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Understanding the push of training and the pull of learning – How adults learn


If training providers are to deliver a productive and enjoyable learning experience, which obviously plays an important part in delivering successful business change, it is important to understand how people learn.

It is sometimes helpful to go back to basics to fully understand the relationship between training and learning, and indeed what makes memorable training and an enjoyable and effective learning experience.

Look at training as a kind of 'push' solution which helps people be trained to do something, and learning as the 'pull' process of someone gaining mastery over some subject or skill.

The degree to which someone 'pulls' their learning, and understands how to apply their newly acquired skills back in the workplace is absolutely vital to their performance.

Of course it's not always so straightforward.  For instance, you do get people in company training who don’t want to be there but came along because their boss told them to, which is the worst possible environment for training. There are others who come along and say 'Okay, teach me'. In both cases, there cannot possibly be a positive attitude to 'pull' relevant learning for these people.

A business will get the best outcome where there is a real synergy between the trainer providing the 'push' to help people to learn and the delegates who want to positively 'pull' that learning.

We often find a strange paradox in that there is sometimes a tendency for people who already have developed a degree of mastery in a particular area to be the most appreciative and hungry learners - the consciously competent - who know enough to know that they need to know a lot more. Then there are those who know very little and have practised little, if anything - the unconsciously incompetent  -  who are more likely to be the least hungry to learn.

What marks out the exceptional, as opposed to the merely good, learning experience from the delegate's point of view is down to how the person who is leading the learning positions themselves.

The best learning experience is where the facilitator or trainer stands alongside the delegates to identify how best the new learning can be incorporated into their specific role. This is where the conversations in a classroom learning environment become very vital, and is often where isolated learning like distance learning or elearning loses out because there is no access to these quite spontaneous discussions.

Actually, what makes a great trainer isn't so much just the mastery of the subject matter, but their own real life experience of applying the theory they're teaching out in the workplace. Equally as important is the skill of being able to 'read the room' by empathising with a group of people of varied abilities who may be starting from different places.

By being aware of which people are coming to life and where others may be struggling, a trainer will be able to bring them into conversations in different ways, break them into groups, vary the tempo of the day and adjust the activities. This awareness by the trainer is a crucial part of the delegates' learning journey.

Unbelievably, (largely in academia), training is still delivered ‘lecture-style’ with training materials, particularly if they are on PowerPoint, often just glorified auto-cues for the subject matter expert. This is not learning.

Learning is about getting alongside somebody, seeing the subject matter from their perspective and helping them recognise its relevance and how they can use it. When thinking about how adults learn in terms of tempo, the best training needs to include a variety of different exercises. You may be surprised, after years of being chained to their desks, how much delegates, including senior personnel managing multi-million dollar budgets, relish the opportunity to take part in fundamental, kinesthetic activities, such as making models or building floor maps.

Education tradition has patronised people for too long, expecting them to sit quietly and listen to the so-called expert talking, take a written exam and then be considered 'educated'. People are simply not wired that way.

The way adults learn effectively need not be so different from how children learn - through having fun. There's a broad range of learning options open to adults, and matching these to individual needs, with sensitivity, before, during and after a training event is essential if there’s going to be a real and long lasting impact for the individual and on the business environment.

Patrick Mayfield is the Founding Director of pearcemayfield, specialists in providing support with implementing successful transformational change, professional development training, coaching and consultancy. His book 'Practical People Engagement: Leading Change through the Power of Relationships’ has been adopted by APMG-International as the core reference for its Foundation qualification in Stakeholder Engagement.

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for this, I love the
    Thanks for this, I love the analogy of training being push and learning being pull, brilliant.

  2. Interesting article. In our
    Interesting article. In our research there are three factors which influence the push and pull. Built on 15 years of learning transfer by Prof Ed Holton we know that
    a. the capability of the person to transfer their learning. This is not just about a skill but about the design of the learning intervention
    b. the motivation of the learner – there are basically 4 key behaviours which underpin motivation
    c. the support in the workplace.
    We identified 16 enablers which if switched on can increase the impact of a learning/training intervention and add value.

    1. Hi Mikeltsglobal, I too read
      Hi Mikeltsglobal, I too read this article with interest and found your response equally thought-provoking. We would be very interested in learning more about your research re: ‘push & pull and learning transfer’. How might we read about your findings?

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Patrick Mayfield


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