Adult Learners Need Master Facilitators, Too!

This weekend, I attended a Saturday professional development event for the Portland education community. As with much education PD, we engaged in activities as students, knowing that we would later implement them as teachers. The day was rich, engaging, and well-worth my attendance. Yet, I again experienced a phenomenon that has become ubiquitous at almost every PD event I attend.

As with many room-wide professional development days, the transitions between activities ebbed and flowed. Sometimes we maintained momentum, sometimes we declared a mass-bathroom break. About halfway through the day, we transitioned to an activity by way of the following announcement:

“You have a ziploc bag on your tables…”

We heard nothing else. Each group tore into their bags, all directions forgotten. The volume spiked higher than the facilitator’s voice, after which she had to re-capture our attention by any means necessary. What was she ultimately forced to do? Politely shout at us to be quiet and look at her, understandably irritated.

Does this sound familiar? It sounds like my classroom.

One of two things is happening: either the facilitator does this in his or her classroom and is familiar with this headache (as I was my first year teaching), or the facilitator assumes that adults will have much better manners than their students. I personally think it’s the latter: we are being held to higher standards as adult learners, yet we do not always prove the facilitator correct. It’s not that we’re rude; we’re just tenacious. We want what’s in that Ziploc!

An important opportunity is being missed: it’s essential that we—on the rare occasions that we are allowed to be students again—experience activities in the most authentic way possible. You may have a new educator in the room who dreads lab day, and modeling a strategy of maintaining students’ attention during directions is more useful to her than the activity itself!

“In a moment, I am going to give you a Ziploc bag. However, you may have trouble listening to me if I do that now. I will tell you the directions, and then hand out the bags. Good so far?”

Worried that your adult learners may not go for it? Explain at the forefront that you will be conducting the day with some of your classroom management techniques, and as they occur, acknowledge them! Involve your learners in your “meta,” and it won’t read as condescension: it will read as added value.

Any tips to facilitating an excellent adult learning session? Let us know at!

In March 2021, Kailey Rhodes joined our extended network of alumni.