Managing Learning Differences

There are four broad categories of difference that we have found helpful in thinking about learners.  We highlight here how we think teachers can leverage learning differences to enhance the quality of learning.



Differences In What Learners Know

Learners comer to us as knowledgeable, experienced people.  What they know will influence what they will learn because we know neurologically that we link new ideas to our existing network of ideas.  Each person in the room knows something that can add to, expand, challenge, or enlighten the material of the class.  Acknowledging this fact does not mean that anything someone says is golden.  It affirms that what one knows can be an important contribution to the process of understanding something.  By discovering what participants know about the topic of the workshop or course, you are in a stronger position to build linkages between that knowledge and the new information you hope to convey. 


Differences In Attitudes

Learning happens when we are disposed to learn, and disposition is a matter of attitude.  If I decide that a workshop is nonsense, irrelevant to my work, an intrusion into my day, or a source of threat for any reason, the chances of being engaged decrease rapidly. Inviting participants to name what they hope to learn creates an opening to reflect with them on the impact attitude has on creating a culture for learning. Given this, checking in from time to time about how things are going is an easy way to support participants’ efforts to maintain a positive attitude.


Differences In Using Certain Skills

No one is born with knowledge of how to discuss, debate, role play, evaluate, define, and apply – the sorts of skills we might design into a course.  To presume that any adult should be able to do them and then be disappointed when they fail to do is presumptive on our part.  For instance, we might decide to use roleplaying to get at some of the dynamics influencing conflict management, but we don’t consider the fear some might feel at the prospect. of “making a fools of myself.” People benefit from transparency about why a particular process is being used, an example or two of what people might do, and the steps to the process.  Knowing what skills are needed and understanding how to apply them enable people to have greater confidence in their capacity to engage a learning activity.  This is especially true when we use small group discussions. Defining a discussion task and providing a modest structure actually teaches the skill of discussion and facilitates a positive outcome.  Finally, being explicit about the link between an activity and the overall outcomes of the workshop emphasizes the purposefulness of an activity that may take individuals outside their comfort zone.


Differences In Behavior

We think of behavioral management as a concern primarily for those who work with children and youth.  Adults, we tell ourselves, can self-manage and focus on the content.  Unfortunately, that is a dangerous assumption.  We know what behaviors contribute to a positive learning environment.  Some of them include effective listening, mutual respect, cooperation, providing feedback in a positive manner, and use of good communication skill., Being explicit at the start about behavioral expectations sets norms that encourage the best of everyone.  Norms are ways to call to mind what most adults would agree make a difference in effective learning.  It is a good practice to provide a handful of norms at the start of a workshop, inviting participants to add their own and asking them to commit themselves to these norms. Here is an example of norms we typically use in our own practice:


Be present.  This is an invitation to switch off phones as well as to strive to to be present mentally to what is happening.

Practice hospitalityCreating the space for people to engage at their own pace is important.  Hospitality is being alert to all the dynamics that make people feel welcome to engage in the group. 

Listen.  Listening is the gateway to tapping into the wisdom in the group.  Practically it means paying attention to what is being said, seeking clarity to understand it, and acknowledging what someone is offering to the group.

Speak. The bookend for listening is speaking.  While it is fine as an introvert to take time to frame what one wants to say, being silent and seldom offering one’s insights, asking questions, or providing information does not fulfill the responsibility one has a member of the group.

Be curious.  Curiosity is a behavior that reminds us we are on a journey of discovery.  When someone asks a question or makes a statement, we should be curious about what they mean versus what we think they mean.  Being curious is also one of the ways we manage conflict by seeking full understanding and withholding judgment.

Trust the process, believe in the outcome.  Trusting the process is not asking for uncritical acceptance.  Rather, it is an invitation to assume that the purposes underlying the process have merit.  The activities serve learning, not entertainment.  Engaging in new ways is worth the risk because of the important outcomes we are pursuing.

Being skillful at managing differences like these strengthens over time.  We get better at it because we get better at listening to what is happening, asking questions, reflecting on our options, and trying various ways to respond.

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