Magazine article Training & Development

An Equal Opportunity to Learn

Magazine article Training & Development

An Equal Opportunity to Learn

Article excerpt

An Equal Opportunity To Learn

Consider Sheila, a trainer. Sheila knows that it's a good idea to break up a lecture by asking questions. It helps to test for understanding and to keep the participants involved. So she poses a question, looks around until one or two hands go up, and then calls on one of the volunteers to answer. If no one volunteers, she selects a participant by name, usually someone whom she knows will do a good job and not be embarrassed.

But what happens the moment Sheila calls on the first or second hand that goes up?

All the other participants stop thinking out their answers to the questions and listen to the person she selected. She has deprived all but one of the trainees of the opportunity to think through the issue and experience the consequences of their own thoughts and actions. By calling on the quickest, the brightest, or the most vocal participant, she has cheated the others of their due--an equal opportunity to learn.

Let's talk learning theory for a moment. Remember the concept of stimulus and response. Anything Sheila tells or shows the trainees is a stimulus. If it's important that they learn it, then it's important that she elicit a response from each participant; it is the response more than the stimulus that constitutes learning. People learn best not by being told, but by experiencing the consequences of their thoughts and actions.

Each time a participant responds, he or she wants feedback (learning theorists prefer the term, "reinforcement"). The feedback strengthens the response and enables the learner to measure the correctness (or appropriateness, relevance, or adequacy) of the response. An instructional sequence should be viewed as a chain, with each link consisting of a stimulus, the response, and the feedback.

Resources, not sponges

Sheila's classes typically have 15 to 20 participants. How can she possibly take the time to get all her participants to respond?

Fortunately, an instructor's ability to get a group to respond is not limited by the group's size. An environment in which learners always respond to the teacher is characteristic of the education of children and the dependency relationship of children to parents.

When adults learn, there is no reason why they cannot respond to one another. The instructor can have each adult learner turn to the person in the next seat and discuss the answer to a question. In fact, the reaction and feedback a trainee gets from a fellow trainee is sometimes more meaningful than feedback from the instructor.

Since adults bring a wealth of experience to class, they can help one another, working in pairs or subgroups. By using her participants as resources--rather than sponges, absorbing information--Sheila can break her lecture into a chain of stimulus-response-feedback (S-R-F) links. There are usually about a dozen such links in a typical, one-hour lecture.

After introducing each major new learning point (stimulus), Sheila poses a question or otherwise elicits a response to see that the learners understood the point. Sometimes she calls on one participant to respond, but often she has everyone respond, using the different techniques described below.

Of course, Sheila could cover more material and talk about more things if she concentrated only on S (stimulus) and didn't take time for R (response) or F (feedback). But she sees her role as that of a facilitator of learning rather than a lecturer.

"I feel that it's better to cover less but make sure my learners understand and can apply it," Sheila says. "I used to try to cover much too much material, a lot of which they didn't really need to know.

"Then I realized that the only objective I was accomplishing was that of setting myself up as the expert and reinforcing my own position, when I should have been reinforcing my learners' ability to apply what I was teaching. …

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