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For business leaders, especially those in learning and development (L&D), 2015 may be remembered as the year of multigenerational hysteria. In May, Millennials surpassed Gen X as the majority workforce generation. A whole lot of analysis followed—each generation’s work ethic and learning style were picked apart, dissected, analyzed, and assessed.

L&D leaders were warned that this generational convergence would cause a significant training challenge, and that the time-honored approach to corporate L&D needed to be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch.

While the generational shift was and is an important consideration, the underlying challenge with corporate learning is not new. One size rarely fits all. As we see it, the task for 2016 is to set aside the hysteria and determine how to create corporate L&D programs that recognize an inherent diversity of learning styles.

While the generational shift was and is an important consideration, the underlying challenge with corporate learning is not new.

A rich source of inspiration can be found in the differentiated instruction philosophy. Much has been written about the differentiated classroom as it relates to public and private grade school education. Indeed, we would accept no less for our children than a system that responds to the varied needs of all the learners in a classroom (or, at least, aims to do so).

Think of a “differentiated classroom” as breakfast: You need to consider each component’s unique needs to achieve the end goal.

Think of a “differentiated classroom” as breakfast: You need to consider each component’s unique needs to achieve the end goal. Food vector designed by Freepik.

What is the “differentiated classroom”? Let’s call it your breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, fresh fruit… and let’s add some grits. All of your breakfast arrives, uncooked, on the counter at 6am. Why? Because, like students on a school day, breakfast has an ordered start time—6am. At 6:05am, it’s late. All of your breakfast has to be prepared in 15 minutes, again, because, like students in a classroom, the time constraint is the same for everyone.

Your individual breakfast components are no exception. None of them get more than 15 minutes. Now you throw all of your breakfast components into a single frying pan and begin to cook. You quickly realize that you have a mess because you did not consider the very unique needs of each individual component.

In order for eggs to cook over a 15-minute period, they would have to be on an unrealistically low setting. The reality is that they require less time in the pan. In fact, they are your advanced placement food. They can achieve the desired result in five minutes and test out.

Grits, on the other hand, are very special and require their own pan. Fresh fruit will require coring, peeling, being cut into bite-size chunks, but will require no heat—quite different from every other breakfast component. Certainly an individualized plan is in order for this very unique breakfast item. You can probably work with bacon, sausage and pancakes within the common core of pan, heat and 15 minutes.

As it is with your breakfast, so it is also within the classroom—ultimately, one size does not fit all.

Author and educator Carol Ann Tomlinson, in her book The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners, states that teachers have to manage a diverse set of individual needs in the classroom—a challenge that’s as poignant today as it was 100 years ago. The task is to determine how to create a curriculum that recognizes that diversity of needs yet achieves the desired learning outcomes for the class as a whole.

But what happens when children grow to become adult learners? Individual ability may change, but the diversity of learning needs doesn’t. The question is whether or not adult education—particularly in the corporate environment—is giving the adult learner the same individual consideration that the grade school teacher so carefully did.

In the year ahead, managing corporate’s “differentiated classroom” will require learning leaders to do the following:

  1. Understand and acknowledge the diversity of learning styles—both across and within generations.
  2. Design curriculum and instructor-led training (ILT) that meet the overall learning objective.
  3. Supplement ILT with microlearning.
  4. Create learning paths that enable students to achieve the organizational objectives at their pace and according to their individual cognitive abilities.

The ultimate goal of corporate L&D programs is increased productivity. No matter what changes the new year brings—an increase in Millennials moving to management positions, a wave of Baby Boomer retirements, more technology advancements—learning leaders have a better chance of achieving that goal if they acknowledge the differences and respond accordingly.

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