Rethinking Experiential Learning (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
I gained some new perspectives on experiential learning recently. In the last few years, I had growing skepticism on this learning approach. Experiential learning approach has its merits. First, it takes the participants into unfamiliar context, both conceptually (e.g. climbing the wall instead of finishing a powerpoint) and physically (e.g. in the wood instead of meeting room). This can better set them free from the assumptions or automatic responses associated with their familiar contexts e.g. projects in the workplace. They can then more easily try out new behaviours or examine existing ones. Second, the activities are normally engaging or fun in nature. For a learning intervention of a few days, we need variety in the learning experience. There are other benefits which however are not really for learning. For example, the approach can often make the participants feel more like a team e.g. through overcoming some outdoor challenge together. This is particularly useful for intact team.
On the other hand, experiential learning has its downside. First, it is costly and potentially dangerous to run especially the outdoor ones than other learning approaches. More importantly, participants often remember the fun rather than the (intended) learning points. Most facilitators / trainers have experienced the laundry list (e.g. communicate better, take ownership, plan more) produced in the debrief.
To me, the root cause is that the participants will unlikely take the activity seriously. After all, who care whether they can find all the treasures in the hunt, and win the champagne from the CEO? If one does not really put effort in the process, he / she will likely learn less (if any at all)
In short, I would rather get the participants to learn from real life project (e.g. ARL) than experiential learning activity. It is less costly and safer in running the former. And it is more likely that the participants will take the real life project more seriously.
My thoughts changed.