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 hospitality.  Creating 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.

Adult training consulting

Becoming an Intentional Teacher

Mindfulness in teaching?  Yes, by all means.  Every act we do as a teacher should be intentional.  

Here are four things we especially want to be intentional about:  

·         How do we relate to our learners?

·         Which skills will the learner need to know and apply?

·         What stories do we choose to make a point? 

·         How do we build relationships among learners?

Be intentional about how we relate to the learners


When you are preparing for a day of teaching, do you consider what to wear or not wear?  What impression do you want to make?  Relaxed, professional, in charge, a class act?  Then welcoming people as they arrive is courteous and an opportunity to relate to them as individuals and help them feel comfortable.  Learning people’s names quickly personalizes the classroom.   Think about how available you are during breaks or after the session. The bottom line is that we are creating a temporary community for learning and a sense of belonging for the learner.  Everything we do enhances that community as a rich source of learning. 

Be intentional about which skills the learners need to know and apply


Good teaching always requires good curriculum. The challenge, however, is what to include because trying to cover everything can frustrate you and participants alike.  What concepts are key to the topic and what skills will learners need to use to explore those concepts?  Knowing the concepts that anchor a session and the skills they will be using decreases some of the anxiety participants have as they begin. For example, when teaching interpersonal conflict management, we might tell people:  You will learn what a conflict is, and what it isn’t; you will learn and practice a variety of ways to manage conflict; and you will experience listening for understanding. These three points become a roadmap for what will happen.  Skills?

Be intentional about the stories we use to make a point 

Stories can be excellent ways to illustrate an important point, but not just any story will do.  Stories put flesh and blood on ideas and concepts, so we want to use them with careful forethought. Author Lee Colan suggests a way to decide what story to use based on the word T.H.I.N.K. 

·         First, is it True? Story details can be embellished, but is the central point true? 

·         Second, is it Helpful?  Will the story help the learner make a connection with what they are learning?

·         Third, is it Inspiring?  Does it show the impact of people’s better natures at work? 

·         Fourth, is it Necessary?  While a story might be clever or entertaining, does it really make our point.

·         Finally, is it Kind?  Never use a story that ends up diminishing anyone, including yourself. 


Even if carefully chosen, stories evoke different responses in different groups and cultures.  Pay attention to people’s reactions and be ready to address those reactions especially if the story falls flat.

Be intentional about how we build relationships among and between our learners

The path to powerful training opens when we are intentional about creating a sense of common purpose in the group.  We like thinking of this as a “community of learners.” Why is it important to build relationships among participants?  We learn better when we feel safe, and we feel safe when we are reasonably comfortable with who is in the room with us and what is going to happen. There are several ways to accomplish this .

·         Be a good host, finding ways to relate to learners as individuals and connecting them to the session. 

·         Use warm-up activities suited for the group that thaw the stiffness of first meetings. 

·         Create an environment of openness and inclusion by how you model those values and in the group norms you establish with the group.

·         Build in small group activities for people to learn from each other.  Small group activities do not exist just to break up a lecture. They help participants recognize in themselves and others the knowledge and experience everyone is bringing to the session.

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