published on 18/09/2015 by Patrick Mayfield

We find those who recognise and acknowledge their skills gaps (the consciously incompetent), who have been in the fight longer and are more experienced, need ‘training’ less and are the most hungry to learn”.

In this Podcast Patrick Mayfield talks about the differences between the push of ‘training’ and the pull of ‘learning’, the importance of encouraging vital conversations in the classroom and highlights what makes for a quality learning experience that leads to subject mastery and returns value to the workplace.

How Adults Learn- Download Podcast Transcript here.

Adrian Boorman (Client Relationship Manager):

I am sure that most if not all listeners would agree that an understanding of how we learn as adults is extremely important in the provision of successful, productive and enjoyable training experiences and that this in turn plays a vital part in the delivery of business change.

To help us understand this little better I am joined today by Patrick Mayfield, CEO of pearcemayfield, the professional development and consultancy company, and Patrick has many years of experience as a knowledge worker and delivering optimised learning solutions. Patrick, hello and thank you for coming in today.

Patrick Mayfield (CEO of pearcemayfield): Hi Adrian.

AB: Can we can begin with something rather fundamental please, could you explain the relationship between training and learning, and indeed what makes for memorable training and enjoyable and effective learning and perhaps how you personally came to understand about this?

PM: Well, let me just use a non-academic workaday distinction between training and learning. This really relates to the common usage of both of those terms – training is a kind of push solution in helping people be trained to do something and learning is the pull process of someone gaining mastery over some subject or skill. So one is push and the other one pull, now in the common usage of the term training, it tends to have better applicability to mechanical skills; you just introduced me as a knowledge worker; well, all of our clients are knowledge workers and they need knowledge skills, in other words they need to know how to apply knowledge as part of their everyday job and it seems that in those contexts, the degree to which they pull their learning, work out the application and modify things, modified theory in the everyday jobs, in different situations. It is absolutely vital to the performance that they get.

AB: So, it is very much a two-way process then- delivering the training but then the individual who’s receiving the knowledge has to pull as well, it’s two way.

PM: We have a real problem here because we do occasionally, for example, get people in company training who don’t want to be there and they came along because their boss told them to and that’s the worst possible environment. There are others who come along and say “OK, fill me, teach me”. Well, neither of those are positioning themselves with a positive attitude to pull relevant learning in that context, and we find that clients get the best when there is leaning towards each other, both of the subject matter expert, who comes to help people learn, and delegates who are wanting to pull that learning. Then you can have a very interesting conversation, so rather than being a teacher or a trainer, the dynamic changes so that the professional becomes a learning facilitator, stands alongside the learner and helps them exploit the material to its maximum effect.

AB: So, the most rewarding delegates to work with, I guess, are those who are not passive, but are knowledge hungry. “Give me, give me, give me” if you like..

PM: Yes, that’s right. I wouldn’t take this too far but, there is a general tenancy that clients who already have developed a degree of mastery in whatever subject they are taking, often are the most appreciative and hungry learners because they have what is called a conscious incompetence; they know enough to know that they need to know a lot more. They have practiced things enough to know that actually they could be more skilled in the practice of it. So there is a strange paradox: those who know very little and have practiced little if anything, sometimes are the least hungry, whereas those who have been in the fight a bit longer and are rather more experienced who need training less are actually those who gain most learning.

AB: That makes complete sense. What do you think of the points of difference that mark out the exceptional, I don’t want to call it training, let’s call it the exceptional learning experience from the delegates point of view, from the merely good.

PM: I think it’s really how the person who is leading the learning event positions themselves. What we try to do at pearcemayfield is out the delegates in the spotlight. This is very difficult when you’re up against and need to go through content in the class discussion against some kind of exam curriculum. And when there is a lot of content, you tend to talk through the material very rapidly. Much better experiences often where you are standing alongside the delegates who already have assimilated the information, but are now trying to make it fit within their existing frame of understanding, within the context of their current role, the current work challenges and say “how would this work here”. And that’s when the conversations in the classroom become very vital, and that is often where isolated learning like distance learning or e-learning loses out because they don’t have access to those quite spontaneous discussions.

AB: The kind of discussion that we are having now.

PM: Absolutely, yes.

AB: I want to come back to the trainer, the leader of the event in a moment, but just a pick up on something that you said: when there is a formal syllabus to be covered, a lot of work to get through, a concluding test of knowledge, surely there is a potential there for conflict between the need to achieve short-term examination success and development of longer term, more permanent, competence and mastery. There must be a conflict there, how do you see that circle being squared?

PM: You are right that there is a tension. Let me put it that way rather than a conflict, and I think what we try and do as people who lead a learning experience in a classroom context, is to give people enough confidence so that apparent conflict doesn’t become an anxiety. What we often notice is that the discussions close down, let’s say over four and a half day programme, when you’ve got a major practitioner examination, public examination on the morning of the day five, what we often find is that the conversations become less expansive, less exploratory as you approach that exam, as you go through the week. And that in a sense is a pity;  it makes it rather a more closed experience because people are quite rightly concerned to get through the exam so they want to know quote “the right answer” end quote; where as beyond exam, that is not the issue is a closed question situational judgement quite often.

AB: Yes. What about mentoring and coaching and support groups, personal development pathways, workshops; do these have a part to play as well in adding value and longevity to that training experience which has been inevitably a bit compressed for the reasons you explained. 

PM: Yes, very much so. We don’t like to look at the transaction with our clients as simply the event, or the purchase of e-learning or distance learning; we try and look at it is an element, a central element, a key element in the whole learning process, both before and after.  So, for example, one of the ways we are able to take very curriculum-centered programmes and make them a more agreeable learning experience is by helping delegates engage with the material before they come, so there is a kind of pre-learning. We ask them certain questions; they go hunting for answers in the material that we sent them, so they already come to the classroom experience with some frames of reference, some standard terms definitions, and some concepts; we send them videos and so on. But afterwards we still feel the duty of care, if it’s a certified  programme where the implicit objective for everybody there is that they get a qualification. That can’t be the end outcome for them or for  their employers, so what we try and do is provide them with solutions beyond that, such as, what we were talking about in an earlier podcast with Paul Matthews – Learning Pathways, and so on. We see that is supporting these people in not just leaving them as  consciously incompetent with a piece of paper, but actually gaining mastery over this material.

AB: Right, and continuing to support after the event.

PM: Yes.

AB: And before the event then, the quality and relevance of the pre-course material, provided it is absorbed by the delegate, is also a critical factor to success.

PM: Yes. Another key way we do this is where we have a knowledge and understanding exam, at foundation level exam, compared to an analysis, an integration exam, a practitioner exam. A lot of vendors will separate that and do the knowledge bit first, then move on to the practitioner level. We don’t. We coach from practitioner right from the start, so we are always talking about application. And one of the outcomes of that is that people just take and pass the foundation paper as a trivial interruption in a four and a half day learning experience focused at practitioner level.

AB: Right, you mentioned, and I said that I want to come back to the role of the trainer, the leader in the event and surely the true differentiator in any training organisation is that learning leader himself or herself and great training organisations are great, not just because of their material, you mentioned that, but because of their people, who they are, what they do, how they do it, the way they operate, run the course, the technologies they deploy; would you agree with that, that is absolutely vital?

PM: Yes, I thought a lot, obviously, about what makes a great trainer. And I think it isn’t just subject matter mastery, and in fact the exam assessors know this when they assess trainers, they don’t just look for subject matter mastery, they look for indicators like mastery of the materials, real life experience, experience out there in the world of actually applying this stuff, so that these people aren’t totally theoretical. But I also look for something else, I look for the ability of somebody with a group of people, in a discussion of the kind I’m talking about, who are able to so empathise with the group of people who may be coming from different places that they can read the room, that they can see where people are coming to life with things where other may be struggling, where they can draw in and do a little bit of classroom dynamics management really; bring people into conversations in different ways, break them into groups, vary the tempo the day, the activities and so on. All of these are absolutely crucial to everybody’s learning journey so what I am looking for is a high order awareness, group awareness, social awareness, by a learning facilitator, what we call a trainer.

AB: Right. Providing an experience that level of quality necessarily means very small group sizes, I would gess. What are the commercial implications for that? If you put twenty people in a room that’s not much of training experience, but equally with only four it’s a tall order.

PM: No, but this kind of thing does perpetrate in the educational art. In academia they still have these models of lectures style education. The training materials are often, if there are on PowerPoint for example, are just glorified auto-cues for for the subject matter expert, who then goes off onto a great ego trip, and that for me is not learning. It’s about getting alongside somebody, seeing the subject matter from their perspective and helping them recognise its relevance and how they may use this. Thinking about how adults learn in terms of tempo, so we vary with lots of different exercises. One of the big eye-openers for me for example Adrian, was on our Managing Successful Programmes training, where with major transformation programmes we have some fairly senior people coming on these courses; people who have been around the block for a few years, managing multi-million dollar changes. Well, I was astonished to see how they relished doing the floor mat exercise on the second part of the morning of day one; where they would build a map on floor where they would construct models that would walk through the map. They loved it! It began to help me realise that these people have been chained to their desks for years and yet they work fundamentally hands on, kinesthetic type learners, who love to do with their hands.  So that was a major learning for me. I think education tradition has patronized people “you sit there like quiet little things”,  while the expert, the professor, talks to you and then we’ll give you a written exam and then you are educated. Well, no thank you! We are not wired that way.

AB: Right, I can see the level of commitment that you make. Perhaps, one final question which follows on from that. What is the best way, or what are the best ways of evaluating the results of, and the benefits from, any learning experience? Is it a question of “what did you learn today”, is it maybe a question of  “would did you change today” as a result of the effort you have put into it? It is a big question, I know, but I would appreciate your thoughts.

PM: There has been a lot of intellectual horsepower in doing this at the end of a learning experience. I think ultimately though, it’s about the value that is created in the workplace and only recently have we begun to be allowed by some our clients to measure this. It has been extremely helpful. We now try to see what is the relationship to what we do in helping people gain mastery of something, to them truly evidencing that with value in the workplace. That is the key, that is the only question worth answering. Everything in between, from the exam pass rates to evaluation sheets, so called happy sheets, to psychometric testing and so on; are all proximates of the ultimate thing, so for example can senior manager deliver a successful transformation through what is offered?

AB: And I guess, it is measured as far as your company is concerned by the number of people who came back and said “that was a great experience,  we got a lot of value from that, we have now got a whole new set of challenges, can you help with these as well?

PM: Yes, and one of the paradoxes I think, of the training industry is the whole idea of enjoyment. A lot of our clients come back to us, secretly because they have had fun. The experience has not been a painful one. They’ve had a lot of joy, it has given them hope in their work, and that is really pleasing because I think that part of learning is about redeeming what we have made work, which is boring, grinding, dreadful stuff.

AB: That is interesting because we have come full circle with the question I asked at the beginning, when we said we would talk about how adults learn, and actually you just said, really, exactly how any human being, even if they are really young and small, they learn through having fun.

PM: Yeah, I don’t suppose I shouldn’t say that on a podcast, but we are all just grown up kids.

AB: I see no hands going up, Patrick. Look, as always, a very illuminating discussion. Thank you for joining us and food for thought as always. So if I can try to summarise just briefly: I think the message that you’re sending very clearly is that there is a very broad range of learning options matching these to individual need, that 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.

PM: I know you are trying to close down this podcast, can I just say one other thing?

AB: Please.

PM: My blog was originally called “Learning leader” because it is ambiguous, I am learning myself and I think that’s a key to really accessing. It’s a never ending quest for us, we are always learning how to do this better.

AB: That’s a pretty good way of ending this podcast. We are all in it together. Patrick, thank you very much indeed.

about the author


Patrick Mayfield

Patrick is the Founding Director of pearcemayfield, specialists in providing support with implementing successful transformational change, professional development training, coaching and consultancy.

He has helped author best management practice methods such as PRINCE2®(1996) and MSP (’Managing Successful Programmes’, 2007) and contributed a chapter to the Effective Change Manager’s Handbook: the essential guide to the Change Management Institute’s Body of Knowledge (2014).

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.