Over the past year we have been publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. We continue with the first part of chapter 10:
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 needed to meet the requirements of current and future job roles. Even when we put in place facilities and resources to support just-in-time learning-on-demand, 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 and react to 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 learned how to learn.
The natural way to learn
Experiential learning is the natural way to learn. According to Charles Jennings, “70% of adult organisational learning takes place on the job. This learning is gained through experiences that develop, through facing challenges, through solving problems, through special assignments and through other activities that an employee carries out on a day-to-day basis.”
We are hard-wired for experiential learning, as John Medina explains: “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, 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. Here’s what came back. The figures show those who found the activity ‘very or quite helpful’, with those who found the activity ‘of some help’ shown in parentheses:
- Doing your job on a regular basis 82% (13%)
- Being shown by others how to do certain activities or tasks 62% (23%)
- Watching and listening to others while they carry out their work 56% (26%)
- Training courses paid for by your employer or yourself 54% (20%)
- Reflecting on your performance 53% (30%)
- Drawing on the skills you picked up while studying for a qualification 45% (21%)
- Using skills and abilities acquired outside of work 42% (29%)
- Reading books, manuals and work-related magazines 39% (24%)
- Using trial and error on the job 38% (27%)
- Using the internet 29% (18%)
Unfortunately these options are rather ambiguous and overlapping, but it is safe to say that numbers 1, 3, 5 and 9 are all aspects of experiential learning.
The Point-of-Need: where effective learning really matters by Charles Jennings, article in Advance series from Saffron Interactive, 2008
Brain Rules by John Medina, Pear Press, 2008
Practice Makes Perfect from NIACE, 2007, www.niace.org.uk
Coming next: The argument for experiential learning
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