I have long been a member of the Toastmasters’ organization, as many of you who know me well have heard. Toastmasters is an organization that was founded in the 1920’s to help people overcome the real — almost universal fear — of public speaking. To many people, myself included, this fear was holding them back both personally and professionally.
Joining a Toastmasters’ club is a perfect example of adult learning perfected, and could provide a good model of other, much needed, future adult learning initiatives. We all know that in a knowledge society, we need to keep learning throughout our lives, but many people are unsure how to do this. (Also, read this blog for continuing tips on learning throughout life.) The Toastmasters’ organization has mastered the adult competency improvement process over its 90-plus years of existence mostly through a number of key principles.
The first principle is self-direction by its club members. While Toastmasters has a regularly prescribed advancement process, members are allowed to proceed at their own pace and with their own self-selection of speech topics. There has traditionally been a path of 10 speeches that a member would complete to achieve a competent-communicator certification. There are 12 different paths that members are allowed to choose from, on a variety of professional and personal topic areas. Members can complete as many paths as they want and achieve additional certifications. This choice lets Toastmaster club members tailor the learning experience to their needs.
Another effective method of Toastmasters is that speech evaluations are done by other club members. The evaluators provide positive reinforcement and constructive criticism. It’s mostly subjective evaluations, and that is the point. There are no “right or wrong” speeches, and there is no grading. Members advance based only on their continuing practice, and self-reflection of their progress. Other members are there to assist in this process.
Besides giving speeches, Toastmaster club members engage in continuous learning by having opportunities to perform public speaking at every meeting they attend. They can host the meeting (called being the Toastmaster), be an Evaluator, Grammarian or Timer (where they must present their results to the group) , or even host the Table Topics portion of the meeting, where other members give short impromptu 1 to 1.5 minute speeches to the group. It’s a great way to always be learning at every meeting.
We need more adult learning programs like Toastmasters. There needs to be opportunities for adults to self-direct their own learning so they can advance professionally and personally. The processes should allow for proceeding at your own pace and should be non-graded and therefore non-threatening. People will often be surprised at the success of their own endeavors, when they follow these proven adult-learning methodologies.