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.
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.
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.