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.