How to Teach Adults: 3 Lessons from a Music Teacher

course design instructional design Jul 14, 2021

In episode 13 of Your Greatest Work, Manja and Deborah talk in-depth about strategies for effectively teaching adults.


Teaching is hard. Whether you're teaching English to a classroom of children, teaching violin to just one teenager, or teaching practical skills to adults in a virtual setting, teaching is difficult.

Getting lessons to stick and keeping learners engaged takes creativity and strategy.

Deborah knows this very, very well (after all, she once had Manja as her student). Through decades of teaching experience in schools and in one-on-one settings, Deborah has developed some go-to strategies to effectively work with learners of different ages.

Here are just three key lessons from Deborah on working with adult learners.

1. Recognize the Fear Factor

According to Deborah, the biggest difference between adults and children is the fear factor. Children may not be very focused on learning but they have no inhibitions. But adults... well, we are incredibly intimidated when it comes to learning something new.

Adult learners bring a lot of motivation but, with that, a lot of fear. They're often insecure and may carry extra baggage. Why?

At some point, adult learners have been told that they're not good enough — and those untrue words stick.

So working with adult learners involves working on the learning mindset and working on the unlearning of past experiences. How do you do this? For Deborah, it's all about trust. You must build trust with your learners often by exposing your own vulnerabilities.

2. Build a Continuum of Progress

What does that mean? Well, as Deborah explains, learners want to feel like they're always making progress. Like their efforts are worthwhile, like they're going somewhere. Like they're learning.

One way to help learners feel that they're learning is to create a continuum of progress with your teaching. Once learners make a little bit of progress they think 'oh, I can do that.'

Imagine a wheel or a set of steps, Learners are moving forward and getting ready for the next thing.

This continuum of progress also supports —and fosters— intrinsic motivation. If your learners can see that they're learning, they're encouraged to learn more.

So how do you create this continuum?

3. Break Down Content

From Deborah's experience, adult learners want to learn it all right from the start and they take on way too much. But trying to learn everything right away as fast as possible is overwhelming and will easily discourage new learners. How can you avoid that and help learners experience a continuum of progress?

Break down content. Take a concept or a lesson or skill and break it into nuggets.

One way to do this is to isolate skills. If a learner is struggling with one specific task, having them practice the skill in a comfortable environment can build confidence and further develop the skill.

By incorporating these lessons from Deborah, you can more effectively teach adult learners. But this is only the surface of Deborah's wealth of knowledge.

In this week's episode of Your Greatest Work, Deborah talks extensively about meeting learners where they're at, the unique challenges —and opportunities— of virtual tutoring, and how to support learners in reaching their goals.

Tune in to hear Deborah's insights! Episode 13 is out now!


About Our Guest

Deborah Henderson is an accomplished and experienced teacher. She offers violin lessons for children, teens, and adults using both the Suzuki Method and Royal Conservatory syllabus. She also leads violin group classes for children and chamber music ensembles for teens and adults. She was the string program director for SONG (Sounds of the Next Generation), a free after-school music program for under-served youth.

About Your Greatest Work

Through conversations with global leaders and the credibility of personal industry, Your Greatest Work digs deeper into learning design in useful and applicable ways. The thirteenth episode is out now, listen to it here.

Stay tuned for coming episodes. In the meantime, let's start the conversation about making your current work into your greatest work.

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