ADULT LEARNING: Learning Hooks
(A Very Brief Introduction)

Having been keenly interested in the learning process for nigh on to 30 years and instructing on a variety of topics for nearly that long, I was absolutely appalled at the first equine clinic I attended. Surely, I thought, the clinician doesn't expect lasting results from this process! I witnessed violations of practically every tenet of good knowledge transfer from one brain to another. Although the instructor appeared to have considerable knowledge of the subject (expertise), the ability to transfer that knowledge was severely lacking. This clinic, I assured myself, must be an aberration in the clinic world! Not so, I discovered, as I continued to attend clinics around the country. I was looking for a balance of knowledge, ability, and presentation.

In defense of the clinic process, it is hard to imagine a more difficult setting for the transfer of knowledge and skill. Consider the variables:

  1. horse (or many)
  2. rider (or many)
  3. instructor (usually one, whose job is quite complicated)
  4. crowd (while usually respectful, still … a crowd)
  5. facilities --- large, open; acoustical issues; climate;distractions (new arrivals noisily unloading horse and equipment, horses calling out, etc.)
  6. two humans, one equine (the subgroup headings under this category are legion)

But, we are adaptable, and we will do our best to complete the mission in spite of the negative barriers. Could it be improved? Why, yes. A truckload of changes could help. The problem is that the whole process has certain undeniable constraints such as those listed above. However, there are certain improvements we (and the instructors) can make that would help maximize the learning experience.

Take another look at the diagram above. The "mission" of any instructor, teacher, supervisor, parent ---anyone who has control over a teaching/problem-solving process --- is to take the student from the KNOWN (the student's) always toward the UNKNOWN (the student's). And we understand that the "unknown" in its totality is unattainable as there is always more to be learned.

So, setting specific goals on this trip up the arrow is advisable -- both for the student and for the instructor. Which means that, as a participant, I must define my purpose for attendance and convey that to the instructor who must quickly determine how far to go and what specific gems of knowledge are necessary to accomplish the "mission", thereby satisfying the problem identified.

The instructor's lesson plan is, for the most part, cognitive (knowledge), based upon experience, study, and practice. We walk into the arena, state the "problem" or issue and the instructor has seconds to understand the need, formulate the response, decide how to present it and examine and evaluate the equine part of the equation. Hoo boy! Talk about a tough situation. Ripe for the "learning hook" complication in the "mission" (diagram above).

While we don't have sufficient space to fully explain each of the following, it is important that you be introduced to the following three areas (domains) of learning:

· cognitive (knowledge, brain)
· psychomotor (skills)
· affective (feelings, emotions)

Each of these domains are part of the learning process and contribute to the positive or negative outcome of a learning experience.

Learning hooks are those things that take the mind of the student OFF the learning process and direct it towards other issues. Example: things are going well and I flub up somehow and, lo and behold, the instructor yells at me. ???!!! I now have a major learning hook as my attention has been diverted from the process to … self-preservation. Self-esteem, ego, self-image --- all residents of my affective (feelings) learning domain have suddenly sprung forward, replacing any attempts at progressing with the basic premise of knowledge, skill, or positive affective improvement. Clearing this hook is time-consuming and can severely reduce the value of instruction that comes after.

"Hooks" don't just come from the instructor. We, as students, can create our own. Just a couple of examples are:

1. The student attended for a purpose not clearly identified to self and, in the end, to the instructor. Conflict is assured. The goals and the results don't match. (Hard to hold the instructor accountable for this one.)

2. The student has concerns that interfere with the learning process and that are brought to the arena, lurking in the mind. "This cost me a bundle and my significant other isn't too happy about my being here. I sure better take something home!"

3. Self-esteem examples: a) "Lots of people watching; b) "Hildegard,, my mare, tends to spook at clouds and other wispy, unrecognizable things. If she does it in the middle of my session, I'll just die."; c) "How am I going to get Harold back into the trailer after this? It took me two hours just to load him to get here!"

We could go on and on with this as it is normal to have concerns. The trick is to prepare to learn by recognizing that diversions from the process will reduce the intake of information. Examine personal "hooks" prior to the instruction and file them for later consideration. Easy to say, hard to do but, addressing our personal learning hooks beforehand and coming to some conclusion sure helps clear the mind for input.

Got to tell this little story about a learning hook I observed at a clinic. The observation of human behavior is a passion for me and, as an instructor myself, when I see another instructor (of any type) that clearly doesn't understand the learning process (and may even seem to not care), it makes a strong impact on me.

Before the start of this clinic in a faraway state, I notice various actors in the drama that is unfolding. Folks are going about getting ready, doing the hundreds of necessary horsey things -- grooming, preparing tack, setting up camp, talking to each other about equine-related problems, etc. It is a good time for them, a time filled with excitement, expectation, and some apprehension.

My attention is focused on one participant in particular because of her overall demeanor. This woman had the most wonderful personality one could hope for. Open, friendly, helpful, willing to assist others or just listen. She was also not unfamiliar with large intakes of carbohydrates, as was evidenced by rather full (at the bottom end) stretch riding pants. She had a smile that said, "I like myself and I like you" that just won the heart. Open, kind and interested in others was my evaluation from a distance and she continued to prove such as time went on. I noticed that, within a short time, strangers knew her name and spoke with her often -- she was just so "up", it was hard not to want to be a part of her world.

The first day of the clinic went well for her in her session. No major revelations or improvements but she was clearly pleased with the progress she and her horse were making as we all could see by her nonverbals and comments afterwards. The second session, though, was a disaster created by the instructor!

While attempting some maneuver that I don't remember, it was necessary for her to dismount and remount. Her past love of carbohydrates made it difficult for her to remount without assistance of a stool or a push from behind. The instructor, after giving her a leg up, made the most critical error he could have at the moment by saying, "Can't ride if you can't get on your horse. Loss of 30 lbs may be in order.". Now, the instructor may have been attempting a joke or a light way of passing along seemingly helpful information. The audience laughed. All I heard was the CLANG! as the rider reacted with an intake of breath and by clearly shutting down. It was predictable. Her shoulders slumped, the winning smile was gone, her eyes went down to a safe place on top of her horse's head, and she no longer looked at the instructor. It was obvious the day's session was over for her. Unfortunately, the instructor was blind to the problem and continued giving direction which was now met with limited response. A glaring difference from her earlier performance.

The above real-life example is just one of many things that can be a major mis-fire and create a learning hook. I imagine you could think of several of your own.

Recap: The mission is for the instructor to take the student from the KNOWN to the UNKNOWN while preventing as may learning hooks as possible. This requires a knowledge of human behavior. Expertise in the field of instruction is insufficient to make a good instructor. Understanding students and the learning process is equally important.

The instructor has an obligation to eliminate, prevent, or lessen, hooks that he or she is aware of and to create a learning environment that is condusive to knowledge transfer. Excuses for poor delivery, embarrassing treatment of students, lack of communication skills or the need to maximize earnings are simply not valid. If I say I am a teacher, it implies that I understand the transfer of knowledge process -- form one brain to another -- and that I have prepared myself to perform that function. It's more than knowledge or expertise in the subject. It's understanding the very nature of, and the complexity of, the transfer of knowledge.

Learning hooks can be he product of the student or the instructor. The student must prepare to learn, not just expect that somehow the instructor will hit the right button, thereby satisfying intrinsic needs unrevealed. Identification of what we think we want as students is of considerable value to both.

Teaching is a noble venture. Where would we be without all the teachers in our lives? Learning is also a noble venture. One that, for the most part, we as adults seek willingly because we have identified a need. Understanding of the process by both student and instructor creates lasting value to the experience.

Students, prepare thyself. Instructors, prepare thyself and be rewarded for your efforts.

You folks stay safe out there!

(published 8/01)