If you ask non-specialists about their understanding of experiential learning, many will reply that it is ‘learning by doing’.
Whilst there is an element of truth in this, it does not go far enough.We only learn from experience if we take time to reflect upon the things that happen to us; thoughtfully considering not only the experience itself, but our reactions to it, other people’s responses, the results achieved, the impact on the environment around us, and so on. Only with this careful reflection are we likely to be able to ‘make meaning’, drawing conclusions that are relevant, useful, and applicable in future action and decision making.
Part of the responsibility of any leader, manager, or facilitator of learning, is to encourage structured observation and reflection. Allowing time and space for people to process experience and make sense of it, so that real learning can take place. Neuroscience is confirming for us what we instinctively know: that we require ‘space’ to assimilate new input, and integrate it into our existing mental maps.
So, how can we make sure that we build more opportunities for reflection into our learning design? Here are 8 ideas to consider when setting up a face-to-face workshop or training programme.
1) Take some of your focus off the activity
Many of us are guilty of trying to pack too much content into our learning programmes. Reduce the number of activities and the speed with which you ask people to move between them. Select appropriate and relevant activities that add real value to the achievement of learning objectives and create space in your programme to do them justice.
2) Debrief the activity fully & in depth
Ensure that you allow a significant amount of time to debrief activities fully and in some depth. As a rule of thumb, allocate at least as much time to review as to do the activity (i.e. if an activity takes 40 minutes, allow 40 minutes to debrief). Examples of a variety of accessible team tasks, with extended notes about potential debriefing questions and opportunities for in-depth group reflection are included in one of RSVP Design’s new team building activities, Bluekit.
3) Personal reflection
Allow opportunities for some personal reflection (individually or in pairs) before moving into a larger group, plenary debriefing session. Simply ask learners to notice what happened, recall their feelings and reactions, and think about their choice of behaviour during the experience. Support this with coaching questions if necessary. Only move on to wider discussion once learners have had some time to recreate the experience in their own minds.
4) Recognise the value of ‘solo’ work
Set up opportunities for learners to take some undisturbed time for themselves. Encourage them to switch off their communication devices, find a quiet (ideally outdoor) space and focus on their internal world of thoughts and feelings. This process could be supported by an activity to focus and maintain their attention on their immediate experience. For example our new mindfulness activity, Mindfulness Unravelled, uses intricate colouring in to reflect, relax, and recharge.
5) Encourage silence & reflection
In discussion groups, recognise the time it takes for learners to formulate ideas and thoughts. It can be valuable to ask a group to take a couple of minutes to think, before asking for answers to a question. This has the advantage of preventing people – especially the more impulsive communicators – from ‘diving in’ to the discussion and encourages the more reticent to prepare their responses in advance. Embrace that moment of silence after your question: don’t fear it and fill the gap!
6) Record observations, reflections & ideas
Use resources such as graffiti sheets (large sheets of paper posted around walls) to encourage people to record their observations and reflections throughout a programme. This could include writing down questions that occur to them, ideas that emerge during the activity but are not immediately relevant, or responses to particular incidents that could be forgotten as the activity progresses.
7) Break down long activities into shorter chunks
Ask learners to step away from the task and take a few minutes to reflect on the process they are engaged in. Allow them to express their feelings about what is happening, think about the origins of those feelings and encourage them to consider what they would like to change. They should go back into the activity with a heightened awareness of what has been happening and how they can have an impact on what happens in the future. A perfect example of an exercise that benefits from this ‘staged’ approach is our new Matrix activity. It offers a chance to explore organisational structures, lines of communication, and efficiency in complex networks.
8) Encourage participants to re-live the journey
Build in an extended process of remembering and reflection before the end of any programme. Learners should be encouraged to re-live – perhaps more than once and in different ways – the journey they have been on. Looking back and mentally recreating some of the key incidents and events is vital in reinforcing the learning. Doing this in a way that is visual and memorable is even better. An activity such as Voyage Mapping is a perfect tool for this type of reflection:
Those of you familiar with the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle will know well that the second and third stages of the cycle, reflection and conceptualisation, make the link between experience and application. Missing the reflection stage leads to learners jumping to conclusions which may not be useful or appropriate. Whilst missing the conceptualisation stage may lead to a cycle of unproductive activity, as learners move randomly from one experiment to another with no understanding of the reasons for their actions.
Being aware of the need for time, space, and the chance to make relevant and personal new connections will benefit your learners, and make you a better designer of experiential learning!