To what extent does the design of a learning environment need to recognise the context within which the learning will be applied?

This great question was asked during a recent RSVP Design train the trainer programme and it raises some interesting thoughts about the learning design process and the extent to which we can make the learning experiences we offer, and the environment we create, relevant to the learner so that learning is more easily transferred back into the ‘real world’.

Dr Geoff Cox explores this in more detail in his doctoral work and publications on the website ( He refers to the ‘simulated world’ and the ‘concrete world’ to distinguish between the experiences that learners have in a controlled learning environment, and specifically during a structured experiential learning activity, and their application back in the learners’ home, community or workplace.

We know that for adult learners relevance of new learning to their own circumstances, interests and needs, and a belief that the time and energy invested in learning is worthwhile and will bring direct benefits, is vital. It is therefore helpful to focus on relevance as a key design criteria. When we began to design learning activities, one of our success criteria for an activity was that those involved should be able to make immediate connections with their own experiences. We wanted people to say, without the need for a contrived de-brief, “I get it. This is just like when X happens at work….”

We felt this was so important that we wrote it into our company name: the R in RSVP design stands for relevance. So, how do we make sure that we recognise the connections between the learning environment and the context in which new learning will be applied?

When we talk about experiential learning we are actually referring to a process that enables learners to make sense of, and draw valuable learning from, any experience they have, whether accidental or planned.  However, when we think about applying experiential learning methodology in the context of a training or development programme, we tend to focus on an activity, or range of activities, selected to achieve specific learning goals. We aim to narrow the learners’ focus, so that the learning they identify is related to specific and relevant learning objectives. We can think of these activities in two ways:

1) As a means of raising awareness and sensitising learners to existing patterns of individual or group behaviour

2) As a rehearsal ground for experimenting with, and refining, new behaviours, systems or processes that they have identified as being valuable in their ‘concrete’ world. The rehearsal ground allows experimentation, risk, failure, testing and innovation and offers safety while new patterns are refined and grooved.

It is in the second of these, when we use activities to reinforce desired changes, that the need to parallel the learning environment and the learners’ external reality becomes really important.  It may be helpful to think of this by using an example.

The objectives for a learning programme for an existing team may focus on improving teamwork and team performance. In order to achieve this, we need to establish current performance and then explore changes that can be implemented to improve effectiveness – the two stages highlighted above. In the first stage, almost any activity would serve the purpose: set a group of people a task and stand back and observe what happens. However, by creating an activity that reflects the team’s existing patterns, we can see more clearly how they operate. We might begin by asking some specific questions about the nature of their teamwork. For example:

  • Is this a stable team, comprising permanent members, or are there frequent changes of personnel according to the needs of a project?
  • Do team members work remotely or in close proximity?
  • Is their communication open or restricted?
  • Is there an established formal or informal hierarchy in the team and what impact does this have on decision making?
  • Do team members report to one ‘boss’ or are they involved in a more complex matrix?

If we know the answers to these questions we can set up an unfamiliar activity but one that reflects their reality eg. an activity in which there are constant changes, conflicting demands on their time and formal and slow processes for communication upwards to managers. In this way, we can see the existing patterns that exist in the team and begin to highlight the problems or challenges that they face.

When we move forward and think about applying the learning, the design of our learning environment offers us a chance to build in things that we know are likely to challenge the team as they attempt to improve their performance. For example, for a project team we anticipate a period of time when they will be working with a high degree of uncertainty. We can therefore build ambiguity or uncertainty into our activity design to help them to rehearse strategies for dealing with it. If they will be under serious time pressure, we can simulate that and allow them to identify ways of becoming more effective time managers.

Some of our most successful client interventions have been in situations when the use of a behavioural simulation has allowed genuine experimentation and rehearsal for a real life organisational project. By using the activity to illustrate problems and challenges, as well as effective leadership or teamwork, then moving into a planning process in which new strategies are developed and tested, we can help to bridge that most difficult link –  the transfer of learning from a structured learning environment to the ‘concrete’ world. To find out more about one of our more sophisticated behavioural simulations designed specifically to achieve this – CLICK HERE .

For more information about RSVP Design activities and simulations, contact [email protected]