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Experiential Learningwhat, why and how?

Prepared by Anna Beckwith Smith Beckwith November 2008

www.smithbeckwith.com

Š Smith Beckwith 2008.


CONTENTS Section

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Introduction What IS Experiential Learning? How and Why does it Work? Creating the Learning Environment The Learning Process Where Can it be Used? What Difference Does it Make? The Myths The Stredia Evaluation Tool

Š Smith Beckwith 2008.

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Experiential Learning – what, why and how? Introduction Experiential learning, multisensory learning, integrated learning, accelerated learning, blended learning – call it what you will, this non-traditional method has its detractors as well as its advocates. In a world apparently proliferated with squoosh balls, scented felt pens and samba workshops, it can be difficult to sort the genuinely effective means of training and development from the indifferent and the downright bizarre. The aim of this short article is to outline: • what, as practitioners of outcome-driven experiential learning, we at Smith Beckwith believe constitutes appropriate and effective use of this powerful means of learning, and what, in our view, should be relegated to the bin labelled ‘nonsense’: • how, if properly approached, experiential learning can provide an extremely effective (and currently underutilised) means of training and development on a surprisingly broad range of business and management skills and workplace issues • and why, based on the research of leading academics and educationalists, it actually works, and can make a big difference to your bottom line.

So…what is it, exactly? Partially because it’s quite fashionable at the moment, more training activities than you can shake a stick at suddenly now find themselves branded as ‘experiential’ or ‘integrated’ learning. This can range from the use of toys in a training workshop to building rafts in the wilderness, to using drama techniques, to learning to play the drums. If relevant and properly used, all of these can in fact be a profoundly useful means of disseminating information and teaching business and leadership skills, of ensuring that these are retained by participants, and moreover, are transferred back to the workplace. However, there are certain key criteria for the successful use of experiential methods, without which these methods could justifiably be labelled ‘hype’. We believe that these criteria are: The training MUST be results-driven. When participants ask themselves “Why are we doing this?” there must be a concrete, relevant and definable reason.

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


If the answer is “I don’t know” or “for fun” then it’s not experiential learning – it’s a jolly (which in itself is no bad thing if that was the original intention) or in a worst case scenario, a bit of a waste of time (and money). There MUST be a defined learning outcome. Frequently, participants on ‘experiential’ courses will return to the workplace thinking “what was all that about?!” The aim should always be for the methods – whatever they are – to be the means of achieving the desired learning outcome, and not an end in themselves. A statement of the obvious perhaps, but one which can often become obscured by other less business-focussed agendas. Activities MUST be related back to the workplace. It is often very useful to take participants well away from their usual work environment in order to challenge, to focus on behavioural issues, and to prevent minutiae of everyday life from clouding important issues. However, it is vital that whatever takes place during the workshop programme is linked clearly back to the workplace. Participants might make these links themselves – if they are looking at the orchestral conductor as one model of leadership, for example, some of these will be obvious. Subtleties, though, might be missed, and it is important that these are highlighted by the facilitators in order to draw maximum benefit from the learning experience. In a nutshell, experiential learning methods should never be an end in themselves. They must always be answerable to the same strict business criteria as the more traditional didactic methods which they seek to replace or augment.

How and Why Does it Work? Few would dispute the following observations: a)”We learn by what we see, hear, touch, smell, taste and do” (Gordon Dryden, author of ‘The Learning Revolution’) b) “The brain can keep learning from birth until death” (Prof Marian Diamond, author of ‘Magic Trees of the Mind’) One might even go so far as to say that, whilst accredited to senior academics, they are rather more statements of the obvious than groundbreaking revelations. That said, these are two observations which are frequently overlooked in traditional training, where the primary focus tends to be on the use of sight and hearing to impart information: a facilitator goes through the information, the participants look at a PowerPoint presentation or some such, they take home a manual, and there might be a few pictures along the way. This is especially true

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


of traditionally dry areas like finance or legislation, where the learning is very fact based.

Learning Preferences

…experiential learning works with the brain, not against it… Research carried out by Specific Diagnostic Studies in the U.S.A. into the learning preferences of a cohort of over VISUAL HAPTIC 5000 students revealed that: • 29% of respondents (blue) were visual learners (who would learn by reading, and benefit from using video, AUDITORY images etc), • 34% (purple) were auditory learners (learning by listening, and would benefit from the use of music and soundscapes) • and 37% (orange) were haptic learners (learning best by movement, activity and ‘doing’) The research also showed that whilst younger people have showed a greater preference for movement and touch as part of the learning process, adults veered towards visual learning. Their research also indicates that most of us learn best by combining and linking together the three learning styles in different ways. Other researchers, such as David Hood, author of ‘Education in Change’ have suggested that only 30% of people learn best in the ‘traditional’ logical, abstract, sequential, theoretical way, with 70% learning by ‘doing’ something. Picture the scene. You have a brand new camera in front of you. You…. • A) turn to page 1 of the instruction manual and start to read through it; • B) immediately start to tinker about with the camera to see if you can figure it out; • C) would prefer to have someone talk you through it. Most people will fall into one of the three camps – visual learners (and arguably logical, sequential thinkers) will prefer the manual, with its diagrams and written instructions; auditory learners would rather listen to someone explain it; haptic learners will just dive on in and learn by trial and error. In addition to the accepted idea of these learning preferences, there are many theories which look at more specific ‘types’ of people. Many corporate favoured models, such as Myers-Briggs, Belbin’s team roles, and so on will tend towards an analysis of personality.

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


A theory to which we frequently refer is that of Multiple Intelligences, put forward by Dr Howard Gardner of Harvard University. He suggests that every individual has a skills set (frequently a combination of them), and these will influence how they learn best. Interestingly, only two of his intelligence types – ‘logical mathematical’, and ‘linguistic’ are likely to succeed within a traditional, didactic training environment. The others – musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily /kinaesthetic and visual/spatial – will learn better with physical activity, music, drama, visual arts, social interaction, movement and so on. Given that most of us (even extremes like maths diva Carol Vorderman or William Shakespeare) possess a combination of these intelligence types, it stands to reason that we could all (regardless of job title or seniority) learn better when a variety of multi-sensory techniques are used. Perhaps more importantly, faced with a cohort of participants on a training programme whose learning preferences we do not know, it makes sense to involve as many techniques as possible in order to cover all bases to ensure that they all genuinely learn something, take it away with them and are inclined to apply it when they return to work. So, if you are a logical, mathematical thinking accountant and you are tasked with devising a ‘finance for non finance managers’ course, you can bet your bottom dollar that not everyone will approach the subject matter in the same learning or thinking style as you. In order to make it a) interesting to the layman b) ‘stick’ and c) motivate participants to use what they learn, you will HAVE to use multisensory means. Simply using traditional delivery methods (which, lets face it, are usually perceived as boring and difficult by the very audience you are seeking to teach) will not be enough if you want the training to genuinely make a difference. …but there’s more…… We mentioned earlier Gordon Dryden’s observation that ”We learn by what we see, hear, touch, smell, taste and do”. To this sensory list Dr Janette Vos, his co-author, adds ”feel, imagine and intuit”. Do we indeed learn by what we feel or imagine or intuit? Yes, we do.

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


Many people will attest to having had a ‘hunch’ about someone or something. Great inventors have devised new products which began in their imaginations. Moments of acute embarrassment will prompt the thought “I won’t do that again!”, and future avoidance of the root cause. One might go so far as to say that we are likely to learn by these three first, on the premise that human nature dictates that people will always react to something emotionally before they react to it logically. (For example, if someone offers you constructive criticism, however reasonable an individual you are, there will be a brief moment of indignation at the perceived ‘attack’ before any logical acceptance that they might indeed have a point.) A key question here is to how - and indeed why - on earth this might be remotely useful or appropriate in a corporate training and development context. Let’s suppose that our area for training is Health and Safety Compliance. Often, training in this area involves the imparting of information, with a focus on the requirements of the law and the possible penalties for non compliance. This message would be more effectively put across by using drama to demonstrate the possible personal implications of non compliance – not just at a corporate, but at an individual, personal level. If we can identify with a character in a film or play and be moved by the story, (and we all can), then we can use the same techniques to motivate people to comply with legislation on a more subconscious level. Furthermore, we can use drama techniques to take the participants on a journey which will further relate the non-compliance scenario directly with themselves. Because this is done in a non-didactic way, guiding participants to pre-set conclusions rather than telling them outright what they are expected to do, the learning takes deeper hold in that it appears, to participants, to come from within. With skilled facilitation, they make the connections in their own minds, and these are stronger connections for that. Creating the Learning Environment This leads us on to how experiential learning methods work on a subconscious level more generally. For any training programme - be it about developing leadership skills, dealing with discipline and grievance procedures, or on business law - a key question for the experiential learning practitioner is, based on Dr Vos’s observations above, ‘How do we want them to feel?’

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


There will, of course, be information that we wish to impart. However, in isolation, this is unlikely to ‘stick’ and be implemented as effectively. If we are looking at a Finance for Non Finance Managers course, for example, we will want them to be interested in the subject matter (which in many cases may be far from the case), feel confident with their new found knowledge, and motivated and able to transfer their learning back to the workplace. It is not enough for them to leave the programme simply knowing roughly what they ought to do, even if this does ‘tick the box’. If we are considering Health and Safety legislation, our primary concern is likely to be that people - who may be well aware of the requirements of the law – will actually comply consistently with the legislation. We will need to motivate them to do so, and to engender a sense of pride in their safety record. This is unlikely to happen using traditional training means. Leadership training, in our experience, is likely to involve the development of confidence and self awareness as well as new skills. Again, demonstrating these with interactive drama techniques and allowing participants to ‘practice’ in a fictional environment is likely to have more lasting impact than studying a set of principles in a more abstract fashion. EVERYTHING that happens in the training programme must then be geared towards answering the question “how do we want them to feel?” in pursuance of the desired learning outcome. The choice of music, the activities we undertake (activities to cement the learning, rather than just go through any principles or information) the visuals and metaphors, the motivational strategies to ensure application of the learning and so on must all become part of the learning. The learning environment, then, should be carefully constructed, and not be a random collection of CD soundtracks and corporate images, or a ‘send in the clowns’ approach to drama as a cursory, light-relief add-on to traditional methods. A haphazard approach will at best do nothing to enhance the learning, and at worst, can undermine it. A note about the use of music Research over the years has shown the significant subconscious impact that music can have on learning. Georgi Lozanov in the 1950s pioneered accelerated language learning using a series of ‘concerts’ to accompany the absorbing of information, with a different ‘concert’ for recall of the learned information. Independent research on Lozanov’s methods showed students learning 400 new foreign words per day, and using them in conversation within 3 days. The Tomatis Method (recently researched by Mary Troupe with a cohort of participants in Bridgeton, Glasgow) uses listening to music (specific pieces by

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


Mozart) and music making to improve the concentration and social skills of young people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Much work has been done elsewhere on the impact of Mozart’s music, in particular on brain waves. Many sportspeople will have ‘their song’ - one which inspires them to success, Dame Kelly Holmes tells of hearing ‘her song’ Tina Turner’s ‘Simply The Best’ en route to the stadium prior to winning her historic Olympic victories, and of the positive psychological impact it had on her. Music, therefore, operates on a subconscious level to relax, inspire, or elicit specific feelings. Its appropriate use is currently both undervalued and underused in a training and development context. The Learning Process Dr Jeannette Vos suggests that “The more you link the more you learn”. Many pieces of research point to the brain’s extraordinary ability to link apparently random thoughts and information to form a pattern. Memory champions who learn long lists of digits by heart do so by linking the information to be remembered with other images and thoughts, so that a list of digits might become a journey, for example. Remember the details of the journey, and they’ll remember the list of numbers. Experiential learning capitalises on this aspect of brain function. Rather than adopt a logical, sequential method of instruction (from which David Hood’s research indicates only 30% of learners will benefit) experiential learning will frequently present a variety of learning experiences and allow the brain to form meaningful links before facilitators draw them together at the close of the session to cement the learning outcome. As such, workshops and programmes are likely to appear to be of a looser structure than traditional linear training sessions. However, whilst occasionally appearing random, skilled facilitators are leading participants down a predetermined path towards the learning outcome……. Think of a number between 1 and 10. Multiply it by nine. You’ll probably have a 2 digit number now. Add those two digits together (for example, if it was 18, then 1+ 8 = 9)

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


Subtract 5 from the number you now have. Now make the number you have correspond to a letter of the alphabet, so if it’s 1 it’ll be A, 2 = B, 3 = C and so on. Think of a European country beginning with that letter. Taking the second letter of that country’s name, think of a large animal. Look at the final page of this article. So, whilst presenting you with apparent choices, we were in fact directing you towards a choice that had already been set (like a learning outcome). Alternative answers may have been derived, but the pre-determined answers are by far the most likely, given the outcome of the arithmetic, and cultural preferences that UK participants will have, and other factors considered. (If you’re from outside the UK – you might not have the ‘right’ answer…which is why cross cultural training and development needs to take cultural preferences into consideration, albeit that brains around the world still essentially absorb information in the same ways.)

Where can experiential learning be used? Experiential learning can be used in almost any area, except perhaps technical areas where hands-on experience is essential. Even here, it can be used to augment the usual methods of delivery. Some examples (and this list is far from exhaustive – new ideas are always in development) that Smith Beckwith have used and are developing include: Using business games and music for ‘Finance for Non Finance Managers’ courses Music helps embed the principles and facts in the memory, whilst the game enables practice of those principles in a risk free, fictional environment, facilitating a greater understanding and a confidence in participants to use the principles in ‘real life’. Using drama techniques for Health and Safety training As outlined already, using dramatic storytelling to motivate staff to comply with current legislation, and using experiential techniques to put across the fact based information.

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


Using interactive ‘Forum Theatre’ for issues based work Again, drama techniques including Forum Theatre can be used to great effect in exploring potentially difficult issues such as discipline and grievance, diversity, dealing with difficult people, and so on. Unlike role play, participants have the opportunity to work through a scenario with professional actors, exploring many possible outcomes and consequences. Using experiential metaphors for teambuilding Forming a percussion orchestra and looking at the orchestra as a team, developing a musical or a film or devising a play provide a means for participants to explore creativity and lateral thinking whilst re-examining their team roles and responsibilities. These are carefully linked back to accepted business theories and models, and practical applications in the workplace. The use of drama to examine leadership Various characters from history and literature are brought dramatically to life as we examine aspects of leadership. This allows participants a detached ‘in the mirror’ view of themselves as leaders by looking at the skills and fatal flaws (again based on accepted leadership theories) of the characters, moving towards greater self awareness and the development of new skills over the course of the programme. In essence, almost any area which involves human interaction or behaviour at any level can benefit from the use of experiential, integrated learning techniques.

What difference will any of this make? If properly undertaken, experiential methods can have a positive impact on staff retention, slowdown of ‘skills fade’ after traditional training, and ultimately, on a company’s bottom line. *Bell Atlantic C&P Telephone Co ran a 4week and 6 week customer rep. training course, and a 12 day technical course, using experiential methods. • They experienced a 42%, 57% and 50% reduction in required training time. • Their drop-out rate reduced by 300% • They saved $700 000 per year in training costs. …compared to their previous, traditional methods of training delivery. *Northeast Medical College 40% of first years failed their anatomy exam. • The course was redesigned using experiential / integrated learning principles… and 100% of pupils passed.

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


*Intel Corporation Participants on one course achieved a knowledge gain of 507% compared with 14% by traditional means. * Source:

National Academy of Integrative Learning, Hilton Head, South Carolina Centre for Accelerated Learning, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

The Myths Hopefully we will have, by now, gone some way towards explaining how and why experiential / accelerated / integrated / blended / multi-sensory learning works, and how it can be applied directly to corporate training and development. Four of the most common misconceptions that we have encountered and will address here are as follows: “It’s too gimmicky to be taken seriously” As we’ve outlined, if there is a predetermined learning outcome and this is successfully met, then the end justifies the method of delivery. That said, improper or flippant use of the methods can indeed be purely gimmick. For example, the use of bendy plasticine men to examine body language, as we have seen done recently, would fall into this category. It would be relevant if we all had expressionless faces, mitten-shaped hands that remained flat, and limbs that bent in all directions, but we don’t. The use of these props does not contribute to genuine learning about body language or its importance in communication, and would therefore be (in our view) a pointless gimmick, in this instance at least. “It’s OK for the lower levels in our company, but not for the senior execs” As far as we know, there is no medical evidence to suggest that (barring a disability) the brain ever stops absorbing information via the five senses. There is therefore no reason to suppose that elevation up the career ladder has any affect on this basic human brain function, and therefore no reason to suppose that senior executives will derive any less benefit from experiential learning methods than anyone else. That said it IS important to take into account, when devising workshops and training programmes, the culture of the organisation and the preferences of the participants themselves. The learning methods for one cohort of participants on a given subject area might not be appropriate for all.

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


“It’s a passing fad” Advocates of traditional, didactic or linear training often express this view. It is our view, however that the use of these methods, far from being an aberrant departure from ‘proper’ training, is in fact a ‘coming home’ – a recognition of the way in which the brain works, and a practical step towards utilising human brain function more fully to genuinely bring about lasting learning in the workplace. With this in mind, unless the brain suddenly (and inexplicably) starts absorbing information in some hitherto undiscovered way, or reverts to simply using sight and hearing, this is not a fad, but a trend which is set to grow. And in our view, rightly so. “It can’t be evaluated” Actually it can. As with all training, as long as an accurate starting point is established, it can be straightforward to measure, especially in areas like finance or law where measurement is easily quantified (greater savings, for example, or fewer accidents at work). A substantial amount of qualitative and anecdotal evidence can and has been gathered regarding positive impact of integrated training, although whilst incredibly useful, this can sometimes be difficult to quantify in concrete terms. One extremely effective means, not only of pinpointing where training might be needed but also for effectively evaluating it, is the Stredia software tool, as demonstrated in our recent seminar. What has impressed us about this particular tool is that the clarity with which it reports back on the data collected enables the user to make reasoned judgements about training provision (initially) and its impact (post-intervention) without having to engage in a further lengthy analysis of what the results actually mean, as is often the case. In a department where, for example, a high degree of absenteeism has been noticed, the program might pinpoint that it is the manager who needs leadership and delegation training, rather than the entire department needing to undertake a stress or time management course. The cost saving – to say nothing of the potential impact on morale and employee attitude - could be substantial. So the Stredia programme can help pinpoint the underlying causes, rather than merely identifying the symptoms. More information about the product can be found at www.stredia.co.uk, or by contacting Gerard O’ Hanlon at gerard@stredia.co.uk

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


…And finally….. Here, then, is the rationale behind our own experiential training methods. We all of us learn from experience. We remember experiences. We develop and grow by experiencing new things. And one of us EVER stops learning. www.smithbeckwith.com

And by the way……..

DENMARK

© Smith Beckwith 2008.


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