During the agricultural era, when most people worked on farms, a father would teach his son how to till the land, plant grain, and harvest crops. The son learned the proper techniques for irrigating, thinning, and weeding for a more plentiful yield. Later, the son would pass the knowledge he acquired on to his own children.

Now, for the first time in history, multiple generations sit together in the classroom. And it's not always the older generation teaching younger colleagues. How do learning professionals strike a balance between the needs of multiple age groups? And what training techniques are most effective with each group?

Acknowledging differences

A trainer assigned to work on the latest fashions for a department store notices that four generations of employees are represented. One employee, Carol, is in her early 70s. She prefers traditional classroom settings, but doesn't like group activities. She began working at the store after her children were adults.

Carol's daughter Kathy is also in attendance. Kathy is a baby boomer who, unlike her mom, enjoys interaction. Kathy has been in the workforce for almost 30 years. Martin, in his late 30s, grew up with video games and chat rooms. He often comes across as impatient and has a tendency to address people informally - something that has caused some friction between him and Carol.

Then there's the newest hire, Crys, a recent college graduate. She enjoys group work and interactive learning but needs a more structured learning environment as well as mentoring. When developing a training regimen, learning professionals should be conscious that a generic method to engage learners is no longer appropriate when traditionalists (Carol), boomers (Kathy), Generation Xers (Martin), and Millennials (Crys) are sitting in the same room.

"You want to be aware of generational differences to prevent difficult behaviors," says Becky Pike Pluth, vice president of training and development at The Bob Pike Group, a training and performance consulting company.

"Awareness also helps you better understand who's in your classroom, which can reduce tension. Reducing tension increases retention."

Pluth believes that learning professionals need to think creatively about how they communicate their message to participants.

"Something as basic as giving praise can sink you like the training Titanic," Pluth says. "The traditionalists would prefer to receive accolades privately. Public praise embarrasses many of them."

Millennials appreciate praise all the more when colleagues know they have completed a task effectively. The safe way to cover all generations is to praise participants discreetly. While Millennials may enjoy public praise, they still appreciate praise given quietly.

Recognizing common goals

In the classroom itself, several techniques work well with all age groups. Pluth assigns the role of group leader in various ways to demonstrate fairness. Perhaps the first group leader is the person wearing the most blue or has the birthday closest to today. Later, pass the leadership baton to others when different tasks are assigned.

"The Traditionalists know they know a lot. The Millennials sometimes think they know more than they actually do," Pluth states. "By rotating the team leader role, you're showing you value the knowledge of all and that each person will get a turn to share their experience, no matter how little it might be."

Pluth calls the technique a type of "mental propaganda," whereby participants are validated and accepted as part of a team, and they know they'll get their chance. Millennials know they'll get to share their information. Traditionalists have a specific role that they appreciate. It makes the training room stay productive.

Pluth believes that because games were a significant part of Millennials' upbringing, they can be used as learning tools - the learn-by-failure element of gaming can be channeled toward learning workplace skills.

The book Got Game by John C. Beck examined how kids who came of age in the gaming generation view failure.

"In gaming, failure is the only way to learn how to get to the next board," Pluth says. "The concept is that if I'm falling down, I'm still moving forward." One way to draw upon this concept when correcting papers is to circle a few of the errors and let students figure out the correct answers.

"It's one technique that piggybacks on the 'failure leads to success' mentality," Pluth says. "Don't just point out all the errors. If a student just corrects it and hands it back in, he didn't learn anything. The gaming generation really gets this. Failure leads to success the next time."

Aiming to unite

Pluth typically uses three specific activities to open sessions, energize participants, and revisit material that works with all generations.

Trivia opener. "Some trainers already are using this without realizing how effective it is at getting all ages working together," Pluth notes. "Because trivia is little-known, it usually requires that all of the people at the table work together to complete the sheet. This means you're using the knowledge and experience of everyone at the table - a natural way to get them cooperating and feeling a part of the group. Be sure that your trivia has some tie-in to your material so that you're still maximizing your training time."

Each team works to complete a sheet with 10 to 20 trivia questions on it. At the end of a specified time period, she will either call out the answers for each or allow each team to guess, at a rate of one table per question. She then awards one star or one point for each correct answer.

Each one, meet one. After a short time in the classroom, PIuth instructs each participant to find a partner. Once they are paired up, they share one tidbit they've picked up during the class, such as, "I met someone from a different department" or, "I learned an easy way to remember CPR."

When Pluth rings a bell, the participants then find new partners and again share something they've gained from the class.

"Millennials view it as competitive in nature to see how many people they can share with," Pluth says. "Gen Xers enjoy the balance of learning and networking. Both of these groups also feel validated in showing they have something of value to share. Boomers see it as chance to sound insightful. Traditionalists see it as a chance to give back and learn something new."

"Why?" cards. Using a stack of 3x5 cards, Pluth will write, "Why" at the top. Below that she'll add the rest of the question. When training other trainers, questions might include, "Why would you use smelly markers?" or "Why would you let people talk out loud during your training sessions?"

Each person is given her own deck. This allows her to look them over to assess what they know or don't know. Reflective thinkers and those who don't want to be embarrassed by being wrong have a chance to think about the questions. They can set aside the questions for which they don't have an answer.

Pluth then instructs the groups to discuss the cards out loud. This allows Millennials and Gen Xers to work in teams. It also builds rapport, allows for networking, and celebrates success by allowing participants to say, "Look how much we know."

Addressing the needs of multiple generations does not require upending an entire curriculum. Learning professionals just need to find engaging methods that are flexible enough to appeal to everyone in the room.