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The 4 Best Teaching Hacks That Work With Adults

Professionals can adopt these best practices from teachers to design better trainings, presentations


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Jennifer Dyck-Sprout

3 years ago | 8 min read


One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is a vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
― Carl Jung

As I’ve discussed in other posts, I believe that we all need to start thinking more like teachers.

I think this is especially true of managers, who are often responsible for onboarding new team members, providing constructive feedback and coaching team members around their performance, and training them whenever a new system or technology is adopted.

How do teachers think though?

It’s been a long journey for me to figure that out. As an undergraduate at McGill University in their Faculty of Management, I was given the opportunity to teach the Introduction to Organizational Behaviour class to first year students for a semester.

As preparation, professors taught me in depth about the content I had to cover in my class, gave me activities to make the content engaging, and provided coaching and feedback on my presentation skills. Unfortunately, at no point was I taught about the actual best practices of teaching.

Virtually the same thing happened in my M.B.A. at Columbia Business School. I got great feedback on my presentations skills, and took all sorts of classes on how to lead, tell stories, influence others, and negotiate, but when it came to learning how to teach, we were left to our own devices. I guess it was just assumed that these managerial skills would all translate to knowing how to impart others new skills or information.

Then I started managing teachers and realizing just how much was missing from my own education. I realized that simply expecting people to learn on their own wasn’t very effective. Nor was just telling team members what they needed to know. I realized that the performance issues and skill gaps on my team would only worsen if I didn’t learn how to teach.

So I asked for help. An added bonus is that my learning deficiencies were an opportunity for the former teachers on my team to share their knowledge and skills with me.

Once I started applying what I learned, engagement on the teams I managed increased. Performance improved, as did the sense of camaraderie. Team members were more motivated to learn new skills, and they got to know each other better. So what did I learn?

Four Techniques To Teach Any Adult

NOTE: For any of the techniques below to be effective, you have respect whoever you are trying to teach enough to truly believe that they can learn, grow, and change. To read more about creating the right environment for learning check out my crash course on teaching post.

To help illustrate these techniques, I’ve created a running example of a workshop I’ve designed to help managers to become better teachers so that they build more diverse teams and address any skills gaps on those teams.

1. Hook the Learner: People need to be interested in what you have to teach

Like teachers, you must be deliberate about what you intend to teach. First and foremost you need to stimulate curiosity in a topic before a student can absorb any content. Six techniques consistently and immediately engage learners:

  1. Open with a quotation — “Studies have identified a significant ‘skills gap’ between what students are currently being taught and the skills employers are seeking in today’s global economy. Our children must be better prepared than they are now to meet the future challenges of our ever-changing world.” Stephen Covey
  2. Share a striking statistic or fact —60% of U.S. employers have job openings that stay vacant for 12 weeks or longer.
  3. Ask a provocative question — “What are you doing to help close the skills gap?
  4. Tell a story —“As a new manager, I really believed in the value of working with a diverse team. I saw a truly diverse team as having a range of not just races and ethnicities, but also nationalities, genders, socio-economic and educational backgrounds, skillsets, and even political orientations. I cared a lot about this. And yet, a year after starting to build my team, I realized I had built one completely lacking in diversity, no matter which way you looked at it. I had to ask myself, how did this happen?”
  5. Present a problem — “As a manager, if I had any vacancies on my team, I didn’t just have to cover for that gap, essentially taking on a second job, I also had to make time for interviewing candidates and eventually onboarding a new hire. My number one challenge was balancing the urgency I had to fill these open positions, with the desire to find someone experienced enough to not need a lot of training. Can you guess what the unintended consequences of this way of thinking were?
  6. Create an analogy — for example: “Expecting anyone I hired to “hit the ground running” is like expecting to buy a dresser from Ikea and have it show up in your bedroom that afternoon pre-assembled.”

2. Guide the Learner: People want to know where they are, and where they’re going

Once learners are engaged, you should give them a sense of what you’ll be doing for the time you’ll be together, especially if you’re giving a presentation, leading a meeting, or running a workshop. Students should be able to clearly understand why the topic is important to them. The three best ways of doing this are:

  1. Create an agenda that learners can refer to — There must be a goal to the learning. e.g. Today we’re going to learn about how you, as a manager, can help close the skills gap. In the handout I’ve provided, you can see the five topics we’ll cover today, which are also written here on the board. We’ll start with Part 1: Why is it important that you take action close the skills gap?
  2. Make the agenda action oriented — Adults must know why behind what they’re learning. There should be immediate value to what they are learning. e.g. Part 2: What are ways you can help close the skills gap?
  3. Show the progress you’re making along the agenda — eg. We’ve now covered Parts 1 & 2, so we’re ready for Part 3: What are some tools you can use to make learning engaging for your team members?

3. Make Participation Safe: People don’t want to look bad in front of their peers

People learn best by being engaged in the process of learning, so you have to leave room for people to participate without the risk of embarrassment. There are four best practices to make participation safe:

  1. At least initially, only ask questions people can answer. The best way to achieve this is to start with an icebreaker question asking what people hope to learn from their interaction with you. This way students are starting to get into the mindset of inviting new knowledge. — e.g. “What are some tools you have used in the past to engage your team members in trainings?”
  2. Ask what people “think” so that there is no right or wrong answer — e.g. “What do you think the benefits of using these techniques are?”
  3. Let people participate on someone else’s behalf. The best way to do this is to pose a thought provoking question, give the students a short amount of time to reflect on their own, then pair/group them up to discuss with someone else, then invite one person in the pair to share what was discussed with the group. (teachers call this a “think, pair, share”) — e.g. “What should you do if someone in your training is not participating? Take one minute to think about what would you do. I’ll let you know when one minute is up, then find a partner you haven’t yet worked with today to discuss your answer with for two minutes. After two minutes, I’ll bring us back as a group to share our ideas.”
  4. Thank learners for their participation instead of evaluating what they say — eg. “Thanks for sharing. Does anyone have anything else to add?”
  5. Bonus: If you’re going to be teaching in a more formal way, you can leverage what teachers call entry tickets. Ask 1–2 broad questions related to the session’s learning objectives before the class starts. Students should submit their answers to you upon ‘entry’ to the class (but ideally ahead of time, in the form of an online survey). Their responses will give you a sense of their knowledge base and any misconceptions, so you can better tailor your lesson since people compare new learning to prior experiences.

4. Make Learning Enjoyable: People are driven to solve problems

With anything you want to teach, you should think of how you can turn the lesson into a problem students will solve, then take learners through three steps: 1. Predict 2. Experience 3. Reflect.

  1. Predict — When students predict what will happen, they have a vested interest or a stake in the outcome. More importantly, the act of predicting activates their prior knowledge and pushes them to think logically and critically. Students may also discover inconsistencies or weaknesses in their own thinking.
  2. Experience — The experience allows students to work out the problem, watch, or listen to what happens. Give students time and space to work on their solutions. Whenever you can, design activities that will get learners out of their seats (e.g. vote with your feet, pair with someone from the other side of the room etc). There are a number of tools teachers could use at this stage such as doing demonstrations, small group discussions, or role-plays. I recommend checking out Teacher Toolkit for a large repository of quick ideas to make a lesson more engaging.
  3. Reflect — The most important part of any lesson is the post-activity debriefing. This is when learning is clarified, confirmed, and solidified. You can use what teachers call Benchmark Checks (checking for understanding by asking students to explain in their own words what they’ve learned), Oral Reviews (using a series of questions to recap each topic), and/or Exit Tickets (asking students to write their answers to 1–3 broad questions related to the session’s learning objectives before they leave) to measure learning and determine where additional tutoring or instruction is necessary.

e.g. Let’s recap: why is it important for you as a manager to be comfortable with teaching best practices?…..Using the tools we’ve discussed today, what is one way you will use to make your future trainings more engaging? ….

Before we leave, I’d like you to answer two questions on the piece of paper I’ve handed out to each of you to help me understand where we should pick-up in our next session: #1 What was most helpful about today’s workshop? #2 What questions do you still have about what we learned? When you’ve answered these two questions, you can hand them to me on your way out. Thanks for joining me today!

Suggested Additional Resources

If you want to learn more, I wrote a longer post about the foundations of teaching, which includes research on a variety of topics, from how teachers set the stage for learning to how they differentiate their lessons.

Additionally, if you found this helpful, I recommend you check out my crash course on therapy here, and learn more about how managers can incorporate therapy best practices here.

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Jennifer Dyck-Sprout

Brooklyn based Start-Up Advisor, Impact Investor, Filmmaker, Writer, and Leadership Coach. I focus my time on the future of learning and the future of work.


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