Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

It’s sort of a maxim that it’s easy to learn as a child, but that as you get older your brain ossifies and no longer absorbs new material easily. Funnily, we equate this to, “it’s harder to learn as you get older,” when in fact the “absorb,” “sponge,” and “ossify” words are actually more descriptive of the actual situation.

In short: Why’s it so tough to learn as you get older?

The trick is that children don’t learn. At least, not in the way we, as adults, tend to think of learning. By a dictionary definition, sure, kids learn:

to acquire knowledge of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience:

But the reason kids acquire more easily is that they lack input filters. A kid who learns Spanish and English at a very young age actually absorbs both languages experientially. They don’t learn one language, and then learn to translate to the other. They just learn both in the same way.

Kids “absorb” everything. Very little goes into a kid’s brain and gets compared to their existing experience, put into some kind of context, and so on. That’s because kids lack significant experience and context. Racism, to use an extreme example, is something most adults have difficulty learning, because if you weren’t brought up with context for it, your brain rejects it as bad logic. Kids, lacking existing context, can be given that context. It’s easier to be brought up a racist, in other words; it’s hard to learn it.

To back down to a more realistic level, our problem as adults is that we want to take new knowledge and compare and contrast it to what we already have. Our brains natively know that they can only process so much at a time, so they try to analyze incoming input to identify key material that must be retained, and then immediately file that information alongside relevant contexts. That processing imposes a significant amount of overhead, and it’s why acquiring new knowledge and skills is so much harder for an adult.

That’s why the physical act of teaching a child is relatively straightforward: preach at them, and they’ll absorb it. For the most part, they’ll believe it, because for the most part they lack context to dispute it.

Teaching an adult is much more challenging, because you have to allow for the extra processing time their brain requires to deal with new information. There are some tricks you can use:

  • Clearly identify key information for retention. This speeds up the brain’s filtering process, and it’s the only legitimate use of PowerPoint slides. If you’re using slides to highlight only the major, must-remember points, you can save the brain some processing time.
  • Minimize the key-point flow to no more than 1 major point every ten minutes.
  • Immediately provide a ready-made context for the new major point. This is why technical training is often so big on “scenarios.” It’s an attempt to provide a recognizable, turnkey context that the brain can use to file new information. The problem is that the context you provide often needs to be tweaked for each specific audience, and so generic overarching scenarios often feel artificial. The brain rejects them, and continues searching for its own context. In short, always provide a ready-made answer for, “why do I care about this?”
  • I often provide the “why do I care about this” answer up front, in the form of a problem statement, where my key point becomes the solution. I then immediately illustrate or demonstrate how the key point solves the problem, providing reinforcement and confirmation to the students’ brains.

You have to do all of this, of course, while maintaining a really upbeat teaching demeanor. You have to be confident of your storyline, because if you seem unconfident, your students’ brains will start getting suspicious of you, and increase the filtering intensity. You also have to prevent boredom, usually by mixing activities (lecture, conversation, demo), moving around a lot, maintaining an energetic tone of voice, and by varying your tone of voice.

I’ll often follow every third or fourth major point with a short (2-3 minutes, no more) anecdote that vaguely relates to the instructional storyline, but it largely told for humorous value. I have a specific posture I adopt when moving into the anecdote, which students’ brains unconsciously recognize as a casual tangent. This cues the brain that what’s coming is less important – I’ll often take the slides off the screen to visually emphasize this. The point of this 2-3 minute break is to give their brains processing time to catch up, formulate questions, and store what we’ve just covered.

After story time, I’ll quickly re-illustrate or re-demo – but never review – the key points we just did. That helps cement the brain’s filing decisions, and gives me an opportunity to segue into the next set of major points.

All of this is, obviously, a lot of work, both up front and in class. The problem is that none of this stuff is intuitive. We “learned” to teach, most of us, in primary or secondary education, where you could more or less lecture for a long time and then toss some homework at students and be at least generally successful. Without all that filtering and filing, kids’ brains simply accept bland information dumps more easily. We take that as “teaching,” but it isn’t.

To be fair, the best teachers of kids use a lot of these same techniques, and they’re much more effective as a result. My point is that kids can often be taught without all the planning and performance, whereas adults can’t.

So as you dive into any kind of teaching – and a simple boardroom presentation is very much a teaching experience – keep in mind how your students learn. Use their native learning behaviors to your advantage, and you’ll have a much more successful teaching experience.

6 thoughts on “Why Learning is so Difficult (for Adults)

  1. Stephen Owen says:

    Great article, Don, I feel like you wrote it just for me!

    When you approach a huge topic like ‘how to scripting and coding and oh yeah, what PowerShell is and came from’ especially when you have long, maybe even multi day all day courses, do you use this same approach of pulling out key points, minimal slides, etc?

    One thing I’ve noticed is that when I go heavy on demo and practical demonstrations, it seems like the classroom watches what I’m doing, more than typing and doing on they’re own. When we get to individual/group lab after the demo, this then causes problem, because now they’re doing it on their own, whereas before they were watching. A lot of things make sense when you watch someone type it, but when you do it on your own…

    Any tips for overcoming that watcher/doer conundrum?

    1. Don Jones says:

      Even on long, multi-day courses, I follow that same approach. If you’re following the Lunches book outline, that’s why the chapters are so short. It was always intended as a classroom supplement.

      I prefer people to WATCH when I demo, FOLLOW ALONG for a second demo example (I explicitly tell them to), and then DO the lab independently. I’ve also gotten used to the common mistakes, so I can be a little preemptive with them. For example, we SAY, “Get Process,” so I specifically tell people I’m verbally dropping the dash – it’s really “Get Dash Process.” Then I go around during lab and watch for them messing that up.

      I don’t like people typing during the first demo, because they’re not focusing on what I’m doing and explaining. And the fact is, people will always mess up when they get to the lab – that’s actually how we learn. You have to make mistakes to learn. So I sort of prioritize getting them into the lab. You can’t prevent errors and mistakes, and shouldn’t try.

  2. mahasty says:

    We call it pedagogy and didactic !

    1. Don Jones says:

      I stick with “androgogy,” for teaching adults.

  3. Manoj Nair says:

    Hi Don,

    Great article!

    What approach would you suggest for an online video tutorial. I’m have heard mixed opinions about showing too many slides and am confused whether I should squeeze in more demos. For example, Should I explain how IPSec Negotiation takes place or should I focus on how to get an IPSec VPN setup with Windows 2012 R2.

    Do students prefer the more of how to than the PPTs that explain how things work for an online course?

    One of my classroom students said and I quote, “I just skip the PPT parts and jump straight into demos”

    Your thoughts?

    1. Don Jones says:

      What do YOU prefer to watch? Demos or slides? And I think your student pretty much gave you the answer, right?

      Demos shouldn’t be “squeezed in.” Slides should be “squeezed in.” If what you’re teaching is a set of steps that someone performs on a computer, showing them is obviously best. I would use slides only if I needed to outline some key points, or some configuration options, or a diagram to set some context.

      To use your example, explaining how Negotiation works, and how to set up a VPN, are two totally different things. They’re both useful, but I wouldn’t include them in the same video clip. They’re distinct things, so I’d cover them independently.

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