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Do you have the experiential edge to develop self-reliant learners?

 Do you have the experiential edge to develop self-reliant learners?

What happens to a group of participants in a learning programme once they’ve gone back to their workplace?

Assuming we’re not contracted to engage in structured follow-up this is probably a nagging and persistent question. If the group are in the same organisation as us then it’s relatively easy to find out - perhaps as easy as walking down a corridor or picking up the phone to poll the responses from the participants themselves. From outside of their organisation things are made much easier if we have a convenient point of contact, somebody in L+D or a line-manager perhaps, as calling multiple participants may not be welcome. Any of these options may be sufficient to offer you some feedback on the efficacy of your programme, though the feedback may be far from scientific, and I’d be sceptical about making major changes to your approach based solely upon this alone.

No, I think we have to accept that when the participants leave the learning space we probably have very little control over the environment within which we expect them to exercise their new learnings. So do we accept that situation and simply hope we’re delivering transferable programming? My advice would always be that we need to build, as far as possible, self-reliant learners who have the tools and motivation to influence the post-programme environment in a way that allows them to exercise their new learning. It’s this approach that has made me a strong advocate for experiential approaches. Here are just three of the reasons why I believe that programmes designed along principles set down in experiential theory are far more likely to support effective learning transfer. 

  1. Structured repetition within the programme helps develop new patterns of behaviour beyond it.
  2. Most RSVP Design experiential learning tools, whether they are designed for face-to-face, remote or hybrid delivery, have a strong element of repetition. This is deliberate, we recognise that we are in the business of changing behaviour and we don’t underestimate the difficulty of this mission. By creating rehearsal spaces that immerse and engage learners in challenging tasks we are structuring learning environments that ask learners to unlearn inefficient approaches and replace them with newer, more effective approaches. We then analyse these transitions via well-crafted debrief questions in order to familiarise participants with what they need to do to see these changes happen in their post-programme lives.

  3. Participants in experiential learning environments have greater control over their learning.
  4. A fundamental feature of experiential approaches is that we allow learners a far greater scope in what they learn as compared to ‘taught’ approaches. In doing this we, as facilitators, lose some control over the learning environment, the payback being that the participants get a far more authentic learning experience. They learn to express their needs for leadership, control, information flow, structure etc etc, and this is exactly what they need to do to support their own learning transfer beyond the programme. If they recognise that they can be (and need to be) instrumental in creating the post-programme environment that best supports their progress then they are far more likely to be self-reliant in assuring their own advancement.

  5. Experiential learning environments are far more likely to identify individual learning preferences and needs. 
  6. If you asked a group of learners to write down, in advance of a programme, what their individual learning preferences and needs were, would you expect them to find this easy? Would you expect the results to be detailed and accurate?

    For the majority of facilitators that I know the answer to these questions would be negative, largely because our formal educational systems do not give any emphasis to exploring individual metacognition. So if we as facilitators recognise the value of individuals knowing how they learn, how do we expect them to acquire this knowledge and insight? My answer would be to expose the learners to experiential learning tools and then dedicate at least part of the debrief questioning to revealing what made each individual effective in learning their way through the exercise. Once we’ve built up and reinforced this awareness then the programme can develop ways for each individual to envisage how they might specifically deploy this new learning in the post-programme world - here I’m aiming for statements like 

    “When I encounter this situation at work I’m going to avoid the negative result I’ve experienced up until now, by trying to do this rather than that.”

    I can’t go back to work with them, nor see the world entirely through their eyes, but what I can do is to do my best to prepare them for the challenges they perceive that world to hold.

In summary of what is a necessarily limited list of requirements to structure effective and engaging experiential learning environments, what I’m looking for in terms of the tools I choose as a spine for the programme would be:

  • Offering a platform of structured repetition
  • Offering a high degree of learner-control
  • Offering participants opportunities to explore how they learn

My advice about some tools that are my go-to’s in confidently meeting these requirements are:

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