One of the most important roles that environmental, health, and safety professionals share is that of educator. The woeful cry of too many of our colleagues is, “If only they’d just get it.” “They” might be executive management, employees with EH&S responsibilities, the community, or for that matter, just about any stakeholder unfamiliar with EH&S issues. Sorry, readers, if they are clueless, it may be because we are poor educators. This month, EH&S Advisor takes a look at adult education. There is more to it than you may think. Unfortunately, our role model of how to educate is based on the primary and secondary education system that we endured while growing up. Talking heads—the foundation of how we were taught—does not cut it with adults. There are better techniques.
Most of us were taught by the all-knowing teacher/professor who stood at the front of the class telling us what we were supposed to know. You knew the drill: respond when asked and cram (aka memorize) for the next round of tests. You endured boring lectures because you were a captive of the system. Learning took a back seat to
keeping your eyes on the prize—a diploma. Some would say that we are at the opposite extreme today: Educators have lost all control over the classroom. Some of this “loosening up” is clearly for the better; some is clearly not, such as when students undergo existential visioning of why 2+2 = 7 and pass the test because they believe in their heart the answer is correct and they work hard to achieve group consensus. The first lesson in adult education is that adults do not have to put up with the torture they suffered in their youth. This is a key point that might be overlooked by EH&S professionals, but certainly not by professional educators. The transformation from child education to adult education is a big step. Keeping adults engaged is not easy, and entertaining them may keep their interest, but is not an effective technique for genuine learning. Successful education occurs when students are actively focused, participating, and thinking, not just going through the motions of showing up and occupying a seat. The bottom line is that whenever education is turned into effective training, you get superior results. There is a world of difference between education and training, and if you ever get confused about the difference, just ask yourself, “Will I allow my children to receive sex training at school?” Education has a more lofty sound to it, but some of the finest graduate schools in the world are moving toward educational systems that involve active “hands on” experimentation—training, so to speak—instead of the traditional teacher-dominated lecture model. Harvard Business School, famous for its business case method in which students are given background material from which they must work through the what-ifs and formulate a working strategy, employs a full staff of professional case writers and pays them from the proceeds of the sale of their material. Dr. Robert Pojasek is an adjunct faculty member with the Harvard School of Public Health.1 He teaches students to use problem-solving and decision-making tools for addressing opportunities to improve the way we address environment, health, and safety issues. In his courses, participants work on cases and outside projects to demonstrate their use of the tools and to effect change in an organization. Whether you see it as solving problems or realizing opportunities, it is a skill that must be learned and demonstrated before you can successfully put it into action. By letting the students exercise their newfound skills with a team of peers, they see the power behind this problem-solving approach. Professors often avoid using the case method because of the additional work that is necessary to prepare for
the course and the difficulty of the questions asked by students when they begin to develop skills in using the materials. Adjunct professors may have an advantage in that they can extract case content from their work assignments.
On the home front, my daughter is enrolled in a new program at the University of Southern California School of Dentistry, called Problem Based Learning. PBL abandons the traditional dental/medical school approach, whereby students memorize facts that they regurgitate on exams, then soon forget. Dr. Alan Fincham, one of PBL’s founders at USC, has this quote over his desk: “If I give you the answer, I forever deny you the chance to learn.” This sums up the PBL curriculum: student-centered and inquiry-based. Students work in small groups to direct their own learning about the fundamental basic and clinical sciences. As a result, students tend to better retain information and have even outperformed students taught by traditional methods on the National Board Exam for dentistry.