Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Fueling success in fire service training: The andragogy advantage

By Michael Boyle   

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I have sometimes, but admittedly rarely, been asked why a fire chief is studying adult education; the short answer is I fell into it through a bachelor’s degree where I earned a minor in adult education. What started simply as an elective course led to several years of learning about adults and how we learn.

“Adult education” is one of those terms that can be hard to define. Who is an adult educator? Is it only those who teach at post-secondary institutions? From my perspective, I came to realize as a fire chief that the principles of adult education apply in many aspects of the position. As a fire chief, I am involved in the training and teaching of firefighters, educating municipal officials on the fire service, and working with the public through fire prevention. In short, I am an adult educator. This similarly stands for all fire service training instructors as well.

It is my belief that understanding how adults learn and what motivates them to learn can contribute to your success as a company or chief officer within your fire department. Malcolm Knowles, very well known in the realm of adult education, developed the principles or assumptions of andragogy—adult education—that speak to the characteristics of adult learners:

  • They need to know the reason they are being asked to learn something.
  • Adult learners bring a vast amount of experience to the learning environment.
  • They have a need for autonomy and prefer some control over their learning.
  • Adults usually come with a readiness to learn.
  • Adult learners usually learn best when the motivation comes from them (intrinsic motivation).
  • Adults learn best when the learner is problem oriented; they want specific knowledge rather than generic content.

Beyond the assumptions about adult learners, we all learn differently. Do you learn by doing? By listening to a lecture or through a YouTube video? Or by watching someone practicing a skill then trying it yourself? It is also important to consider the barriers that can prevent learning – whether it is a learning disability or a physical impairment (sight or vision maybe) that can impact how someone learns.


So how can understanding adult learners and adult education benefit the fire service?

The best approach is to teach using as many methods as possible.

Respect for experience

If there was one thing I would recommend to anyone training firefighters it would be to appreciate and utilize the experience in the room. The fire service has crafted the “art of storytelling” and although these stories are often told with a good dose of humour, there is often a real lesson in there – whether it’s when things went well or when they didn’t.

If you are leading a training session in your fire department, think of yourself as a facilitator instead of an instructor. Ask for input. Share stories and encourage others to do the same. One of my favourite things about teaching in the fire service is that we have veteran firefighters with decades of experience taking the same training as the probie just starting their career. Don’t be afraid to ask those “old” firefighters to share their experience. Think of it as cooperative learning.

Experiential learning

Fire fighting is a tough and dangerous job. Although there is a ton of theory that a firefighter needs to learn, it’s about hands-on work and the best way to learn is by doing.

As mentioned, adults learn in different ways and while there is no way to identify how each individual in your department learns, the best approach is to teach using as many methods as possible; give a lecture, provide hand-outs, show videos, but in the end, get out on the training ground and do it. It’s easy to talk a lot and do little when it comes to training.

More effective training

If you have taken the fire service instructor course, you have already read about andragogy (the science of teaching adults) – whether you remember the term might be a different story. But understanding adult learners, how they learn and what motivates them will benefit you whether you are a company officer, training officer or chief officer. Learning more about adult education can help you understand how to teach in a way that will create more engaging learning experiences, improve knowledge retention and may give you the opportunity to tailor your instruction to the needs of your firefighters.

Teaching adults, and especially teaching firefighters, is a privilege that I hope you have or will get to experience in your career.

Michael Boyle is the Fire Chief of the Kennebecasis Valley Fire Department in Rothesay, N.B., and is a candidate for the Master of Education (Adult Education) from the University of New Brunswick. You can contact him at

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