I’ve read a lot of travel books, but it’s only when you feel the sharp pain in your heel and see the blood when you peel your socks off that you know what blisters feel like. I was a passenger for a long time, but can clearly remember the first time i drove alone. This year in Malaysia we sat in a street market, speaking in faltering English and Malay to try a durian fruit, the notoriously foul smelling, sweet tasting asian treat. It was only when i ate it that i truly understood. I can still smell and taste it now if i think about it.
Experience is different from theory: we can gain conceptual understanding from books, from roleplays, workshops and simulations, but it’s only when we experience something directly, when we face and solve the challenges ourselves, when we make our mistakes, that we can truly learn from it.
Formal learning is inevitably and inherently abstract: distanced from reality. That’s not a bad thing, the theory and concepts are important, but until we can support learners through experience, it’s hard to truly master something.
Social Learning is one approach that lets us bridge the gap between that formal learning, the abstract theory, and our everyday reality. It’s a way of maintaining a learning mindset whilst being out of the classroom and doing our actual job.
It does this by surrounding the formal learning with layers of semi formal conversation that take place, that are grounded, in the real world, rather than the classroom. Whilst formal training is always inside, looking out at the real world, social learning is in the real word, referencing back to the formal. It’s more grounded and gritty.
Experiential learning is not about throwing people to the wolves, but it does involve making mistakes and handling those mistakes and feedback appropriately, and it’s something that we have to factor in at the learning design stage: where are we teaching, where are we playing with the learning, where is the space for mistakes and what support is thrown around this?
Contextual feedback is important in experiential learning spaces: feedback to an individual based on personal performance. Effective experiential learning activities therefore may come with a higher cost of coaching and observation attached, but concurrently high rewards in terms of enhanced performance and confidence (plus letting people make their mistakes in a supportive and permissive environment instead of an unsupported and unsafe one).
We see in museums and zoos where people have the chance to pet the animals or handle the artefacts it adds a new dimension to the experience. Indeed, ‘experience‘ is the right word for experiential learning. For behavioural development, from leadership to sales skills or executive coaching, we have to create spaces for experience and surround them with context and support.