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.


  1. Am I only one being provoked or what?! I think that noticing is good beginning but still long way to change. Far more interesting is what kind of awareness leads to change or performance improvement and what doesn't? Recently I had participant in course who is well-awared about his high avoidance of challenges but cannot change it for several years. Even though together we made much more detailed picture of his situation, he wasn't sure he will change. To your experience do you see any elements which became tipping point?

    1. Povilas - thank you for your thoughts on this subject. I am still learning how Blogger works and I missed your comment at the time. My point is that in some circumstances awareness is enough for desired change to happen. You provide an example where increased awareness did not lead to change. In this situation I would search in my reviewing toolkit for a different strategy. If the person has been stuck for several years the Tipping Point will probably need a combination of approaches sustained over time. For example helping them set up a support system with a friend or learning buddy. And building on strengths - such as using Back to the Future, which is a kind of physical audit of existing strengths, resources and relationships that support the desired change. If the person is reluctant to move beyond their safe/routine zone then a suitably themed experiential training programme (eg "Doing things Differently") could help the person get accustomed to a new "habit" of doing things differently. Rather than confronting the big issue head on, the person gets over their fear of change with minor (or even trivial) challenges and starts to enjoy change. My September blog post on 'Powerful Learning Experiences' outlines the variety of different ways in which significant change happens. You can find more detail at