Insights: Experiential learning is an important part of the architecture

This post continues my commentary to the Learning Insights 2012 Report produced by Kineo for e.learning age magazine. The sixth of ten ‘insights’ is that ‘Experiential learning is an important part of the architecture’.
As learning and development professionals we are most alert to those opportunities which will help employees to ‘learn to’ carry out some task or fulfil some responsibility. We want to get ahead of the game, to equip employees with the knowledge and skills they need to meet the requirements of current and future job roles. Even when we put in place facilities and resources to support on-demand learning, we still have a forward looking focus, trying to get ahead of the game, even if only at the last minute.
Yet for many people, the greatest insights come not through ‘learning to’ but by ‘learning from’ our day-to-day work activities. Experiential learning is literally learning from our experience. It occurs consciously or unconsciously as we reflect upon our own successes and failures at work as well as those of our acquaintances. It introduces an extremely valuable feedback loop into our everyday work.
Without experiential learning, all we are left with is the ‘doing’. We repeat the same actions over and over again, never improving and constantly at risk to every new threat that appears in our environment. Experiential learning is ‘doing’ plus an essential additional ingredient – reflection. Without reflection, we can have many years of experience and learn less than someone who is a relative newcomer but who has acquired the ability to learn.
Experiential learning occurs whether we want it to or not, but there are good reasons why, as learning professionals, we should be supporting and encouraging it:
  • Because everyday work experience is rich with opportunities for learning.
  • Because we don’t always take the best advantage of these opportunities.
  • Because, if something goes well, we want to repeat it.
  • Because, if something goes wrong, we want to avoid it happening again.

We are hard-wired for experiential learning, as John Medina explains in Brain Rules: “When we came down from the trees to the savannah, we did not say to ourselves, ‘Good lord, give me a book and a lecture so I can spend ten years learning how to survive in this place.’ Our survival did not depend upon exposing ourselves to organised, pre-planned packets of information. Our survival depended upon chaotic, reactive information-gathering experiences. That’s why one of our best attributes is the ability to learn through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas.”
And what’s more, as John notes, this ability does not fade with age: “The adult brain throughout life retains the ability to change its structure and function in response to experiences.”
Employees are well aware of how important experiential learning can be. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) asked 2076 employees in the UK to identify the activities that had been useful in helping them to do their job better. Top of the list, identified by 82% of respondents, was ‘doing your job on a regular basis’.
There are many ways in which an organisation can encourage experiential learning on a top-down basis:
  • benchmarking
  • project reviews
  • action learning
  • job enrichment
  • job rotation
  • performance appraisals
  • a policy of continuous improvement
  • optimising the working environment

Whether or not learning professionals have an active role in these processes depends on their brief, but as true learning architects, they need to have a handle on all the ways that learning occurs in the workplace.

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