USING ADULT LEARNING TECHNIQUES IN INSTRUCTION
BY GEORGE A. WENDT
How to develop and deliver a training program that is relevant to the firefighter while also serving the needs of the organization is a challenge to many fire service instructors. Since adults have different learning needs and requirements than children and teen-agers, understanding and using established principles of adult learning will help the instructor to inject new life into a stale training program.
OVERVIEW OF THE ADULT LEARNER
Today`s fire service is not comprised of a single, die-cut-type of individual. It is made up of unique adults, each bringing years of life experience to the table. All have the potential to learn; however, not all of them will learn in the same way or at the same pace. Despite popular belief, age is not a defining factor in the manner in or speed at which a person absorbs new information.
The instructor should acknowledge and accept the unique life experience and knowledge base of each individual. Adult learning occurs best in an atmosphere in which the students are treated with respect and as equals. Often, the experience and knowledge students bring to the training room can enhance the program. Students should be encouraged to express opinions, share life experiences, and engage in open discussion.
The instructor must respect the students` diverse beliefs, lifestyles, and value systems. Debate and an open exchange of ideas can generate excitement and promote an atmosphere in which the student feels safe to express new ideas and concepts.
Keep in mind also that adults generally are not interested in knowledge for knowledge`s sake. They tend to look for the benefits of learning a new skill. By presenting single concepts focusing on practical application, the instructor will increase the likelihood that the material will be retained. The instructor will also find it useful to clearly explain how the information and skills being taught will benefit the firefighter on the job. Finally, the instructor should remember that adults prefer to be treated as adults.
MOTIVATING THE ADULT LEARNER
Common sense tells us that simply because the class shows up, it does not mean the students will learn. The firefighter (especially the volunteer firefighter) has many responsibilities that compete with the training program for precious free time. The instructor can motivate his students by enhancing their reasons for attending training. This makes it easier for the student to commit the time to attend. Primary motivators include the following:
Social relationships–to make associations and friendships.
External expectations–to comply with instructions from someone else; to fulfill the expectations or recommendations of someone with formal authority.
Social welfare–to improve the ability to serve mankind, prepare for service in the community, and improve the ability to participate in community work.
Personal advancement–to achieve higher status on the job, secure professional advancement, and stay abreast of new developments in the field.
Adults who are best motivated to learn seek out training because they have a use for the particular skill or knowledge being offered. Adult learners do not wish to learn a skill they will never use. Knowledge and skill that can be applied in a timely manner to a current need or problem will increase the depth of learning.
The traditional method of providing fire service training was to herd students into a classroom and lecture about what they need to do and then go out to the training ground and do it. This paramilitary approach is ineffective in today`s fire service. The ef-fective instructor should devote time to analyzing the expectations, needs, and objectives of the organization and the students before developing a training regimen.
Keeping in mind that adults must see a reason for learning, the instructor must identify objectives that will directly benefit the student. Most adult learners prefer single-concept courses that focus on the application of a specific concept to the organization`s current operation. New information will be more readily accepted if it is associated with what is already known. Information that differs drastically from the organization`s accepted practices will be absorbed more slowly and, in some cases, resisted. Instructors should use “conceptual overlap,” the integration of new ideas with old concepts to assist the student in assimilating the new information.
Styles of Learning
Design your training program to include auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning, the most basic learning styles.
Auditory learning. The learner must hear the facts and understand the logic of a concept. This type of individual absorbs words and sounds and delights in details, statistics, and facts. His notes usually are recorded in outline or narrative form. This person learns a great deal from audiotapes.
Visual learning. This type of individual needs to see the big picture and won`t listen if he doesn`t see the concept being presented. If you were to look at this individual`s notepad, you would see his notes drawn as pictures to illustrate the concept. This type of learner benefits greatly from visual aids such as overhead transparencies, slides, and videos.
Kinesthetic learning. This type of student learns best by doing. Hands-on practice is the best way for this individual to master a concept. He enjoys small group exercises and is generally a “people person.” During breaks, this student moves freely around the room, meeting and speaking with the other students. This individual`s notes will resemble a doodle pad.
Your challenge as instructor is to realize that there is no one “best” way to learn. The target audience will inevitably be comprised of all of the above types of learners. The course material must be delivered in a manner that will stimulate as many of the senses as possible, to increase the depth of learning. The wise instructor will accept that most adult learners do not respond favorably to the lecture-only teaching method.
The physical learning environment could be a barrier to effective instruction. Strive to provide as comfortable a learning atmosphere as possible. Consider factors such as the following:
Is the room adequately sized for the anticipated audience?
Does the room have sufficient table space for note taking and practice?
Is the temperature of the room too hot or too cold?
Can the room be darkened to accommodate audiovisual needs?
Are the chairs comfortable?
Does all audiovisual equipment operate properly?
Are there sufficient screens or monitors for the audiovisual display so that all students have an unimpeded view?
Are there sufficient equipment and an appropriate training area for hands-on practice?
Are there any major distractions that would divert students` attention from the subject matter being presented (i.gif>., posters, photos on the wall, pedestrian traffic, other social events in the building, excessive noise, and the like)? Try to eliminate any distraction within your control.
To achieve an interactive learning environment, you might consider modifying the traditional classroom-style room arrangement. Setting up the room in a “U” shape and fanning the seating so that the students face each other are popular variations. This type of seating promotes interaction among the students and downplays the “face front and be quiet” atmosphere stereotypical of the youthful school experience.
The program should accommodate any deficiencies in the physical setting. For example, the frequency of breaks may have to be adjusted if the room is at an inappropriate temperature. At most, students should be expected to sit for 45 to 60 minutes without a break.
METHOD OF INSTRUCTION
The fire service instructor should view himself as a facilitator. When instructing adult learners, strive to guide them according to each class member`s knowledge instead of spoon-feeding raw facts. Facilitate learning by incorporating students` experiences, observations of others, and personal ideas and feelings into the lesson. Strive to foster an atmosphere of trust and acceptance of different ideas and values.
Establish a rapport with the audience early in the program. Explain exactly what is expected from them and what they can expect from you. This prepares the students for learning. One way to establish rapport is to encourage a friendly, open atmosphere that demonstrates your sincere desire to assist them in the learning process.
A certain level of tension–proportional to the level of the lesson`s importance–will be in the room. Most adults learn best under low to moderate stress. Stress can become a barrier to learning. If the lesson has a high degree of importance, such as the mandatory learning of a new piece of equipment or procedure, the importance should be communicated to the class. On the other hand, if the degree of importance of the material covered is not critical, explaining that to the class can reduce the stress level.
Challenge your class. Material that is too basic will turn off adult learners; material that is too challenging may frustrate them. Establish an appropriate level of difficulty, based in large part on the audience, that encourages and rewards direct participation.
Adults learn best when they can participate in the learning experience. Ask open-ended questions that encourage participation. Protect minority opinions and support students as individuals. The adult learner is less likely to ask questions or participate in discussions if he is fearful of being ridiculed or mocked. Treat all questions and comments with respect, and acknowledge the student for participating. Repetitive questions are inevitable and should also be treated with respect. Remember the old adage: “The only dumb question is the question that wasn`t asked.”
The fire service is a hands-on business. A review of the course evaluations of most fire service training sessions in which new material is presented normally shows an abundance of requests for more hands-on experience. It is difficult to instill confidence in a new skill simply by lecturing. When new equipment or procedures are being taught, consider providing ample time for each student to practice the new skills. Also ensure that adequate equipment is available for practice to avoid idle time and a hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere.
Amid this atmosphere of participation and self-direction, the instructor must also maintain control of the classroom. He is challenged to combine the presentation of new material with debate, discussion, the sharing of student experiences, and that old nemesis–the clock. Facilitative controls can be gained by pushing egos to the background and allowing students the freedom to participate.
Encourage the correct modes of behavior and performance through reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the rewarding of “good” or positive behavior. Negative reinforcement is used to eradicate “bad” or negative behavior. Regular and consistent use of negative and positive reinforcement early in the process will help students retain what they have learned and maintain the positive atmosphere.
On rare occasions, the instructor will encounter a discipline problem among adult learners. Should this happen, dealing with the problem in the classroom may only serve to embarrass and further alienate the problem student. A private discussion out of the view of the other students often will correct the situation. When this fails, you may be forced to resort to excluding the student from the classroom and contacting the student`s department to document and report the situation.
Providing effective training programs is challenging. Mastering and incorporating the concepts of adult learning into training programs can revitalize a stagnant training program and promote efficiency, excitement, morale, and safety within the organization. The fire service instructor can serve as an advocate for the organization and the student by providing an atmosphere of dignity and respect in the training room. By changing the way fire service training programs have traditionally been presented, the fire department will realize multiple positive effects for many years.
1. Zemke, Ronald and Susan. “30 Things We Know for Sure About Adult Learning.” Innovation Abstracts VI:8, March 9, 1994.
2. Lieb, Stephen, “Principles of Adult Learning,” Arizona Department of Health Services.
3. Brookfield, Stephen D. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986).
4. Smith, Robert. Learning How to Learn: Applied Theory for Adults. (Chicago: Follet Publishing, 1985).
5. Cerny, Jerry, “Learning Assumptions and Learning Domains,” University of Hawaii, 1994.
GEORGE A. WENDT is a detective with the Morris County Prosecutor`s Office in Morristown, New Jersey, where he has been employed since 1986. He has been qualified in New Jersey Superior Court as an expert in fire and explosion investigation. He is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and has lectured extensively on fire investigation-related topics. He is also a principal member of the Technical Committee for NFPA 1033, Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigators. Wendt is the immediate past president of the New Jersey Chapter of the International Association of Arson Investigators and a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators and the New Jersey Society of Fire Service Instructors. He has more than 20 years of firefighting experience–having held several line officer positions–and is currently a member of the Boonton (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department.