Experiential Learning (No More “Silentium”)

15h Century Classroom - teacher, students, and wall inscription reading silentium, or silence.

Over the last five years, I’ve taught lots of classes to lots of people. If I knew it before, I’m convinced of it now: lecturing is not the most effective way to help others truly learn.

The problem with lecturing is that it doesn’t really do much to change someone’s behavior, at least not in a lasting way. So what? Well, I believe learning is more than just collecting new pieces of information. Learning also means enabling new behaviors.

One thing is for certain: lecturing is satisfying, at least for a while. It makes me feel smart, and many of my student’s love it, because they get to lean back and enjoy the ride without expending too much energy on their own, until they finally fall asleep, or worse, just tune out. A great lecturer can stay interesting for longer, of course, but I’m afraid most people leave even a great lecture only to go back to doing whatever they did before.

Lecturing isn’t all bad – it’s just that too many expect too much from it.

Sometimes I get sucked into lecturing mode, even though I don’t want to. Maybe it’s an effect of my academic schooling.

I remember one of my university teachers well. In the first lecture of his course, he displayed a cartoon of a poor fellow in a chair. Attached to the fellow’s mouth: a hose. The other end of the hose was attached to a faucet, labeled “Knowledge”. My teacher proceeded to explain the picture.

- “I’ve recently been to a pedagogy course. They taught us not to try and stuff knowledge into our students in the same way you fill a sausage. I definitely agree”, he continued, “but then again, this is an advanced level class”. With that, he started lecturing.

The first few weeks of the course were indeed stuffy. We were expected to mechanically fill out answers to five hundred questions presented in a booklet given to us. Before you’ve done this, the teacher explained, you’re not really ready to enter into meaningful discussions on the topic.

Once the first part of the course was over, the style of teaching changed dramatically. Group work and seminars were substituted for lectures and answer hunting. I liked the second part better, but the first part was useful too.

I suspect fewer would pay to come to my classes if I required them to answer hundreds of questions beforehand. In just a couple of days, I want to help the participants in my classes discover new and more effective behaviors. How do I do that, if lecturing delivers such weak results?

My chosen path has been to learn about experiential learning. In experiential learning, the idea is to create a situation where students can construct new knowledge on their own. As a teacher, my work is to design the right environment for learning to occur, and to help the students make sense of what they discover.

I’ve always designed my courses to be very interactive, but there’s one key thing I’ve learned as I’ve started to study experiential training: debriefing is key. While experiential training builds extensively on exercises and simulations, the real learning seems to happen during the debrief. This is when the group works together to reflect on what just happened, and to build up their new knowledge. Debriefing often takes as much time as the exercises themselves.

Experiential training is not always welcome. It can happen that participants who did not quite know what they were getting themselves into are unpleasantly surprised by the format, which is the complete opposite of the archetypal classroom situation, where the all-knowing teacher is at the front of a silent crowd, lecturing from his book of clear cut answers.

For some, this format is different enough to create an uncomfortable confusion. For others, the amount of insights and emotions turn out to be an overwhelming surprise. For many, it leads to lots of learning. Whichever the case, it is my responsibility to make sure participants know what will happen, and that participation always is optional.

When was the last time you really learned something new – something that changed you? What conditions made that learning happen?

PS. If you want to experience experiential learning in a workshop setting, try to get a (highly coveted) place in one of Jerry Weinberg’s, Esther Derby’s and Johanna Rothman’s “Problem Solving Leadership” workshops. If you’re interested in this topic, you will learn as much about this style of teaching as you will about yourself during one intensive week.

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