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Challenges Of Getting Adults To Learn New Skills & How To Overcome Them

President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

Under the category of “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten,’ many people would include learning how to tie their shoes. It is one of the very first technical training — a training to learn a new process or skill- that many of us successfully completed.

Or have we? According to, 75% of us use a technique that results in our shoelaces frequently coming undone. From an evaluation point of view, that would rate the training as less than successful.

It is a problem that could easily be solved if we started using a different kind of knot. It would require minimal training and minimal practice to change the process. Think of the time-savings! Think of the reduced risk of accidents!

Would you be interested in learning how to tie your shoes, so the laces don’t come undone? For many, the answer is a resounding NO. The attitude is ‘I’ve been tying my shoes this way for 30 years, and I’m fine with having to re-tie them once in a while.’

That’s just one reason why Learning How to Tie Your Shoes is a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities that trainers face when asked to do technical training.

Challenge #1 The Audience: Attitude

Like the adults who are comfortable tying their shoes the way they always have, many of the people who find themselves in a technical training wish they didn’t have to learn a new system or process. Perhaps it’s a software update, perhaps it is a new system as a result of a merger or acquisition, perhaps the company just decided to switch software systems – the reasons for the training are not really relevant– what is important is that a certain percentage of participants are not happy they have to learn something new.

That’s why one of the most important things a technical trainer can do is create an ice-breaker that helps dissipate that negative energy. If there’s one thing we know about negative energy, it’s contagious; even the people who are neutral or even excited to learn the new process will feel its effect. Nothing helps destroy negative energy more than laughter. Get people laughing and they will find themselves more open to learning.

Challenge #2 The Audience: Readiness Level

Sometimes the audience does not have the skillset to learn the new process. How old do you think the average child is when they learn to tie their shoes? According to the experts, the majority of girls don’t have the manual dexterity to learn how to tie their shoes until they are six. For boys, it’s seven. And yet many an eager parent has lived through the frustration of trying to teach a five or younger child how to tie their shoes – because the parent is tired of doing it for them. The results are not pretty.

As a technical trainer, it’s important to level-set the audience to make sure that they have the pre-requisites for the training. As Anne Harlow, a master trainer with more than 25 years of technical training experience, explains, “Let’s say I’m being asked to teach a class on how to use Pivot Tables in Excel. Before you can learn how to use Pivot tables you need to understand something about database functionality. The client may think that’s not necessary if they are introducing pre-designed pivot tables. However, if you don’t have a basic understanding of databases, you could end up doing something that messes up the entire pre-designed pivot template.”

The other issue about readiness is that a certain percentage of people may not have confidence that they can learn the skill as quickly as their younger colleagues. This technophobe mindset can become a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting in participants who are frustrated and who give up the first time they make a misstep in learning the new skill.

A Solid Task Analysis Can Overcome A Lot of Challenges

If you decided you wanted to see whether you use a granny knot or square knot when you tie your shoelaces you may read the explanation at or you might hop over to YouTube and check out several videos demonstrating the differences between the two-knot styles.

There’s a good chance that you will leave both sites without 100% certitude that you know which knot you use. None of them actually teaches you how to execute the knots. That’s a common problem with many technical pieces of training – the steps are not clear.

To avoid this all too common problem, you need to start with a Task Analysis. A Task Analysis takes each task or step in a process and breaks it down into sequential subtasks or sub-steps – ensuring that you don’t inadvertently skip a step.

What would your first step be if tasked with teaching someone how to tie their shoes? If you are teaching young children, the first step needs to be making sure you have kid-friendly shoelaces. Turns out the rounded shoelaces that are common in most kid’s shoes today make it more difficult to tie them. Instead, you want the flat cotton kind of shoelaces.

While we are on laces, length matters. Laces that are too long or too short will inhibit the learning process. So part of the task analysis has to include having the right material to conduct the training.

It’s like the explanation of teaching pivot charts in Excel. In that example, knowing the learner’s experience with databases influences what the first step in teaching a pivot chart will be. With tying shoes, knowing the age of the learner influences the type of shoelaces that are needed for success. That’s the challenge of technical training. It’s extraordinarily difficult to describe even the simplest task like tying your shoes in a way that people of varied learning styles can relate to.

As a best practice, test your instructions ahead of time by having several people unfamiliar with the task attempt to learn it. During this trial run, potential holes in the task analysis or holes in the way you describe the tasks will become very clear.

It is extraordinarily difficult to create a task analysis for even the simplest task like tying shoes. When I Googled “How to teach a child how to tie their shoes” this list of steps was the first of 1.8 million results. Try to follow these steps:

Step 1: Materials. Pair of untied shoes. Kid.

Step 2: Make train tracks. Pull both laces upward making sure laces are even to create a parallel set of train tracks.

Step 3: Make X. …

Step 4: Tuck tip of “X” …

Step 5: Pull tips outward. …

Step 6: Make one bunny ear. …

Step 7: Make the second bunny ear. …

Step 8: Secure X.

Step 9: Create X with bunny ears

Step 10: Secure X

Step 11: Tuck bunny ear

Step 12: Pull bunny ears

They lost me at train tracks. They double lost me at secure “X.” If you tried to tie your shoes by just following these steps you could do it over and over again and still be sitting there with untied shoes.

Try writing a task analysis for tying shoes. Why is it so hard? What could make it easier?

In Part 2 of Why Learning How To Tie Your Shoes is the Quintessential Technical Learning, we’ll look at why Demo, Do and Discuss is so integral to a successful learning experience.

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