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I learn better this way: Why experiential learning may work for you

It was only recently that I began to appreciate the enormous potential of experiential learning. Two weeks ago I went on a week long course that was taught via experiential learning. It was all about role-playing, completing complex tasks with and without adequate communication, and using what we learnt to reflect and then teach others.

I’ve been writing in a journal for over three weeks now; an assessment piece that is required as part of my course curriculum. No powerpoint slides, no instructional videos, no one theory imposed directly on the group. Just freedom to explore and reflect on the experience.

This lack of structure, rules, timeframes and measurability goes against every management principle we believe necessary to run a business. Working in a paperless office environment, I haven’t needed to pick up a pen in years. To confess, I actually prefer it that way. However writing in a journal in order to truly reflect on specific experiences within controlled environments has been enlightening.

The theory of experiential learning has its roots in behavioural research undertaken by Piaget, Dewey and Lewin. Experience plays a big part in the learning process, and as outlined by these theorists, should not aim to replace behavioural and cognitive approaches, but provide a more holistic, integrative perspective. According to Piaget, experiential learning provides the opportunity for adults to “learn through discovery”. The emphasis is on the learning process itself and not necessarily the outcomes of the behaviour produced. Ideas are elements of thought that are re-formed each time a new experience is encountered – more like an evolutionary concept.

Whether it’s training a new staff member in a work process that requires a more hands-on approach, or allowing a group of colleagues from different departments to gain a quick cultural experience, experiential learning is a great way to encourage learning within the workplace. Trades offer experiential learning on worksites. Internships are placement opportunities for new graduates or those almost ready to complete their studies and enter the workforce. Our top medical doctors have a large component of their curriculum steeped in experiential learning in order to help train them for high-pressure situations. 

Advances in technology are now making experiential learning in the workplace even easier, with tools such as internal Wikis, blogs, videos and social networking tools allowing employees to contribute, share and build a collective knowledge base.

Just recently, a California-based company called STRIVR Labs, who train NFL and college football players using virtual reality, announced it will expand into new markets. STRIVR is used by more than 25 professional organisations and college teams (football, basketball and hockey) for off-field training and preparation. For businesses, this kind of virtual and augmented reality is used to help educate and train in areas such as sales, operations, customer service, safety and human resources.

“Training and assessment are important not only in sports but in every kind of business vertical,” founding partner Zaw Thet says. “VR is here to stay and the pace of innovation in the hardware means it’s easy for any enterprise customer to get on board instantly.”

In the past decade, research has shown that up to 90 percent of workplace learning takes place through informal and non-formal activities, with formal training accounting for only 10 percent of learning. While experiential learning will never replace traditional training altogether, learning and development must continue to expand to meet the pace that modern business demands.