Experiential learning, often though of as learning by doing, can play an important role in any transformation program. In this strategy learners gather knowledge from the combination of doing something, reflecting on what was done and finally generalizing learnings into broader knowledge. The theory holds that knowledge is internalized through concrete engagement more effective and quickly rather through rote learning techniques. The basic steps of experiential learning are:
Experience – The learner is directly involved in experiences that are tied to a real world scenario. The teacher facilitates the experience. Writing your first computer program in a computer lab is an example of a concrete learning experience.
Reflection – The learner reflects on what happened and what they learned during the experience. Reflection typically includes determining what was important about the experience for future experiences. When used in a classroom, the reflection step generally includes sharing reflections and observations with the classmates (a form of a feedback loop). Demonstrating the program you wrote, reviewing the code snippets and sharing lessons learned with the class would be an example of this step.
Generalization – The learner incorporates the experience and what was learned into their broader view of how their job should be performed. The lessons learned from writing the program adds to the base of coding and problem-solving knowledge for the learner.
The flow of work through a team using Scrum can be mapped to experiential learning model. Small slices are of work are accepted into a sprint, the team solves the business problem, reflects on what was learned and then uses what was learned to determine what work will be done next. The process follows the experience, reflection, generalization flow.
There are several versions of the three stage experiential learning model. Conceptually they are all similar, the differences tend to be how the stages are broken down. For example, Northern Illinois University breaks the reflection step into reflection and “what’s important” steps.
There are several pluses and minuses I have observed in applying experiential learning in transformation programs.
- Builds on and connects theory to the real world – Theory is often a dirty word in organizations. Experiential learning allows learners to experience a concept that can then be tied back to higher-level concepts such as theory.
- Experiences can be manufactured – Meaningful real-life examples can be designed to generate or focus on a specific concepts. When I learned to code first assembler computer program in the LSU computer lab, I was assigned a specific project by my TA. This was an example of experiential learning.
- Can be coupled with other learning techniques – Experiential learning techniques can be combined with other learning strategies to meet logistical and cultural needs. For example classic lecture methods can be combined with experiential learning. My assembler class at LSU included lecture (theory) and lab (experiential) features.
- Individuals can apply experiential learning outside of the classroom – Motivated learners often apply the concept of experiential learning to add skills in a non-classroom environment when the skill may not generally applicable to the team or organization. For example, I had an employee learn to write SQL when I got frustrated waiting for the support team to write queries for him. I learned by writing simple queries and debugging the results (he also used the internet for reference).
- Not perfectly scalable – Experiential learning in the classroom or organization tends to require facilitation. Facilitation of large groups either requires multiple facilitators for breaking the group up into smaller groups and extending the time it takes to deliver the training. Without good facilitation experiential learning is less effective (just ask my wife about my skills facilitating her experience learning to drive a stick shift).
- Requires careful design – Experience, if not designed or facilitated well, can lead to learning the wrong lesson or to failures that impact the learner’s motivation.
- Reflection and generalization steps are often overlooked – The steps after experience are occasionally not given the focus needed to draw out concepts that were learned and then allow them to be incorporated the broader process of how work is performed.
Can anyone learn to ride a bicycle from a book or from a lecture? But you can learn to ride a bicycle using experiential learning (the reality is that it might be the only way). Experiential learning lets the learner try to ride the bike, fall and skin their knees, reflect on the how to improve and then try again.