively engage adult learners.

Science tells us that there are six preferred learning styles of adults. Only a small percentage of us actually learn by hearing (lecture format). Despite that undisputed fact, most college professors lecture. Most colleges pack lecture halls so that lecture is the only way to deliver content. And then they wonder why students check out during these lectures.

To meet the learning needs of adults, the delivery style has to be more than lecture. Some adult learners are visual (PowerPoint slides and overhead projectors help but are not the only thing visual learners need). Some adult learners prefer interactive or kinesthetic or hands-on experiences, something that lectures prohibit by their very nature. Other adult learners need an opportunity to write what they hear – but PowerPoint slides and handouts make it seem silly or like overkill to take notes, so they don’t.

These experiences are frustrating for learners. So frustrating, in fact, that once people have graduated and entered the work force, they may shy away from new learning opportunities. Negative associations with teaching cause some people to fear and loathe even the idea of training.  They feel that those college classes were a waste of time, that they learned more in study groups or labs or from books than they learned from professors during lectures. They assume that training, too, will be a waste of time.

This is why we’ve come to believe that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The “old dogs” don’t want to be subjected to more pedagogical teaching.

Here’s the problem. The world around us is changing at an unprecedented pace. Few jobs require the same skills today that they did a decade ago. Competition is fierce, and only the best products sold and serviced and developed by the best people will survive. Companies need nimble employees who are open to learning and ongoing development.

What’s more, people who are open to learning find more satisfaction in life as they move toward self-actualization. Their openness and interest in self-development give them opportunities that others simply miss out on. Those who think they know it all (or know all they need to know to get by) limit themselves and the people around them.

We need “old dogs” who have experience and knowledge and historical perspective. (Incidentally, I am calling anyone who isn’t fresh out of school an “old dog.”) But we need old dogs who are ready, willing and able to learn new tricks. Each of us who are old dogs can decide to open ourselves up to quality learning experiences, to humbly accept the fact that we need to continually develop ourselves, and to seek out new tricks instead of clinging to our old ones.

Changing ourselves is going to be much easier than changing our antiquated education systems that focus on teaching. Their outdated methods are the direct result of old dogs not learning new tricks.

How to engage adult learnersAs a leader, it’s imperative to understand why and how to show ever person that you care about them. Learn more about how you can CONNECT2Lead. And Subscribe to our weekly CONNECT2Lead Newsletter for special offers, content, and blog.