Friday 3 February 2017

Reflection is also an Experience

This is an experience
This is an experience
This is an experience

Wingsuit flying is an experience.
A conversation is an experience.
Meditation is an experience.
Private reflection is an experience.
A reflective conversation with others is an experience.

The nature and quality of an experience is influenced by the physical, social and cultural environment as well as by mood, intentions and expectations. It is also influenced by how active or passive you are within the experience: are you a passive log floating downstream, or are you an active kayaker paddling upstream and making your own route through the turbulent water? 

This brief meditation on "experience" readily leads to some serious questions about how experiential learning theory is understood and applied in practice.

"Experiential Learning" is generally chosen because it is more engaging, immersive, holistic, inclusive and dynamic compared to other (more passive) ways of learning. But in practice, it often happens that the reflective part of the process (in the review or debrief) is anything but engaging, immersive, holistic, inclusive and dynamic.

It is as if once we start thinking about experiences we need to shut down all other systems, or at least put them on standby or hibernation. I disagree...

Engaged? If we are not engaged, our thinking suffers.

Immersed? If we are not immersed, our thinking suffers.

Holistic? If we switch off our emotions, put creative thinking to one side, restrict visual communication, keep our hands and bodies still, and rely on analytical thinking - it is not only the quality of experience that suffers, it is also the quality of thinking that suffers.

Inclusive? If we just listen to others talking with each other, they might be learning from experience, but we are probably not.

Dynamic? Not every kind of movement will aid reflection, but there are many kinds of movement that can readily support reflective processes. As a simple example, many people find that walking and talking or walking and thinking fit very well together.

So I do get a little impatient when after "the experience" the facilitator sits everyone down and fires out analytical questions for group discussion. And that's about all. This is the "classic debrief". And it falls into the "classic error" of separating experience and reflection into two different worlds.

We are always experiencing, and we are nearly always reflecting. These two processes are so intertwined why try separating them? As far as I know we are not able to teleport into some kind of parallel universe where we are able to reflect without experiencing anything.

David Kolb's Theory of Experiential Learning and Development appears to present experiential learning as a 4-stage step-by-step process. But Kolb himself states that these four processes "interact simultaneously" (p.61). As Malcolm Garbutt clarifies:
"The difference may be subtle but it impacts on people who read only one half of Kolb. This view considers each process as a single action seen in isolation which goes against the very nature of what Kolb proposes... The four processes are entwined and typically operate in conjunction rather than individually." Malcolm Garbutt
It should come as no surprise to those who base their practice on only half a theory that they are only half as effective as they could be.

One way of paying attention to the whole theory (whichever one you "follow") is by paying attention to what participants are experiencing while they reflect and review. Are you, for example, facilitating the review in ways that allow people to experience a sense of belonging during the review itself and of feeling appreciated within the review process? Does your facilitation practice generate experiences of responsibility, ownership, creativity, exploration and achievement within the reviewing process itself?

It is difficult to pay attention to what people experience unless you provide the means through which they can best reflect and communicate what they are experiencing. This usually means moving beyond questions and answers and being more imaginative with the processes and tools that you offer.

For follow-up on Kolb's theory see my collection of critiques. For follow-up on how you can apply the insights above to your practice see my Guide to Active Reviewing. And to follow up with your own thoughts, please add your comments below.

Monday 5 October 2015

Rethinking Experience Based Events

I came across a thought-provoking diagram in a chapter entitled "Rethinking Experience Based Events" which I have reproduced here:
The authors described this as "exploratory" research in which they compare the perspectives of trainers who 'run' experience-based events with those of 'learners' who have been involved in them as participants. Their findings (represented in a copy of their diagram above) suggested that learners' experiences may not often correspond to the experiences which trainers attempt to 'design' through the use of 'structured experiences'. 

The arrows that appear to come from nowhere represent the many other influences on what participants experience. These influences might include: prior similar experiences, what happened on the previous exercise (or in the last hour), their motivations and individual objectives, the nature and quality of their relationships with other participants, what roles or responsibilities they take on during the exercise, how they think they are regarded by others, how much they trust the trainers and the course design, how much they are engaged or distracted, their overall expectations of the event, etc.

And the most important influence of all might be how responsible participants feel for their own learning. For example, do they make their own individual interpretations or do they they sit back during the review and let the trainer (or their fellow participants) steer their learning in a particular direction?

Whenever I have presented this diagram to trainers it lights up instant controversy. Some regard the boxed design to be the "correct" path ("the one we are paid to deliver") while others regard the "actual" or real pathways to be the only ones we can work with - because people learn from experiences they actually have rather than from experiences they were "supposed" to have had.

I love these discussions, but I do not take sides. This is because the "predicted" pathway is closer to the role of trainer and the "actual" pathway is closer to the role of the facilitator (who works with "real" experience). And most people I work with are trying to find an effective balance between these two roles.

One useful conclusion is that an effective trainer-facilitator can work with people where they are (what they are really experiencing) to help them get to where they want to go. A practical and versatile set of reviewing tools can help with this task.

An alternative conclusion is to consider the merits of involving participants in the choice and design of exercises. If participants have clear outcomes, they can work with the trainer to design exercises and processes that will help them reach their goals. John Heron has explored the merits of a co-operative approach to designing training exercises in "The Complete Facilitator" - which is surely the cue for another blog posting!

From my thoughts expressed above it should be no surprise that I welcome your comments. Exploring together works better.


Boot R, and Reynolds M. (1984) "Rethinking Experience Based Events" in Cox, C. and Beck, J. (1984) Management Development: Advances in Practice and Theory, Wiley.

Heron, J. (1999) The Complete Facilitator's Handbook. London: Kogan Page.

Friday 4 September 2015

Powerful Learning Experiences

"So what is the practical application of your research findings?"

This is a fair enough challenge to any researcher.

My own research into Powerful Learning Experiences means I would now present experiential learning courses differently.

This speech below would need adapting to context, purpose, age of participants etc. so without any more researcherly ifs and buts, reservations or limitations, here is my research-informed welcome speech near* the start of an experiential learning programme.

[* I say "near the start" so that you can have a welcoming activity before a welcoming speech.]

"Welcome! I'd like to tell you something about the way this programme is designed so that you can make the most of this opportunity for your learning and development...

  1. This is one of the very few occasions where you will be expected to sit and listen. This is because the most significant learning for you does not come from what we say – it comes from what you experience.

  2. We do not give you experiences or make you experience anything. What you choose to do, how you choose to do things and the attitudes you choose to take are key factors that will influence what you experience. And the attitudes you choose to take are influenced by many factors including your previous experiences and any expectations you already have about this programme.

  3. The nature of your learning group matters a lot. You are likely to get more value from this programme if your immediate social climate is supportive, encouraging and a source of honest feedback. But the greater the individual differences within your learning group, the more you stand to learn about others and about yourself – even if that makes for a rougher ride at times compared to being with your best friends all the time.

  4. For each of you, your journey through this programme will have a unique starting point and a unique finishing point. Your journey will also be unique. At times it may feel as if it is a shared journey. At times you may feel alone. In fact you will often be asked to take time out to reflect on your own – to allow you to take time away from the group and think for yourself.

  5. Although your journey will be unique to you, it is likely to follow one of these four patterns: 

    1. The whole course fires you up and brings out the best in you and you want life and work to be more like this in future. But everything is mixed together and you need time to work out what to do for the best.

    2. You experience some personal low points during the course. You choose to keep these to yourself and find your own way through. You choose to have a more private learning journey and you are selective about what you share in the group. 

    3. You find connections between experiences in the sense that similar insights and learning keep happening for you. This learning helps you to continually make adjustments as you face different situations.

    4. At some point you sense a breakthrough or turning point. It feels as if you are "changing up a gear" rather than making small adjustments. It might be a decision you make to relax more, or try harder, or to change a "no" to a "yes" (or even to change a "yes" to a "no").

  6. I have mentioned "the programme" a few times. This is a bit misleading because there are still lots of details to fill in and decisions to make. We couldn't do this in advance because the details come from you and the decisions are made with you or by you. The programme is a structure which you bring to life and within which you will be taking increasing responsibility. You are responsible for your own learning within and after the course.

  7. And finally we want to help you remove anything that might get in the way of your learning. We hope to achieve this during a contracting session in your learning group where you will be encouraged to talk about (a) experiences you don't want (b) experiences you do want and (c) goals you want to achieve (which can be revised or refined later). We then try to create a customised agreement between everyone in the group including the facilitators. Try to include something in your agreement that encourages your facilitators not to talk too much – unless you ask them to do so.

That is the end of my welcome talk. Enjoy your unique experience and your unique learning journey and remember that by supporting each other's learning goals everyone get's more value."

This welcome speech is a creative intepretation of my research findings about Powerful Learning Experiences. If you want to check the original source you can find it summarised here.

Thursday 2 July 2015

What learning happens when?

This question follows on from my question "When Does Experiential Learning Happen?". One of my answers was that learning happens through facilitated reflection during the review.

It may come as a surprise to those skilled in the art of questioning that a lot of reflective learning happens before you begin to enquire about feelings or reasons.

Eye-opening can be eye-opening!

For example, the whole area of mindfulness is based on noticing and increased awareness. The question "What did you notice?" is all I ask on an observation walk.This works well for blind people too because you can notice with many different senses. Ski instructors regularly encourage their students to notice how their weight is distributed on their skis. Timothy Gallwey's "Inner Game of Tennis", Herrigel's "Zen and the Art of Archery" and many other "Inner Game" and "Zen and the Art" books show how much can be gained from simply noticing - as does McDougall's "Born to Run".

Of course, "What did you notice?" can readily lead to more sophisticated questions. But sometimes simply noticing leads to performance improvement. In a group setting new learning can readily arise from each person sharing what caught their attention. Watching a video of yourself as a leader or presenter or facilitator helps you to see what the camera sees. Performance improvement is not guaranteed, but I am continually surprised by how the pathway from awareness to change can be a short one that needs little extra reflection or assistance.

If you prompt participants to express their feelings they may well develop greater empathy or learn more about the impact of their behaviour on others - for good or ill. This is the territory of sensitivity group training, emotional intelligence, relationship counselling and sales training. It is also the territory of experiential learning because we have such an interest in what participants experience. We go on long journeys or build elaborate outdoor gyms or visit awe-inspiring places to generate certain kinds of experiences. If we know what participants have really experienced we may be better able to take them further on their learning journey. But simply sharing experiences develops sensitivity, empathy, trust, relationships, respect, friendship and a whole range of communication skills including story-telling.

All these learning benefits and we have only asked two questions:
1. "What did you notice?"
2. "What did you experience?"

We have yet to dig into our vast bank of facilitative questions but maybe we have already completed the most significant part of someone's learning journey?

Perhaps the most significant learning sometimes results from the most simple and basic questions?

This post by Roger Greenaway was first published in Experiential-CPD a monthly listing of UK CPD events.

When does experiential learning happen?

When does learning happen in experience-based programmes?

Does it mostly happen before, during or after the activities?

Or does it mostly happen during or after the post-activity review – or later still?

I'd suggest that learning can happen at any time such as ...

Before the activity: learning before doing
Learning can happen before the activity especially when the activity is being used as a means to check, verify, rehearse or practise what has already been learned but not yet put into practice. Doing the activity might lead to some small refinements but the main purpose of doing the activity would be for application and consolidation.

During the activity: learning through doing
Any reflection that happens during the activity is a natural (or even essential) part of the activity such as when working on a new challenge. During most activities people will be thinking and talking, reflecting and communicating even when their main focus is the activity itself.

After the activity: learning through unfacilitated reflection
If there is a gap between the activity and the review, participants may be reflecting about the activity on their own or they me be informally sharing their stories, feelings or opinions with others. Or they may be anticipating the review and even preparing for it in some way (such as the leader who feels they have let the team down)..

During the review: learning through facilitated reflection
Some of this reflection may be on what has already been learned, but reviewing is far more than a recap of learning. The main function of a review is to bring out new learning by facilitating reflection on activities and experiences during the reviewing process.

After the review: learning through informal reflection
A review may not be a tidy wrapping up process in which the learning is neatly packaged and labelled with no loose ends to tie up and no unfinished business. In fact a review can stir things up and leave people full of curiosity, perhaps puzzled about the feedback they received, or still inspired by an 'aha' moment of insight. This might lead to further conversations outside the review session or some thinking time alone.

After the programme: learning back in the real world
This is often the stage when classroom (or off-the-job) learning is tried out for real. If there is little need for new learning when applying what was learned, the situation is similar to the first point above ('Before the Activity'). But if the application is more of an exploration or experiment then it can be a significant continuation of the learning process.

But if you are under the spell of almost any theory of experiential learning you could be forgiven for being under the misapprehension that learning happens at just one stage of a multi-stage cycle.

Let's wake up to the many different opportunities for learning that experience offers - before, during, after and even long after the most intense part of the experience.

This post by Roger Greenaway was first published in Experiential-CPD a monthly listing of UK CPD events.

Moving, Thinking and Learning

Rodin's thinker sits with his head bowed, chin resting on his clenched fist. This is the classic static thinking pose. But other poses are also available: for example, lying on the grass and looking up at the sky can work quite well. So can going out for a walk – alone or with someone to help you think things through. Some famous thinkers (Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, for example) have done their best thinking while walking. Other people find it easier to think if they have something in their hands – pen and paper for writing or sketching, or play objects, or models. Some people find that performing an activity needing little mental effort somehow enhances their conscious thinking: Sherlock Holmes famously played his violin to help him solve crimes. In Minority Report or Silent Witness you see investigators moving objects around on a screen: by physically rearranging the data they discover new patterns and possibilities that can create breakthroughs in thinking. Perhaps real world example are more convincing? Such as Google's playrooms that encourage movement and playing with objects in order help employees find the next breakthrough. And the same is true for young children the world over: our most rapid period of learning involves exploratory movement and manipulation of objects. Movement and thinking are great playmates at all ages.

So when you want people to think deeply about past, present or future, consider using physical movement and physical objects to help them think more deeply or creatively.

You will find more on this subject in How movement can help thinking and learning in the Guide to Active Reviewing