There is an old saying to the effect that the world’s best schoolhouse would be a log with a student sitting on one end and a great teacher on the other. Maybe so—if a “schoolhouse” must be an isolated location.
In the world’s best training or educational design, however, the students would get off the log and go experience, firsthand, the things they were learning about. They would actually practice the skills they were trying to master. The teacher would go along as a coach and guide, allowing students to make some mistakes and confront the consequences, while preventing errors that could prove disastrous. From time to time they would return to the log and discuss—or debrief, if you will—the things the students learned from direct experience.
Whether sitting on a log or not, any teacher who is genuinely great would tell you the same thing: If you want people to learn to do something—play tennis, fly an airplane, contribute to a work team, run a multinational corporation—don’t just tell them about it, make them do it.
So powerful is the role of direct experience and practice in effective learning that if some form of it is not incorporated into workplace training designs, the organization sponsoring the training is wasting its time and money. It is absurd, bordering on criminal, to give people information about how to perform some vital aspect of their work and end by saying: “Now go forth and practice these skills on the job.”
What skills? Without practice, there is no skill; there is only information. And the first place they’re going to practice is on the job? With real customers, real co-workers, real subordinates? Where mistakes and awkwardness have real consequences for the business?
There is no substitute for experience. That is a bedrock truth. But here is another: There also are no substitutes for guidance during an experience or for reflection afterward. Remember the part where the teacher and students return to the log? That matters. In the absence of informed perspective and valid performance feedback, experience alone is a slow, cruel teacher. And it tends to cement bad habits right along with good ones.
One more truth: Experiential learning activities can be as useful as the real thing. Sometimes it’s even better. The best place to learn how to land an airplane at 50 different airports under 50 different wind and weather conditions while suffering 50 different mechanical problems is not in a real airplane. It’s in a flight simulator.
Likewise, games, simulations, and feedback instruments can be wonderfully useful for learning skills pertaining to leadership, teamwork, coaching, conflict resolution, interpersonal communication, and more.
Learning by Design
Unfortunately, “experiential learning” has become a buzz phrase in the corporate-training community. As tends to occur whenever a good idea turns into a fashionable one, a great deal of nonsense has sprung up around it. You don’t have to look very hard to find “experiential learning” programs that substitute mere activity for relevant experience and practice. Music might play, whistles might blow, people might move about, and some might enjoy themselves. But the activity has little, if anything, to do with generating real insight into the subject at hand or practicing useful skills. “What did we learn from that experience?” An honest answer would be, “Beats me.”
By research and, yes, by experience, we at HRDQ are convinced beyond doubt that experiential learning is the most effective model for training and education. But by that we mean, when it is done right. Doing it right requires several things.
- In the first place, any effective learning model must be, in fact, a model, not just a buzzword. In HRDQ’s Experiential Learning Model, shown below, experience and practice are two of seven phases leading to the ultimate goal, which is to integrate new skills into work performance. If you aren’t trying to change something about the way people do their jobs, why are you training them?
- The experience and practice must be relevant, valid, and meaningful. Whatever form the experiential learning activities take—game, simulation, or something else—it has to teach the intended lesson. HRDQ’s learning activities are time-tested and proven to do what they say they’ll do.
- The teaching process must recognize and incorporate sound educational principles. Certainly, we know that direct experience has an enormous impact on learning. But that isn’t all we know. Educational research and practice demonstrate, for instance, that individuals have different learning styles, and that these styles come into play in significant ways. A great deal also is known about how adult learners differ from children. All of that knowledge should be put to use in an experiential design, just as in any other teaching approach.
The two papers that follow explain HRDQ’s philosophy of experiential learning in more detail. They cite the research that supports it. And they offer much food for thought about how to create learning experiences that lead to real growth and change, for individuals, teams, and organizations.
This has been the appetizer. For the main course, click on the papers below.