Experiential Learning Methodology by: Simon Priest
Experiential Learning Methodology by: Simon Priest
Learning – Learning is a change in the way we feel, think, or behave. When we are aware of the change, when we intend to make the change, and when the change is maintained over time, then our learning has been conscious, deliberate and lasting. Unfortunately, and all too often, attempts to learn or change are prevented by a lack of reflection (defeating awareness), the presence of resistance (defeating intent), and many barriers to supporting transfer (defeating maintenance).
Experience-based – All learning is experience-based. Whether we hear a lecture, watch a video, or read a book, our learning is “based” on those experiences. Unfortunately, we remember 20% of what we hear, 50% of what we see, but 80% of what we do.
Experiential – Experiential learning is founded more on the active doing rather than the passive being done to. In this way, people practice the very skills they are learning and are more likely to maintain their change back at work. Experience-based learning becomes “experiential” when elements of reflection, support and transfer are added to the base experience:
- Reflection – purposefully examining the process of an experience enhances the awareness of learning and leads to changes in feeling, thinking or behaving that derive from that experience;
- Support – providing time, resources, and team or project opportunities that permit people to continue changing (or maintaining new learning) and allows them to lessen their resistance; and
- Transfer when change obtained in an experiential program shows up in the real life workplace: this transfer of experiential learning can be enhanced by the use of metaphors and isomorphs.
Programming – The deliberate use of action events and facilitated reflection to bring about lasting change and learning. Four types of programs are defined by their purpose of change and learning:
- Recreational – designed to change the way people feel (to entertain, re-energize, relax, re-create, socialize, teach and learn new skills, etc.);
- Educational – intended to change the way people feel and think (to gain awareness of needs, to add knowledge of new concepts, to understand new ways to look at old or familiar concepts, etc.);
- Developmental – designed to change the way people feel, think, and behave (by increasing positive functional behavior, by improving interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, etc.); and
- Redirectional – intended to change the way people feel, think, behave and resist (by decreasing negative dysfunctional behavior, by reducing opposition and denial, etc.).
A company uses group problem solving tasks at a conference to make attendees happy and to get them mingling (recreation). The company uses similar tasks to demonstrate the value of teamwork and to introduce their new team strategies (education). Once the benefit of teaming is evident, the company uses problem solving tasks to actually build new teams (development). Lastly, one group is not getting along very well–they withhold information, sabotage change efforts, and distrust one another–so the company uses similar tasks to help them become more effective in their work (redirection). NOTE: In these examples, the facilitation methods used to introduce and reflect on the experiences (not the action events) are the instruments of change.
Generalized Characteristics of Corporate and/or EBTD Program Types:
|Primary Purpose||to change feelings||to change thinking||to change functional behaving||to change resisting and denying|
|Application||universal / everyone||organization-wide||intact group (team)||pairs or individuals|
|Action Events||off-the-shelf||tailored||customized||unique & original|
|Exp. Learn. Cycle||action emphasis||reflection added||transfer of learning||supported transfer|
|Organ. Devel. Goals||disconnected||aware & related||well integrated||seamless connect.|
|HRD’s Role||can be absent||may observe||should assist facil.||must co-facilitate|
|Organizational Intent||zero order change||first order change||second order change||third order change|
|Organizational Impact||none||individual only||system (individual)||system + individual|
|Typical Length||0.5 – 2 days||1 – 3 days||2 – 5 days||3 – 10 days|
|Client Numbers||20 – 1000||10 – 100||5 – 20||1 – 10|
|Ratio Staff : Client||1 : 20||1 : 10||1 : 5||1 : 2 (min.=2)|
|Diagnosis Time||none||one hour||half day||full day|
|Detachment||none (stand alone)||pass off to HR||booster / follow up||ongoing work|
|Facilitation Skills Required by Facil.||none (no need for formal facilitation)||funnelling, discussion||direct frontloading, isomorphic framing||solution focused, paradox, double bind|
Educational programs change thinking and are about learning new lessons. These are usually applied organization- wide. Reflection is emphasized, with activities that are tailored to the client by general business language. Program objectives are related to OD goals. HRD professionals may observe the program, since they have the responsibility to transfer learning. As a result, change is first order with clients learning, but the system (that shapes their thinking) remains the same. Programs typically vary in length from 1 to 3 days. Group sizes range from 10 to 100 with about 1 staff for every 10 clients. About 1 hour is devoted to diagnosis and a half day is spent on design. Staff energies are mostly devoted to activity delivery (75%) rather than debriefing (25%). The program disembarkation is handed over to the Human Resource professionals who were observing earlier on. Staff need a minimum of unstructured discussion and structured funneling skills to conduct the key debriefing sessions.Recreational programs change feelings and are about entertainment. These are usually applied universally to any and all present. Action is emphasized and off-the-shelf activities remain unmodified or the same for everyone. The program objectives are disconnected from the Organizational Development (OD) goals. The Human Resource Development (HRD) professional’s involvement is normally absent. As a result, change is zero order with no long term impact on the organization. Programs typically vary from 0.5 to 2 days in length. Group sizes range from 20 to 1000 with about 1 staff for every 20 clients. No diagnosis of client needs takes place and about an hour is spent on program design. All staff energies are given to delivering the activities and no debriefing occurs. The program stands alone and so disembarkation lacks any planned carryover to the workplace. Since the activities speak for themselves and are inherently fun, specialized facilitation skills are not necessary.
Developmental programs change functional behavior and are about acting differently. These are usually applied to intact groups. Transfer is emphasized, with activities that are customized to the client’s culture. Program objectives are well integrated with OD goals. HRD professionals have roles as assistant facilitators in the program. As a result, change is second order with the system changing to support clients’ behavioral changes. Programs typically vary in length from 2 to 5 days. Group sizes range from 5 to 20 clients with about 1 staff for every 5 clients. Diagnosis takes about half a day and design takes a whole day. Staff energies are equally divided between delivering and debriefing the activities (50% – 50%). Disembarkation includes a booster or follow up program. Staff need a minimum of direct frontloading and isomorphic framing skills to deliver the program.
Redirectional programs change resisting or denying actions and address dysfunctional behaviors. These are usually applied to paired relationships or individuals within intact groups. Support is emphasized back at the workplace. Original activities or variations are created for unique client needs. Program objectives are seamlessly connected to OD goals. HRD professionals are equal co-facilitators. As a result, change is third order with system and clients changing in concert. Programs typically vary in length from 3 to 10 days. Group sizes range from 2 to 10 with 1 staff for every 2 clients. Diagnosis takes at least a full day and design takes several days. Staff energies are mostly devoted to debriefing (75%) rather than activity delivery (25%). Disembarkation rarely happens because the program is ongoing. Staff need solution-focused, paradox, and double bind skills.
Action events – the activities used most commonly in experiential and/or adventure programming can be categorized as follows (see also photographs below):
- Socialization games – “ice breakers” designed to deinhibit people and familiarize them with one another (these rarely form the content of more than the first 5% or 10% of most programs);
- Group initiatives – group problem solving tasks that individually isolate a single teamwork tool (such as trust, communication, or collaboration) or collectively test those elements in combination;
- Ropes or challenge courses – people negotiate challenges built high or low above ground level among trees or utility poles, where safety is provided by spotting (low) or belaying (high); and
- Outdoor pursuits – self-propelled outdoor or wilderness activities (rock climbing, canoeing, etc.) usually applied to complex interactions of individual and group issues (leadership, risk, etc.)
Facilitation – Since reflection is the key to deeper learning that leads to more lasting change, anything that a “facilitator” does to enhance reflection before, during, or after an experience is called “facilitation.” Four facilitation techniques have special relevance to experiential or adventure programming (for more on these and other methods, see the section on facilitation):
- Funnelling – using sequenced questions during or after an experience to guide debriefing;
- Frontloading – using punctuated questions before or during an experience to redirect reflection;
- Framing – introducing the experience in a manner that enhances it relevance and meaning; and
- Solution-focused – changing the focus of questions away from problems or dysfunctions.
Adventure – Adventure is a specific subset of experiential programming where the outcome of the experience is uncertain and may contain risks (physical, emotional, social, financial, etc.). “Direct participation in [these and other] action events” requires us to use our competence to face our fears of the risks and to resolve the uncertainties of the outcomes. In dealing with these challenges, and by turning perceived limitations into abilities, we learn a great deal about our relationships with others and ourselves.
Relationships – Two types of relationships are most commonly addressed in experiential or adventure programming:
- Interpersonal – the relationships among people in a group (sample benefits include improved teamwork, trust, communication, collaboration, conflict resolution, shared leadership, etc.); and
- Intrapersonal – the relationships of people with themselves (sample benefits include improved self-concept, confidence, strategic or visionary leadership, willingness to take calculated risks, etc.).
Facilitation (transfer and techniques)
The central purposes of facilitation are to: enhance the quality of the learning experience, to assist clients in finding directions and sources for functional change, and to create changes that are lasting and transferable.
Transfer of learning and change from experiential programming to real life is often a critical concept in facilitation and is, even more frequently, a most difficult outcome to achieve. Since many characteristics of experiential programming and real life are very different, a wide gap exists for the client to bridge when attempting transfer. Three types of transfer and their respective gaps warrant further discussion.
Specific transfer involves the learning of particular skills for use in a closely related situations. Learning to type on a typewriter for the purpose of operating a computer terminal is a common example of specific transfer. Here the skill learned is used in the same manner and in a similar situation. A small gap between learning environments makes transfer relatively easy.
Non-specific transfer refers to learning general principles or behaviors and applying them to different situations (a large gap). For example, the mastery of a new way to solve problems learned in a classroom situation has potential application on the job. Here the principles or behaviors are used in a very different setting. A wide gap between learning environments makes transfer somewhat difficult.
Metaphoric transfer is an attempt to narrow the gap between apparently different learning environments through client realized metaphors. A metaphor is an idea, object, or description used in place of another different idea, object or description, in order to denote comparative likeness or similarity between the two. By findings metaphors, clients can bring seemingly different learning environments much closer together.
Example = “climbing a mountain is like completing a project, just take it one step at a time!” This client’s words express a metaphor and a key piece of learning gained from experience.
In the debriefing part of facilitation (see below) clients are encouraged to discover and share their own metaphoric connections as a way to make the experiential programming more meaningful and relevant. In a subsequent method of isomorphic framing, the facilitator introduces the experience and “frames” it in the context and culture of the client, thereby presenting a deliberate and purposeful metaphoric experience.
A debriefing discussion circle, where the facilitator guides reflection on experience.
Six generations of facilitation techniques have evolved in experiential programming (Priest & Gass, 1997). These can be categorized, in order of historical occurrence and sophistication, as follows:
- Letting the experience speak for itself (1940’s)
- Speaking for the experience (1950’s)
- Debriefing or funnelling the experience (1960’s)
- Directly frontloading the experience (1970’s)
- Framing the experience (1980’s)
- Indirectly frontloading the experience (1990’s)
Letting the experience speak for itself is a method found in numerous programs where clients are left to sort out their own personal insights. This approach is fine, provided that identified or prescriptive intrapersonal and interpersonal goals are not sought (such as in recreational programs). Clients may well have a good time and possibly become proficient at new skills, but they are less likely to have learned anything about themselves, how they relate with others, or how to resolve confronting issues in their lives.
In letting the experience speak for itself, a facilitator would not look to add any insights regarding the experience when it was completed. If any comments were made, they might pertain to how much fun the experience was and encourage the group to move on and try the next event: “That was great! Good job! Now let’s try something new and different.”
When speaking on behalf of the experience, the “facilitator” (often acting in the role of an expert) interprets the experience for the clients, informing them of what they had learned and how they should apply their new knowledge in the future. This approach may be well suited to role plays or simulations where results are predictable or reproducible, and to coaching when clients request feedback to improve their performance, but can backfire in experiential situations where adventures have uncertain outcomes. Telling clients what they received from an experience can cause problems by disempowering or alienating them, and can possibly disconnect the facilitator from them, thus hampering future learning opportunities.
In speaking for the experience, a facilitator would provide the group with feedback about their general behaviours after the activity was completed: what they did well, what they need to work on, and what they learned from the exercise: “You’ve learned to cooperate by virtue of working together and succeeding. Your communication is poor, everyone is talking and no one seems to be listening to anyone’s ideas. The level of trust seems to be improving, since no one appeared to worry about being picked up by the others. You could have benefited from having a coordinator for this activity!”
In debriefing, facilitators ask clients for their opinions and refrain from making statements to clients. In this way, clients learn to think for themselves and begin to take ownership over confronting issues (educational programs). If they “own” their issues, they are more likely to commit to changing the situation and to following through on their commitments. In a debrief discussion, clients are asked (under the guidance of a questioning facilitator) to reflect on their experiences and to discuss points of learning that they believe took place. The discussion can take a free form and shift from topic to topic as the group needs or can be prescribed or “funnelled” in a direction that the facilitator determines is best. This latter type of debriefing is called funnelling, where questions are carefully sequenced toward an outcome.
In debriefing the experience, a facilitator would foster a group discussion concerning the details, analysis, and evaluation of the group’s behaviour following activity completion. Sample questions of this facilitational style might include: “what happened?, what was the impact of this?, how did that make you feel?, what did you learn from this?, what aspects for this activity were metaphors of your life?, and what will you do differently next time?”
Funnelling: where good questions are asked!
In its simplest form, frontloading refers to asking questions before the experience rather than afterwards in a debrief discussion. The term literally means to load learning in front of an experience by emphasizing key points that provide an opportunity for clients to change during the experience rather than afterwards (as is the case with usual debriefing). When questions are asked of the clients, the frontloading is said to be “direct” (compare with indirect frontloading later in this section).
In frontloading the experience, a facilitator would introduce Spider’s Web with the same logistical briefing as usual (Group members should be passed through the opening in the web, from this side to that one, without touching the strands. Contact with a strand wakes the spider, which bites you and causes you to start over. A repeat contact sends your whole group back to the beginning). In addition to this, the leader would add a series of questions to focus the learning prior to the activity (what do you think this exercise might teach you?, why is learning this important?, how might your learning help you in the future?, do you recall from past exercises what each of you wanted to work on in situations like this?). Since this frontloaded prebriefing has already covered many of the topics usually held in debrief, the concluding discussion can concentrate on changes made during the experience.
Framing refers to how a facilitator introduces an experience. Three types of frames are common: fantasy, reality and isomorphic. In a fantasy framework, the facilitator weaves a tale of intriguing “fairytales” and uses imaginary scenarios like giant spiders, nuclear bombs, poison yogurt, and rivers of acid. In a reality framework, the props in an activity are called by their real names: grass, wooden planks, ropes, and out-of-bounds areas. In an isomorphic framework, the introduction is presented as if it is actually the reality of the client’s workplace. Not only are the names changed to fit the culture and context of the client, but the consequences and rewards associated with the experience are also changed to suit the situation and desired outcome. Isomorphs are the parallel structures added to the adventure experience by the facilitator so clients are encouraged to make certain metaphoric linkages that enhance transfer because the two learning environments (experience and work) become mirror images of one another (making this technique particularly useful in developmental programs). Consider the multiple isomorphs that combine to present the metaphor of a shipping task in a warehouse for this frame:
In isomorphic framing, a facilitator would address the briefing in terms of the similar structures between the adventure and corresponding present life experiences of the client. For example, the Spider’s Web (see rules in description above) becomes a distribution network (the web) through which goods and services (team members) are passed from the warehouse (one side) to the customer’s many outlets (other side). Passage takes place along unique routings (openings) and contact with the network (brushing up against a strand) damages the goods and services which means they need to be returned to the warehouse. If damaged goods and services are purposely passed on to the customer, then all shipments will be refused by the customer and returned to the warehouse to be fixed and shipped again! If this form of introduction is a strong metaphor of the workplace for this company, then the debrief need only focus on reinforcing learning changes made in the experience.
Indirect frontloading (compare with direct frontloading above) is used only as a last resort: when all other approaches have failed, only in the clients’ best interests, and specifically for addressing continuing problematic issues (as in redirectional programs). For example, the harder a client tries to eliminate an unwanted issue, the more it occurs; or the more a client tries to attain a desired result, the more elusive it becomes. A last resort example (called double binding) for such a group with sexist behaviors follows:
“Most groups who attempt the Spider’s Web tend to do it in a particular way. At the beginning, they mill around a bit with lots of people offering their suggestions. After some time a couple of dominant males tend to start the group off. They get a few men to the other side of the web and then throw the women through like sacks of potatoes and often with embarrassing remarks about female anatomy disguised as humour. Then the same group of dominant males decides how to do the hardest part [of the task] which is getting the last few people through. Afterwards, during the discussion of the exercise, everyone agrees that the leadership was more-or-less sexist and there are various emotional reactions to that. There are other ways to do the Spider’s Web.”
Stated in this way, the frontloaded double bind is positive and a “win-win” situation is created. If the group chooses to perform the task in a sexist manner, then they “win” because their true behaviours will become painfully obvious and the awareness or denial of the group’s sexist behaviour will be heightened for the debriefing. If the group chooses to perform in a non-sexist and equitable manner, then they also “win” since they have clearly demonstrated that they can act differently and may continue to do so in the future. One way brings dysfunction to the forefront; the other breaks old habits and gives new learning.
The Spider’s Web group initiative activity described in the examples above.
Solution-focused facilitation, as opposed to problem-focused facilitation, takes a different approach and can be used with questions associated with any of the above generations (it is not a 7th generation).
|PROBLEM-FOCUSED Facilitation||SOLUTION-FOCUSED Facilitation|
|centers on reducing the “problem”||centers on enhancing the “solution”|
|looks at what clients are doing “wrong”||looks at what clients are doing “right|
|emphasizes what clients don’t want||emphasizes what clients do want|
|highlights what could be done better||highlights what is already being done well|
|seeks to eliminate negative client weaknesses||seeks to accentuate positive client strengths|
|interested in “why” the problem happens (what “causes” & “maintains the problem)||interested in when the problem doesn’t happen (exceptions to the problem)|
Solution-focused facilitation does not ignore the presenting problems, but strives to bring about their resolution by helping clients identify, construct, and implement solutions to the problem. In this approach, facilitation centers around: identifying what clients want (solutions) rather than what they don’t want (problems), looking for what is currently working for clients rather than what is not, emphasizing what clients are doing already that is useful (stressing client strengths) and assisting clients in doing something different (solutions) instead of investing in something that isn’t working for them (problems). A solution-focused facilitator often looks for “exceptions” to the problem (when or where the problem doesn’t occur, investigating why the problem doesn’t happen) and establishes how clients can work differently at another solution, rather than harder at the same problem, to accomplish more lasting change.Problem-focused facilitation looks to solve problems by closely investigating their causes, determining what can be done to reduce their influence on clients. Problem-focused facilitators often investigate who or what sustains the problem, when and where it occurs, why it has continued to be a problem, and how clients can try harder to overcome the problem. Problem-focused facilitators generally assist clients by learning as much as possible about the problem and then work with clients to eliminate these problems.
* This information been modified and reprinted with the kind permission of Simon Priest and is adapted from chapters 14: “The Process of Facilitation” & 17: “Facilitation Roles” in Priest, S. & Gass, M.A. (1997). Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
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