[SiH] Feature Article: The Power of Experiential Learning

Success in Harmony

October 2005 – Vol. II, Issue 9

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Feature Article: The Power of Experiential Learning

When I first considered writing about experiential learning, I didn’t realize what I’d be getting myself into when I started my research. Wow… it’s a whole new world. I’ll address a few points that are really only the tip of the iceberg.

Experiential Learning: A Definition

Experiential learning is a process by which an individual experiences something, gains new insights by reflecting on the experience, then applies the expanded learning. Many proponents of experiential learning like to use a quote from 450 BC by Confucius to illustrate its potential power: “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

The term can be used in two different ways: one way describes a formal learning experience that is designed by an instructor and undertaken by students. We might term this “Experiential Education.” The Association for Experiential Education defines experiential education like this: “Experiential education is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values.”

The second way this term could be used is to describe the way most of us learn: we participate in the events of life and achieve learning through reflection upon our everyday experiences. Some of you may recall one of my previous articles, entitled “Learning From Living.” This type of learning requires that we wake up from just going through the motions of life.

Experiential Learning Accelerates the Process of Change

Although I’ve experienced and used experiential learning, my exposure to the term came this summer as I participated in a retreat at Unbridled Performance. Many of the activities and experiences that we undertook as a team involved the process that David Kolb describes in his book Experiential Learning: a concrete experience, followed by reflective observation, then abstract conceptualization (creating a theory from our observation), and finally active experimentation to apply our new learning.

What I noticed is that the participants at the retreat experienced breakthroughs and came to insights much more quickly through experience and reflection upon it than I had seen in a typical training setting. As I reflected on that, I realized that what was happening is that they were experiencing shifts in their paradigms, their views, and their beliefs much more quickly, which enabled real change to occur. Those who opened themselves up to the experience became different people.

What I’ve noticed in my seven years (wow!) of coaching experience is that individuals who simply read or listen to new information don’t change. I’ve seen many self-proclaimed self-help junkies come through The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People coaching program, and they often express frustration at being able to apply what they learn. They can hardly recall all of the things they’ve learned over the years from the many self-help gurus, even though they have read many books, listened to many audio programs, watched many video programs, or even attended seminars. What was missing was the shift in their thinking and then the active experimentation and application of what was taught.

Coaching Facilitates Experiential Learning

As I’ve become more familiar with the process of experiential learning, I’ve noticed a lot of commonalities between it and the process of coaching. At the beginning of each session, we reflect on the previous week… evaluating and celebrating the applied experiences. We then pull out specific insights to discuss and expand upon, and we create specific commitments to apply what was learned to experiences in the coming week. It’s a recurring cycle that really facilitates true learning and accelerates the process of change. So it would seem that coaches are facilitators of experiential learning, creating lasting change in the life of an individual.

The Challenge

Although you may not be able to involve yourself very frequently in formal experiential education, you can begin an informal commitment to your own experiential learning. Focus on experiencing life, reflecting on your experience, and applying your learning to new experiences. Apply the insights you come up with. Test out your theories. Stretch yourself. Consider enlisting the help of a coach to facilitate your experiential learning process. And enjoy your upward spiral of growth.

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