Turning Concepts into Experiential Training

Albert Einstein
Physicist and mentor, Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Adults with minimal formal education are often reluctant to rely on written material as a way of gaining knowledge. Many adults with considerable formal education will describe the struggles they had using what they read as a basis for their learning. No matter how well a training binder is prepared, nor how important the information contained in the binder might be, persons who have aversions to such prepared formats will be unable to benefit from such best intentions.

A recent workshop I led provided support to this viewpoint. Considerable emphasis had been placed on preparing materials for the participants in a training workshop. A nifty binder was devised, and simple, straightforward, easy-to-read materials were created for the content. Each participant received the binder several days prior to the workshop.

At the workshop, only a handful of those gathered said they had examined the binder ahead of time. During the workshop, almost no one voluntarily or spontaneously opened the binder to use as a learning aid.

Faced with limited time, trainers will often opt to cram a lot of facts into a short time period, relying on a lecture, handouts, and presentation as the most efficient way to help participants learn the material. Participants might be dazzled by an entertaining and humorous talk. Or they might be awed by an intelligent lecture. But have they actually learned something they can use directly to improve their own work and goals? What seemed like an efficient method of organizing information actually turns out to be an ineffective way to ensure learning.

One reason trainers rely on lectures is that they may not have the experience to trust in group process. That is, the leader may not know how to assist a group to learn what it needs and to act on those needs. They may not be willing to give the group the opportunity to veer in its path towards fulfilling its learning needs. And if the group falters or goes off track, most trainers do not know how to help the group restore the agenda.

Some trainers make a mistake in the opposite direction. They do not see themselves as part of the learning group, and they fail to make contributions to the group. Instead they “bite their tongues” and do not want to interfere with group process. This hands-off attitude typically is experienced by group members as confusing and frustrating and usually polarizes the group with many group members tuning out.

Virtually any concept can be turned into an experiential learning activity. Start with learning goals. If your goals include terms like “increase awareness” or “create understanding” that’s a good start, but it may not be enough. Go a step further and ask yourself: “what should participants be able to DO (differently…) as a result of this learning event. Thinking differently could be an important change, but may not be the practical action you had in mind. Moving from one level of awareness to a different degree of awareness may be an important change, but still may not lead to the results you wanted.

Suppose the concept you want participants to learn is something like: personal support is more likely to bring about change than perceived threat. Your starting learning goal might be: participants will understand the typical impact of support and threat on change. But what ought the participants be able to DO with this understanding? One possible action learning goal might be: use at least 3 ways to reduce threat.

Here’s how Grey Owl, one of the authors of Peer Resources’ experiential learning cycle, would structure a learning activity to achieve the action learning goal. First he would ask the group participants to recall a time in their lives when they made a significant change. Then he would have the participants pair with each other and briefly share their change stories. Next he would ask the group members to brainstorm the factors that helped and hindered their change. Using a flip chart, a list of the factors would be produced. If certain factors do not appear on the lists, Grey Owl would ask the participants: what role… (the missing factors)…played in their change experience. He might also ask the participants to state what specific things their group partner did that helped or hindered them sharing their story of change. Depending on their comments, additional factors would be added to complete the list.

Grey Owl would then ask the participants to examine the two lists and determine whether any general themes or principles could be derived. One way this can be done is to ask the participants: “When you look at this particular list, what meaning does it have for you?” When the various meanings are shared, common themes are underscored and exceptions are noted.

Focusing on the action phase of the experiential learning model, Grey Owl would ask the participants to consider the themes and meaning identified and describe three specific actions they might individually take to help someone make a change. As a validation, participants would be asked to determine the degree of fit between the three actions they have selected and their charted list of factors that helped and hindered their own changes.

(Contact the author for additional articles about Peer Resources’ Experiential Learning Model.)

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