The bearable likeness of being: why experiential learning is powerful
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Many new employees feel “well trained but unprepared” (Kress-Shull, 2000) commonly because their training has been largely classroom/powerpoint driven. The same judgment is often made by those who employ them. While many customer/client-facing professionals undergo a high level of training, nothing quite prepares them for performing the skills outside the classroom. Experiential learning is one of the most pure and basic forms of learning (Kolb, 1984), and when used within training it develops creative thinking, self-confidence, and self-reflection. Practice of skills in a safe environment enables learners to reflect on their performance and understand that they have a) been through it once before should they face it again, and b) experience to draw from. This will enable greater confidence when performing the skill at a later date (Boal, 1979).
...and that's the science bit.
I have been delivering this message at conferences for the last three years. The importance of experience has been underpinning my teaching for the last 10 - it's why I lock corporate teams in my Escape Room as the key element of one of my teambuilding workshops, and use actors in my other sessions. My book on Management focuses on practical application as much as it does academia. Finally, this year, I managed to get a paper published in the Journal of Management and Applied Science.
You can teach messages as much as you like. You can even practice skills in a classroom, but until you deepen the context to heighten it's realism, the moment you are faced with the real situation and the adrenaline gets pumping, those carefully practised skills out of context are all but forgotten.
I have the pleasure of being one of the Chrissy B Show's resident experts and recently her program was on self defence. As I am usually asked to give a commentary , one of the key things I had prepared was the importance of context. Learning self-defence in a school hall is not the same as practicing it in a dark alley.
Before I could get there, the phenomenal team from the Combat Academy were already on it.
"Unless you practice in context, it is extremely hard to apply the skills"
"The brain scrolls through a series or responses, and if it cannot find anything it freezes. By giving some training in context, the brain has something it can draw from to help react."
(The Combat Academy HQ Team on The Chrissy B Show, Sky 203)
Experiential learning is not going to prepare you for every eventuality, however it allows you to have a starting point from which to respond. It empowers you to make a start, and enables your own experiences to help you get it to the endpoint. However, you also need to have an endpoint.
"It is not about 'winning' it is about not losing...and being able to achieve whatever your objective is". (The Combat Academy)
In any situation contextual experience will give you a start, and you also need to know where to end.
What is your goal?
Are you looking to close a deal? Are you looking for a settlement? Are you just wanting to get someone out of your office?
The start and the finish are the most important - experiential learning gives you the start, experience will give you the finish.
To return to the Combat Academy example - if you are being attacked, having some training will give you a headstart on response (rather than freezing, or relying on instinct), however, the very fact that you have undergone the training forces you to consider the outcome - of which there are many. This is the same of any training.
By considering a situation we can at least think about the options. By undergoing training, we are offered options we may not have thought of, and by experiencing that training within a context that offers a little more realism than the classroom - our brain is already off the starting block. Not only does it know it has some sort of response, but that it has also successfully performed it at some point. Our will can then take it to the end.
Although perhaps less dynamic than Self Defence (although I collaborate with Combat Academy MK too!), within my management training we often use the “forum”. This is a technique developed by Augusto Boal (1989) where the actor plays one of the characters in a problem scenario and the delegate “performs” as s/he would when faced with the situation. It is possible for the facilitator to stop and start the action, and get suggestions from the floor as to how the delegate should proceed. The technique allows the delegate to practice and reflect on their skills in a safe environment, and they leave the session armed with new ideas, and the knowledge that they’ve done it once, they can do it again!
One of my "Customer Service" sessions where delegates work with professional actors
However, even if there is no time for "rehearsal" in this way - at the very least reflect on the experience you have had.
Even without training, reflection makes actions meaningful, and offers much needed time to think and adapt them for the future.
Simple reflective questions to ask:
· What did I notice...?
· When did it happen?
· Why did that happen?
· How did I react?
· How can I use that information positively?
These can be asked anytime, anywhere.
When I talk about experiential learning it is not just about making the learning experience more “enjoyable”! Experiential learning engages your delegates in the situation, motivates them to care or at least to think about the issue and empowers them to respond and to find their own solutions.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt