• Lauren Maxwell

Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks (or getting the most out of adult learning opportunities)


Recently, (and probably of concern to my neighbours) I’ve started to learn the ukulele. In fact I’m currently learning Bohemian Rhapsody and am becoming proud of my calluses / broken nails. It’s been immensely enjoyable, but despite having played a couple of instruments at various points in my life (ok one was the electric organ, but it was the 80’s, so it still counts) I’ve also found it quite unexpectedly challenging.

You see despite anticipating similarities to the other stringed instrument I played for many years, the cello, I am having to actually learn a whole new set of skills with the uke - the string progression is different (it’s not strung lowest to highest note), the size is obviously much smaller to get used to, and the technique of strumming and plucking is different to anything I’ve played.

Now, we know that in general adults learn differently than children (hence the differing training required to teach others who are at different life stages), and to learn new skills as an adult brings with it a different set of challenges than young learners.

One of the biggest challenges with adult learning, is perhaps that we often need to undertake a process of unlearning– ie: getting rid of preconceptions and bad habits, before we can get on with the actual new learning. And adults, or at least the adult brain, can be stubborn! So it can take time to file away ‘old learning’ and engage in the new learning process.

"in general adults learn differently than children .... and to learn new skills as an adult brings with it a different set of challenges than young learners."

So in a work context, where we are often asked to learn new skills or transfer newly learned skills to a broader setting, how can we make the most of it?

  • Accept that you know ‘nothing’ in relation to what you are specifically being taught. Now this is a particularly difficult one for most of us, for a few reasons: firstly, none of us wants to feel vulnerable or expendable (especially at work); secondly, it’s incredibly difficult not to try and anticipate what you are going to be taught and generalise your anticipated knowledge. This is a really key thing though, because if you enter the learning process with assumptions, you will automatically lower your capacity for new learning, and will potentially be reinforcing incorrect knowledge. When this happens (ie, you’ve picked up some bad habits based on your assumptions) it becomes harder to not only re-learn but generalise the correct information – and each time you reinforce the incorrect stuff, the harder this process becomes.

  • Think like a child. Have you ever noticed how wonder-filled children can be with the learning process? Rather than trying to jump ahead and predict the lesson, simply enjoy the process and acknowledge how your newly learned skill or information fits into your world. There’s an old saying (don’t ask me who said it) “the more you learn, the more you want to learn” – now while this may not be true for everything that you undertake to learn (for example, learning a new paperwork process at work may not instil a sense of wonder in some of us), chances are that if you find an interest in what you are being taught, you will become more interested in finding out more about it and its related topics – making the learning process more enjoyable, and engaging you deeper in the process.

  • Ask questions. Now this sounds obvious, but along with making assumptions about what we predict we will learn, adults also often have a bad habit of not asking questions which can lead to a few scenarios that are less than ideal. Firstly, your learning process may be unnecessarily interrupted and your new skills may stagnate while you wait for an answer to magically appear; secondly, you may learn and reinforce incorrect information by making assumptions, and thirdly; you can become completely disengaged with the learning process – after all, it becomes harder to stay interested in the learning process if you’re actually having to unlearn a new set of bad habits! So remember, provided that they are questions about the topic at hand, there are no silly questions when it comes to learning.

Learning is never waster, and not only provides us with additional knowledge and skills, but also plays a vital role in keeping us in engaged in activity and our mind busy – both at work and outside.

So with that in mind, I’m off to find the uke

(where I have accepted that I know ‘nothing’) ……

#learning #personaldevelopment

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Lauren is a professional member of Career Development Association, full member of Australian Society Of Rehabilitation Counsellors, and a regular contributor for Leaders In Heels. Her expert opinion and articles have been featured in loads of places!

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