October 31, 2019
By Sherrie HaynieTeam development at its best produces lasting behavioral change that, with any luck, results in higher performance metrics, improved communication and better work engagement. Can learning be both fun and productive? In my consulting experience, I've found that the most effective kind of learning is indeed fun — and that's the idea behind an increasingly popular training technique: experiential learning.
While there are probably a number of fancy definitions for experiential learning, at its core it is simply learning by doing and reflecting. When done right, it can help with anything ranging from leadership style and individual and team success to communication and conflict management. To understand how to apply experiential learning, it helps to first take a look at its theoretical roots.
Cycling Through Experiential Learning
In designing or evaluating an experiential learning program, the best place to start is with Kolb's experiential learning cycle. This theoretical model, inspired by the work of Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, was published by educational theorist David A. Kolb in 1984 and designed to shape learning through experience, perception, cognition and behavior. According to this theory, the learner cycles through four distinct phases, each of which cements learning in a different way:
Concrete Experience. Here the learner encounters a new experience or approaches an existing experience in a new way.
Reflective Observation. In the next stage, the learner reflects on the experience, drawing personal observations and conclusions.
Abstract Conceptualization. At this point, the learner forms new ideas, or modifies existing ones, based on the learnings from the previous reflective observation stage.
Active Experimentation. Finally, the learner applies the new ideas to practice and then evaluates them to see if modifications are required.
The final active experimentation phase then becomes the concrete experience — or first stage — for the next cycle, and it starts all over again. By circulating through the cycle, a person traverses a highly effective pattern of learning reinforcement that quickly translates into new behaviors and skills.
Facing Reality More Effectively By Escaping It
This cycle can be laid out in any number of ways, so there are naturally quite a few techniques for implementing experiential learning, such as role playing, where people act out different roles to address specific learning aims, or simulations, which give them the chance to further stretch into new roles.
Perhaps the most involved and immersive of these, however, is the "escape room," where teams are put into a situation where they're challenged with working together to orchestrate a simulated escape from a pretend trap. The scenarios can get pretty creative and colorful, and participants may find themselves playing the part of spies, pirates, astronauts or even the master detective himself, Sherlock Holmes.
In a double entendre, this also offers an "escape" from daily routine and consequently can be extremely fun — so much so that some people pay significant fees to participate in them for pure entertainment value. However, this same propensity for fun also makes escape rooms powerful tools for learning and cementing new skills and therefore great team-building exercises.
Four Steps To Tapping Value From Experiential Learning
Regardless of whether you undertake a fully immersive experience, like an escape room, or something slightly less involved, like role playing, there are a few critical elements that the program must address in order to translate into better performance:
Behavior. Interplay during the activities must shed light on how people naturally tend to approach tasks, communicate and make decisions at work. Escape rooms naturally tend to do this, because the act of solving a challenge often brings the same skills to bear that people leverage in their professions.
Evaluation. At some point shortly after the activity, participants need to have a debrief that explores the observations. This is a critical step because it helps participants develop more self-awareness. (Registration required. Full disclosure: This article was written by a colleague.) Self-awareness is indispensable to shaping new behaviors.
A Safe Space For Reflection. Safe spaces can get a bad rap these days, but in this case, we're not talking about protecting college students from anything that might possibly offend their sensibilities. Rather, we're referring to an environment where people can reflect fully on the experiential task and consider the implications of alternative approaches. In some cases, this involves some pretty serious self-critiquing, and this can only happen in an environment where people feel safe enough to openly and honestly evaluate their own performance.
Putting It Into Practice. There must be a systematized way to translate insights into personalized development plans. This can take any number of forms, but in the end, learning must be actionable to be effective.
The bottom line is that effective experiential learning, leveraged as a training technique, makes you aware of not just how you behave but why you act that way by allowing you to face your own behaviors in highly memorable and, dare I say, fun ways. When it's combined with proper analysis and a plan for putting into practice, that learning tends to stick, and participants develop new, highly desirable skills.