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In this interview, Michael Brady, Professor of Adult Education at the University of Southern Maine, offers his views on workplace training and adult learning.

What special issues or needs do seniors have with respect to workplace training and adult learning?

There is one important issue I want to raise right away. Not all older persons are alike, nor do they learn similarly. This sounds like a ridiculously obvious statement, but I am constantly amazed by how society likes to lump people together, stereotype and act on the stereotype by treating everyone as if they were the same. I often find myself saying that a group of ten older persons is more heterogeneous than a group of ten younger ones. Why? Because each older person has had more time to become herself or himself. So this is an important cautionary note that will affect everything I say in this interview.

That said, there are a few things that I think are important to keep in mind when training older persons in the workplace. Adult education principles and practices work very well with most “seasoned citizens” (I much prefer this language to the more common “senior citizens”). Allow them to take responsibility for their own learning. Let them build new learning upon past learning. Honor their experience. Of course, these practices work nicely with the majority of young workers too. But in a society that has long been and continues to be ageist, we sometimes de-value the aging process and manage to forget that older persons are very much responsible, experienced, and in many cases, talented adults.

What should workplace trainers do to improve training for seniors?

Involve them in every way possible in orchestrating their own learning. Use the basic principles laid out decades ago by the late, great adult educator Malcolm Knowles in a theory he called “Andragogy.” Simply put, andragogy involves learners in the planning, implementation and evaluation of their own learning and treats the adult learner as a full partner in the entire process.

I am a big fan of allowing for choices wherever possible. Some older workers may prefer to read or be lectured to as preferred way of learning. Others do better with a hands-on approach. I am thinking here of the famous “Learning Styles” research that has been carried out by Howard Gardner and others. We do not all learn the same way.

And, going back to the point I made earlier, we can assume even greater individuation and heterogeneity among seasoned citizens than we can among younger persons.

What shouldn’t workplace trainers do when training seniors?

I think there are a number of bad practices when working with older learners. Forcing them into narrow models or pathways. Being disrespectful of their experience. Evaluating what is learned by timed tests and/or other assessments. One of the most consistent findings in gerontology research is that reaction time slows down with aging. Timed tests do not work particularly well with many adult learners and can be devastating to the older learner who may have learned new ideas or skills very well but may not be able to report or demonstrate this learning quickly.

Do you believe seniors learn differently from young adults? Why or why not?

This is not a question I can easily answer. In some ways, they do. I have already mentioned processing time. Older persons tend to be a little slower. They also have more lived experience, which means that new learning has to be filtered through those experiences and, in some cases, old and well-entrenched learning needs to be unlearned before new material can be assimilated. Older people also have well-practiced ways of learning that may be difficult to change. I know some who love to listen to lectures and believe that they learn well by this traditional methodology, while there are others who prefer to be left on their own to figure out a problem or to learn new material.

In each case, the methodology has succeeded, which is why they persist with it. This gets back to the point I mentioned earlier about providing choices.

Do seniors often require special accommodations for training (such as vision or hearing assistance)?

Sensory acuteness does decline with aging. Of special importance in learning are sight and hearing. I am editing a new journal with an audience of older readers, and we have had to be careful about both font size and the spaces between lines. A number of colleges that have lifelong learning institutes (i.e. special programs for persons over the age of 50) have invested in sound enhancement systems in the classrooms most often used by older students. Trainers who use PowerPoint slides written in small fonts risk communicating poorly with all of their trainees. But the probability is great that a substantial proportion of the older learners in the room will be unable to read these slides.

It is always good adult education practice to check in with learners. Are they hearing and seeing what is going on? Are the ideas presented clearly? How is the pace of the training? What (specifically) are they learning? Is what they are learning helping them in their job? This is not rocket science. But I am amazed at the number of educators and trainers who do not bother to check in with their learners by asking these or similar questions.

How can trainers help seniors reduce their risks of occupational injuries or accidents?

I do not have experience or expertise in this area. What comes to mind as common sense approaches are to have good lighting, stay away from area rugs or other floor surfaces that might invite falls and do not force employees to rush their work (especially in an industrial environment). I keep hearing stories about computer-related injuries. Make sure workstations meet healthy ergonomic standards and also encourage workers to take frequent breaks from their workstations.

What do you believe are the most effective ways to train those who train seniors in the workplace?

First, I would like to advocate for more “peer teaching” in workplaces. Have older workers train other older workers. The peer teaching model has been tried in nearly all of the lifelong learning institutes in the United States and in Universities of the Third Age in Europe and elsewhere. It works beautifully.

Second, if younger trainers need to be employed in this role, it is important that they approach the older worker respectfully. Once again, the persistent ageism in our society often creates an undercurrent of negative feelings about older persons that may leak through and contaminate a training situation. Hiring a gerontologist to conduct a basic orientation to aging for trainers may help to obviate this issue and create a healthier context for training.

How can seniors make the most of their workplace training?

Research has shown that older persons make dependable and productive workers. With rare exceptions, seasoned citizens are serious, have a good work ethic and bring a breadth and depth of experiences to the job. While they will not have the physical strength and energy of younger persons, the vast majority of older workers are highly motivated to excel and will learn what they need to in order to do well.

Creating a training environment of respect, choice and salience between the training and the work itself and involving as closely as possible the experiences of the older worker will help to ensure both efficiency and effectiveness in training.

E. Michael Brady, Ph.D. is a Professor of Adult Education and a Senior Research Fellow at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine.