Many of us will have encountered the Chinese proverb:
You hear, you forget;
You see, you remember;
You do, you understand.
How true is this for people in general? Does it only apply to a certain type of person or is it more universal in its applicability? Surely some people learn better from hearing things or from seeing things than being active – we are all different after all.
In fact if you look at the work of David Kolb, in the early 1980s, it is clear that whilst individuals have different learning styles, there is also a cycle of experiential learning that applies to us all. We are now seeing these ideas being put into practice as we began to adopt problem-based learning and recognise the need for life-long learning.
How We Learn
Using ideas from John Dewey, the ‘father’ of experiential education (1938) his book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development’ looks at the question ‘What is learning?’ which he addresses on a psychological, philosophical, and sociological level. Essentially, Kolb shows how learning is a dynamic process, that never ceases during one’s life.
He set out a four stage learning cycle in which immediate or concrete experiences (feeling) provide a basis for observations and reflections (watching). These are then assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts (thinking) which can be actively tested (doing) in turn creating new experiences. From this cycle, he then identified four different learning styles, each of which combines two of the stages of the cycle. Each of us naturally prefer a certain single different learning style which is a product of two things: how we approach a task (the processing continuum) and what our emotional response to it is (the perception continuum).
The idea of learning style that Kolb proposed is also supported by the ideas of other such researchers like Honey and Mumford around the same time, who talked about learning styles in terms of Activists, Reflectors, Theorists, and Pragmatists, again pointing out that people, whilst people will all have a preferred style they will tend to learn at different times in all the different ways
This research into learning styles is then allied to the ideas of Accelerated Learning that deal with learning being more than just a cognitive brain thing but a whole body experience, using all the senses and the full breadth and depth of personality. The idea is that when the way you are taught closely matches the way you like to learn, results improve significantly and the time you take to learn is reduced, hence accelerated learning.
These concepts have been recognised in mainstream education for a number of years with teachers aiming to cater for each of the three groups; visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners.
So, some people specifically learn better from doing things. However, people with a different preference for learning styles can also learn from doing, if the whole of Kolb’s learning cycle is included. The big plus, seems to be in terms of recall. After three months, it is reckoned that people who were only told things, can recall 10% of the learning, people who were told and shown can remember 30+%, but people who were told, shown and experienced it for themselves can still recall two-thirds of what they learnt.
This implies that for everyone, learning by experiencing is an important way to do it. For the people for whom activity is not necessary their preferred learning style, there needs to be some means of completing the circle and this is where the experience maybe needs to be front-loaded and then definitely reviewed.
Learning Through Experiences
The Royal Yachting Association talks about Brief-Task-Debrief in terms of their coaching scheme – every task needs to be explained and then assessed and reviewed afterwards. The British Canoe Union go a step further when they teach coaches to use the concept of IDEAS as a framework for their teaching; Introduce the idea or skill, Demonstrate it (visual learning), Explain it (auditory learning), Activity (kinaesthetic learning) and then Summarise (reviewing to cement the memories and thus the learning).
These processes work well for the acquisition of hard skills like sailing and canoeing, but is that all that experiential learning is good for? This can really all hinge on the review. In some cases, this will merely be a review of how well we achieved our goal of learning a particular paddle stroke or sailing manoeuvre. There is however to take this further and delve into how the participants felt. This can then lead on to further learning about the participants themselves, how they learn, how they feel in different situations, what are their inner strengths and so on. This then is the link to all manner of other things, rather than simply the activity being carried out.
Activity without reflection is deemed by many to be useless. Certainly in terms of the learning involved I would say that it is of only limited value. If all you want is an ‘experience’ then the standalone activity is fine. This brings us back to the idea of a ‘yeehaa’ fun time, which can be great for bringing people together through a shared experience and developing stronger bonds of friendship and support. The addition of reviewing does not take away from this though, it supplements it with extra learning.
Experiences We Can Learn From
So where do these experiences take place and what must they involve? The simple answer to that could be anywhere and anything. People who talk to me are often under the misconception that experiential learning must take place outdoors, but that is maybe simply because they know me as an outdoor trainer. I am at pains to stress though that we can experience wherever we are at any given time and that learning can take place from anything that we do. I believe that anything from card games played at the table, or such low-level classic exercises as a spider’s web through to an experience climbing a high ropes course or even the Eiger can all provide useful learning points if we are willing to work our way through the reviewing process for them.
It’s not essential to be cold or wet, whatever your instructors told you in the past! Nor is it necessary to be scared witless. In fact I would argue that whilst these extremes can provide very powerful experiences and therefore learning, they are often prone to being riddled with negative memories which is an obstacle to sustainable learning. We seek to forget the horror of it all, blot it from our memories, and therefore the learning disappears with it. To learn that I can do really hard things is great but if I know that it completely terrified me jumping for the trapeze, then it is harder for me to make the connection to doing really hard things at my workplace, because I know that I hated it the first time round.
If however, I have a collection of positive memories of working with my colleagues on tasks that, whether successful or not, were good fun, I am more likely to remember the lessons. I will have a picture in my head of when it went wrong at one point because we didn’t listen, and another picture of the successful tasks where we respected each other and communicated well. The team realisation that we need to communicate better and have more respect is one I can latch on to and want to repeat back at work.
These experiential elements can therefore be included in any quantity into any training course, lesson or seminar. Twenty minutes spent playing a game that reinforces lessons learnt is usually better received than an extra twenty minutes of being talked at, but more importantly, it is better retained. Time spent understanding by doing is always better than struggling to get your head round a theoretical concept. Learning by exploring a topic for yourself and then getting your specific questions is better than a subject-matter expert telling you what they think you need to know.
All of these concepts involve an experience of some sort. Some of the experiences will map very closely to the work environment and will require little or no effort on the part of the trainer for the learning to be transferable. Some games are more remote and will need careful reviewing to draw out the appropriate lessons. This is the differentiation between a trainer who can give you a fun activity time and one who can really help you learn sustainable lessons that you can retain as you go back to work.
Limits to Learning by Experience
What are the limits of what can be learnt by experience? Well, nothing really, although some topics lend themselves more to the idea than others. For example as mentioned above, practical skills like sailing are obviously best learnt by doing. However, even the theoretical aspects can be learnt through games and exercises rather than being spoken at all the time. And if there is some theoretical input required, there are also manner of interactive lecture techniques that can be used to involve people in their own learning experience. Lessons about yourself and your potential, is certainly a classic area for experiential learning, since it is something for which you are the sole subject-matter expert- other people maybe have insights but only you really are capable of knowing yourself, although we all have blind spots that need to be removed. It is rare though to have friends who can not only tell us where our blind spots are, but do it in a way that we are wiling to listen. How much more important is it therefore, to experience it for ourselves where we merely have to remember our experience.
It is also a good way of learning about each other and people interactions can be more easily experienced than explained. For this reason team building is often best when done as actively as possible. The distinction between this concept and team bonding experiences is the quality of the learning since that is the focus. I would always have as a soft aim for my sessions that people enjoy the sessions and that they can have a laugh, but not at the expense of the learning. The fun and camaraderie simply makes it more enjoyable and the shared experiences are then a topic of conversation in themselves. If the dinner table conversation of the participants revolves around what they learnt rather than merely what they did then I feel it is a job well done.
Further to this though, any kind of theoretical material can be taught in an interactive way if enough care is taken with the design of the training. Games, exercises and simulations can all be devised to make people more active as they explore and learn about subjects as diverse as the developmental stages of a team through to the biblical principles of behaviour, from the perceived benefits of a new product to the important aspects of situational leadership.
The limits on what can be learnt are only in the mind of the trainer or the learner, which brings us to one important barrier to learning that is true of any kind of learning system – it only works as well as the learner is willing to let it work. If people do not want to learn then there is no way you can make them. However we can make it more fun for them to learn. We can create situations where lessons are experienced. We can provide situations where people are actively participating and can’t as easily be distracted. We can help people experience for themselves.