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Darren Smith

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Tips for trainers: why the education system is failing learners and how to change the established learning mindset


Does the British educational system leave a bitter taste in the mouth that affects learning later in life? That may well be the case, but here's some practical advice on how businesses can turn back time and engage their learners.

“Smithy! Stop talking. Here’s the verb table book, now get on and learn it”, said my old French teacher. I had double French class twice a week at school and the memory is still with me. 

The lesson, the teacher, and the language were dreaded by all the pupils except the kid that had lived in France for a few years. Of course he loved it, and the teacher loved him for his enthusiasm.

My perception of learning throughout primary and secondary school was that it was boring. My parents indicated as much about their feelings towards their school life.

I was moving through the educational system and my focus was purely on what wasn’t working.

What happens when we leave the education system?

Our mindset is that learning is boring. The kids that played truant were cool and lucky, and those who‘stuck it out,’ went everyday and studied hard, played the lottery of whether they had the type of memory to ‘win’ at exams.

Some of those who studied hard in the lesson, did their homework and went the extra mile still flunked their exams because they failed under pressure. They were the ‘flaw in the system’. Ten years of education is boiled down to a few two-hour exams.

The learner’s mindset has been galvanised over many years and repeated and repeated time and time again.

At university, the carved learning mindset is ever present. The learner is now invited to ‘attend’ lectures - not really participate, but take notes, listen, and try to absorb information.

The famous learning triangle tells us that we ‘take in’ 5% of what we listen to, building to 90% when we teach someone else. Despite knowing this, the way students are taught at university still hasn't changed. 

Learning in the world of work

When learners join the corporate world, they go with their existing learning mindset in hand. At some point HR might share a training calendar, the line manager might mention training, or the employees get asked to complete their competency framework.

At this point learners are possibly open to a new way of learning because this is where ‘real’ money is spent. Alas, the learner is booked on a training course with their colleagues for three weeks hence. The watercooler conversation is that others have been on it and didn’t get much from it.

They then see their colleagues coming up with reasons to escape the training and, without support from their line manager, the learner too tries to find reasons that they can not to attend, like they are ‘busy’.

When the learner finally attends a training course it was as they thought – boring.

When the learner finally attends a training course it was as they thought – boring.

So, is it any wonder that our learners rock-up at training, with no expectations, hoping that they can get some work done during the day and if they happen to pick something up, then that’s good?

The challenge for the learner and the training provider can seem insurmountable

The challenge for training providers is very tough because the learner’s mindset has been galvanised over many years and repeated and repeated time and time again. Your learning strategy has to take this into account. 

The ‘Learner Engagement Equation (LEE)’ demonstrates this challenge very well:

Understanding the Learner Engagement Equation (LEE) of ‘IFSO over Infinity’ is critical in order to understand the size of the challenge that we face.

  • ‘I’ stands for me: this element of the equation deals with the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question. We’ve all been sent on courses, rocked-up on the day and ‘just got through it’.
  • ‘F’ stands for first impressions: the learner’s mindset has been ‘trained’ to think that education/learning/training adds no real value, thus the learner seeks a first impression that mirrors their mindset.
  • ‘S’ stands for support: the support that we receive from our line manager is critical to shaping how much and how well we engage. A trivial comment can easily undermine our learning enthusiasm.
  • ‘O’ stands for opportunity: the learning has to be relevant to the learner’s job and they have to see immediate opportunities to practice what they have learnt.

The top row of the equation: Ifso

The four elements across the top of LEE make the acronym ‘if so’, which is deliberate, because if any one of these four elements is not better than expected, the learner will revert back to their default, negative mindset.

When engaging the learner, the advice to remember for the top row is: ‘get all of these right to achieve success. Get one wrong to achieve failure’.

The bottom row of the equation: infinity symbol

The bottom row is where the negative elements of the equation are hidden and they are numerous, which is why they are represented by the infinity symbol. They have conspired at school, through part-time jobs, university, and in corporate organisations to form our mindset towards training. Here is a non-exhaustive list of what infinity includes:

lunch + trainer + venue + handouts + training experiences + late arrivals + school learning + work learning + previous training course + number of breaks on the course + getting to training + amount of work on + mindset at home

The infinity symbol at the bottom of the learner engagement equation has the ability to easily overpower the four elements above. The advice here for the bottom row when engaging the learner is: ‘get most of these right to achieve neutral. Get one wrong to achieve failure’.

One-day training courses have a limited effect and should be stopped and replaced with a learning programme.

For the learner and the training provider to achieve the best outcome the learner has to be ‘up for it’.

Together we have to overcome the learner’s negative mindset. The learners have to realise that it is there and we, as training providers, have to meet the challenge head on.

To this end, one-day training courses have a limited effect and should be stopped and replaced with a learning programme. A learning programme will demonstrate that learning can be done differently and better.

Challenging the learner’s mindset and engaging them 

We need to achieve more for the learner. This can be achieved by engaging the learner more and changing their negative mindset towards learning.

We need to embrace the research that keeps telling us that learning needs to be engaging, needs to repeat, and needs to be done in the classroom and also at the learner’s desk.

1. Make the learner’s notes useful and effective

Many trainers hand out their slides at the beginning of a training course. They then ask thelLearners to make notes as they progress through the day. The problem with this is fourfold:

  1. Learners don’t know how to make useful notes, so they note down every bit of information from the slides.
  2. Someone other than the learner has created the slides. This means that the graphs, images, and words are not displayed in the learner’s preferred learning style, which makes the information much harder to understand after the training event.
  3. By handing out slides, learners take very few, or no notes. This means that the learner has not had the chance to process the learning.
  4. The slide deck becomes the learner’s primary recollection of the day, which is not a useful method for implementing behavioural change, as there is too much information to take in.

2. Actions for you

  • For learners who have attended previous learning events and received slide decks, encourage them to convert their hand-outs into one page of notes or a one-page mind map.
  • Ask your learners to identify how they learn best. Do they learn by physically making notes, flash cards and mind maps (kinaesthetic learning)? By reading and hearing their notes out loud (auditory learning)? Or simply by reading over their existing notes (visual learning)?

By adopting methods that fit their most effective learning style, learners will make their notes more useful and engaging, which will help to inspire behavioural change.

Looking for more advice to make your training engaging? Read Nine ways to grab and keep your learners’ attention.

2 Responses

  1. Disappointing to see the twin
    Disappointing to see the twin myths of the cone of learning and learning styles being perpetuated in this article.

  2. Very important information!
    Education is necessary for our time. After all, this is the key to a bright and successful future. But in matters of education, difficulties can often arise, and the main thing is to solve them correctly. For me, this most often happens when preparing written works, and free samples help me with this I prepared a paper on the skeletal system thanks to this. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own.

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Darren Smith


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