By Alex Morales, M. Ed.
NPCA has a robust slate of continuing education programming available to industry employees, precast business owners, members of the world of academia, specifiers, regulators and others. We evaluate every course, and over the last two decades, we have gathered significant information about how to both improve our educational offering quality and target new content.
That feedback, reviewed by and combined with feedback from the NPCA Education Committee, has proven invaluable.
While needs assessments before a course and evaluations after a course are foundational principles to follow when managing industry-leading education programs, how these sessions occur is an even more important aspect of adult continuing education programming. It is important to understand that adult education (andragogy) is managed very differently than education targeting children (pedagogy). This difference must underpin any adult education programming to provide meaningful experiences that improve your brand, disseminate information accurately and ensure the development of long-lasting relationships.
Andragogy describes the method and practice of teaching adult learners. Notice that the definition identifies “learners,” not “students.” If you have a group of working adults in a classroom and see them as students, you may not be optimizing your relationship with your audience.
When you see your attendees as “students,” you tend to see yourself as the “teacher.” This viewpoint creates hierarchy. We are conditioned to respect teachers as authority figures. We raise our hands before we speak so as not to interrupt them and generally do not challenge them, even if it means walking away without fully understanding a concept. This is not a great environment for marketing products and services or establishing enduring professional relationships, which are key secondary goals of industry-sponsored training.
The student-teacher hierarchy is a pedagogical relationship meant for students who have yet to enter the workforce. Once an individual enters the workforce and gains real-world working experience, different approaches are required to reach them with new knowledge.
In 1997, Clifford Baden wrote “Adult Learning in Associations,” published by the American Society of Association Executives.1 The text explores the differences between adult learners and those learning in traditional university classrooms at a time when associations nationwide were looking to create training programs for the industries they represent. In the years that followed, NPCA began creating and refining robust educational opportunities for the precast concrete industry as a part of the Manufactured Concrete Exposition (MCX), the predecessor to The Precast Show. That evolved into the Precast University curriculum NPCA offers today.
One of the contributions to our industry’s success in the continuing education space was incorporating the concept of dialogue education, a learner-centered system of teaching that is purposeful, engaging and collaborative.
In her groundbreaking text, “Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach,” Jane Vella lists myriad principles of dialogue education.2 If you have participated in any NPCA-sponsored course during the last two decades, you may remember seeing some of them in your speaker confirmation letters.
- Respect for learners as decision-makers
- Immediacy of the learning
These three of the tenets of dialogue education are important to keep in mind when your business conducts continuing education programs locally.
Respect for learners as decision-makers
You might suspect that this tenet points to the level of employee we train – that they are managers, directors and otherwise top-level decision-makers in their own roles. But this refers to the fact that adults are decision-makers across all aspects of their lives. This differentiates their learning from that of grade schoolers.
Precast concepts have not traditionally been taught at the university level, even in engineering programs that focus on reinforced concrete design. It can be tempting to decide what information you want to relay based on the outcome you desire from the attendee. For instance, if you are in sales, you might deliver information that you hope will get you to a close. If you are in finance, you might provide information that you hope will get your invoices paid faster. Those aren’t necessarily bad end goals.
However, as Vella writes, “Adults desire to be respected as subjects and resist being treated as objects.”
In everyday language, that means we need to involve attendees as much as possible in deciding what content we present. We need to speak with them – not to them or at them. This is true whether a national association is conducting the training or a company hosts its own lunch-and-learn program.
There’s a time and place for sales pitches. Consider how your family physician’s office likely has signs posted that state meetings with pharmaceutical representatives are scheduled or reserved for a particular day. We need to be careful to keep sales tactics and training initiatives separate, lest both be ineffective for not respecting the learner and the role they intend to play prior to entering a session.
Immediacy of the learning
Your physician’s office certainly needs to meet with pharmaceutical representatives to obtain prescribing information and remain current on the efficacy of medications. However, no one wants their pediatrician walking out of an appointment because a sales representative dropped in unannounced. You reserved time with your doctor, and it is important for physicians to prepare for meetings with pharmaceutical representatives outside of appointment hours so they can apply what they’ve learned.
Immediacy in dialogue education is not about the timing of the meeting, although it is important to ensure everyone is in a training frame of mind. It’s about being able to use the content soon after the training is done.
And, as Vella writes, “Adult learners need to see immediate usefulness of new learning.”
If an employee obtains a crane operator certification, doing it right is a health and safety issue. The content of the associated training should not be about how the steel is made, how the crane is built or where the hooks come from. While that information is interesting, it is not content that the learner can immediately put to use on their operator certification exam or out in the plant to demonstrate their ability to operate a crane safely.
In dialogue education, however, safety refers to ensuring participants feel safe speaking up and contributing. Dialogue education seeks to be collaborative with adult learners. And remember, we define adults as those who have entered the workforce and have real-world work experience. It’s tapping into that experience that enriches each training experience.
“The principle of safety enables the teacher to create an inviting setting for adult learners,” Vella writes.
Attendees should feel comfortable speaking and sharing during training, which means facilitators should remain mindful not to label any idea as a bad idea, call any comment silly or tell someone that they’re wrong. This inevitably halts adult participation.
The power of dialogue education in teaching adults is evident throughout research, but you do not have to comb the halls of academia, obtain an adult education degree or publish research data in academic journals to prove it. The principles of dialogue education serve as the foundation of NPCA’s education programming and have done so for the past two decades, informing decisions on how to improve curricula, create new classes and brand an entire Precast University concept.
These three tenets of dialogue education are paramount for running successful adult education courses. Show respect for learners as decision-makers by conducting thorough needs assessments, ensure content is geared to what learners say they need and immediately address any issues. Your presentation should also allow for constant feedback loops throughout training so learners can express themselves and bring their life experiences to your classroom.
Many times, when in dialogue with other students, you will find you have created a training environment where you are actually learning from your attendees – that is when you know you’re fully engaged in dialogue education.
Alex Morales, M.Ed., is NPCA’s director of workforce development.
1. Baden, Clifford (1997) “Adult Learning in Associations: Models for Good Practice.” American Society of Association Executives
2. Vella, J. (2002) “Learning to listen. Learning to teach.” San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass