A strange thing seems to be happening in most law firms’ lawyer training sessions. At one end is a lecturer; at the other, listeners and note-takers. Often the lecture is enhanced with handouts, PowerPoint slides, charts, bells and whistles. The lecturer, often among the best and brightest, has expended substantial time and effort. Those attending have taken substantial time away from their practices. The content of the lecture represents the state of the art. At the end of the lecture, the attendees give the day high marks. All get their CLE credits. Everyone leaves feeling good.
Only one thing is wrong. By the next day little is remembered, the following day even less. In spite of the effort and the unquestioned intelligence of those attempting to learn, there is little retained. Research tells us 10-15% retention would be optimistic.
The problem? We are using a training technique shown to be inadequate. But we retain it because that is what we know. Instead, I believe an old proverb applies, “Tell me, I forget; show me, I remember; involve me, I understand.”
In his classic book, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species, Malcolm Knowles identified the problem and the solution. Within a few years, the term “Adult Learning Theory” became common in training and continuing education circles throughout the country. Everywhere, it seems, except with lawyers.
We lawyers occasionally see adult learning techniques. NITA has been using them for years. Some negotiation and a few writing instructors have as well. But for reasons not entirely clear, they haven’t caught on well with other lawyers’ programs (including some taught, I’m sorry to say, by me in my benighted youth). So, with the zeal of a convert, let me discuss andragogy (a.k.a., adult learning theory), its basics, how it applies to lawyer professional development, and give you one tool you can use tomorrow. In upcoming issues, we’ll discuss more of adult learning and how to make it work for fun and profit.
All of us know pedagogy, even if not by name, for it is our school and college experience. Having the instructor develop and deliver a subject-matter based course is what we know and what we expect. As a result, lecture is the default setting for our training.
In the 1960s and 1970s several people, principally Malcolm Knowles, suggested this picture needed changing. They proposed replacing “pedagogy” (the study of teaching children) with “andragogy” (the study of teaching adults). Comparing the two:
Topic - Need to know
Pedagogy - Defined by teacher, especially need for grades and passing.
Andragogy - Defined by learner’s three questions: Why do I need this, what is taught, how is it taught?
Topic - Learner’s self-concept
Pedagogy - Dependent upon teacher
Andragogy - Self-directed; the learner is in charge.
Topic - Role of learner’s experience
Pedagogy - Disregarded.
Andragogy - Expected and treated as resource for teaching one another; sometimes a challenge to overcome.
Topic - Readiness to learn
Determined by calendar and teacher.
Andragogy - Self-perceived need to know.
Topic - Orientation to learning
Pedagogy - Acquiring subject-matter content to pass tests.
Andragogy - Task- or problem-centered; subject matter seen as a tool.
Topic - Motivation
Pedagogy - External: Grades, teacher and parent approval and pressure.
Andragogy - Internal (e.g., job needs, competence, confidence).
(Drawn from Knowles, Holton and Swanson, The Adult Learner (5 Ed., 1998), pp. 61-69, and passim.)
As one can see, adults don’t want general education. They want specific training. They don’t want nice-to-know information; they want need-to-know answers. They don’t want a teacher in charge of their development. They want to be in charge. Stated simply, it’s a change from teacher-centered to learner-centered learning.
What that means to us in professional development is a change in how we approach our jobs. In future articles, I hope to persuade you to change how we design and deliver our development programs. Until then, here’s one tool any of us can use in tomorrow’s training program. Many of us have tried tests to measure training effectiveness, with mixed success. Instead, I have had good luck with pre- and post-tests, not as a measurement but as a learning tool. As mentioned above, adults are motivated to learn when they see a need and when they know what they’re going to learn. By using a series of questions reflecting real-world situations, most lawyers see the relevance to their own law practice. By previewing the material, the questions answer both the what and why they are learning it. A well-phrased question can also point up what the lawyers don’t know, or where their grasp is tenuous.
The following test question set is taken from a course I developed on the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and Federal Rules of Evidence, as amended in 2001. If you are teaching or plan to teach a course on the subject, feel free to use it.
Federal Rules of Evidence
Four more tips:
Research tells us using adult learning principles can increase retention to above 70%, sometimes pushing 90%. Even fairly straightforward tools can enhance learning. The challenges are to use the right tools, apply them in a cost- and time-effective manner, and deal with resistance from those expecting the old style. Passively sitting and listening to a lecture is non-threatening. Adult learning principles are the antithesis: they are hardly passive, and they invite, if not require, involvement, something some will find uncomfortable.
In the next article I will address the first steps in systematically developing a program, starting with identifying goals and standards, and an old favorite, Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.
Leadership insights in your inbox.