Experiential Learning Comes of Age

Training & Development, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Experiential Learning Comes of Age


It's easier to define what experiential learning isn't than what it is. It isn't singing "Kumbaya" around a campfire. It isn't group hugs. It isn't festive all-organizational pow wows. Or, at least, it isn't anymore.

Back in the 1970s, when experiential learning was in its infancy, those kinds of team building exercises were common. The trouble was that after many thousands of organizations had spent many tens of thousands of dollars on such programs, it became painfully obvious that when employees returned to work after a weekend of bonding, any positive changes were fleeting.

In the past 10 years, though, experiential learning has become a sophisticated training tool that when used properly can effect enormous change within an organization.

A new incarnation

Carl Rogers, who has been called the father of experiential education, defined it as any experience where there is personal involvement that is initiated and evaluated by the learner. In other words, when a person introspectively asks, "What have I experienced and learned and how can I apply it," then experiential learning has taken place. For organizations, the missing step in the early years was linking the experience back to the workplace.

For example, a ropes course, which is a frequently used experiential learning activity, provides an experience where a group can work together to learn trust, leadership, and teamwork. But instead of leaving a group...ahh...hanging after the ropes course is over, experiential learning facilitators now follow up the activity with skilled debriefing and discussion. That's when participants acquire insights of how to apply what they have just learned to life. This "link back" is a key ingredient to effecting change.

The format for the actual experiential learning experience, though, varies from provider to provider. Basically, there are three types: 1) outdoor experiences in which the activity itself is unrelated to a business environment, but the team building and leadership skills learned can be connected back to work; 2) indoor experiences in which a nonwork-related activity, such as a game, is connected back to the workplace; and 3) classroom-based experiences that simulate a "true-to-life" work situation.

Regardless of the format, all experiential learning provides metaphorical experiences that are applicable to life. In a quality experiential educational program, there is a debriefing after every event that illuminates and "anchors" how an experiential activity relates to an organization's mission or challenge. And a key benefit of using experiential learning is that the learning curve can be accelerated; what might take a person or group weeks or months to learn, can often be accomplished in a few hours.

The great outdoors

One of the oldest and largest providers of experiential learning is Outward Bound. Founded in the United Kingdom in the early 1940s and established in the U.S. in the late 1960s, Outward Bound's beginnings harken back to World War II when a British educator, Kurt Hahn, learned why the survival rate of young British seamen was much lower than older seamen. He discovered it was lack of confidence rather than a shortage of skills or equipment and he developed a program to teach internal fortitude and confidence, which evolved into the Outward Bound school.

As the years have gone by, Outward Bound has become much more than outdoor challenge courses. Tim Bonnett, director of Outward Bound Professional, explains: "In the beginning, experiential learning was perceived as an event rather than a solution. As the industry evolved, experiential providers got better at connecting the experience back to the workplace. We learned not to focus on the activity as the process for learning, but, rather, to use it as a tool for learning."

Operating more than 57 schools in 32 countries, Outward Bound works collaboratively with its clients on areas such as team building, leadership, and cultural and strategic change. …

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