If education or professional development is one of your program goals, the process of learning through reflection will become one of your most powerful allies.
Experiential-based learning is the process of learning through experience, and is more specifically defined as ‘learning through reflection on doing.’ That is to say, the practice of simply ‘doing’ does not, in and of itself, create ‘learning.’ The process of reflection makes all the difference.
The term ‘learning by doing’ is sometimes confused with experiential learning, but they are not the same. A personal example will suffice.
Experiential Learning Is Not Learning By Doing
There’s one thing most of us learn to do when we were very young, that we were told ‘once you learn how to do it, you’ll never forget.’ Riding a bicycle.
And it’s true, once you learn how to sit on a bike, pedal, and balance all at the same time, you’ve learned how to ride a bike. Some would argue that this skill is mastered through a process of learning by doing, but they are wrong.
My son learned to ride a bike when he was four years old. After spending almost a year on a ‘balance-bike’ (regular bike without pedals or training wheels) he was ready to propel himself forward by using the pedals on a slightly bigger bike.
Over the course of a couple of weeks, we would hit the road together. He would work on pushing the pedals and I would help him to balance on his seat. Holding on, I’d walk or jog behind him to keep him upright.
Naturally, there were spills and tears and many days between attempts. Then it happened, he found his balance, and Daddy could no longer keep a hold of the bike. He whizzed away from Daddy, and then after performing a spectacular turn, he sped back towards me exclaiming “Daddy, I got it.”
Indeed, he did. Some would argue that he learned by doing, but this is scientifically incorrect.
He learned to ride a bike by ‘not’ doing it.
My son learned to ride a bike by discovering all of the ways to not do it successfully until he did. And with each attempt, assisted by a professional facilitator for a father, my son would reflect back on what went wrong and tried again by doing something different. It was this process of reflection where the true learning occurred. That is experiential learning – a process of learning through reflection on doing.
A Way of Doing
If your program is all about having fun, then a ‘hands-off’ approach may be fine. But, if you are looking to have a more substantive impact, you are well-advised to ‘facilitate’ the reflection and learning process to benefit your group’s development.
Importantly, experiential learning is a way of doing – it is not something that one does.
As mentioned, the act of ‘doing’ does not, in and of itself, create learning. It is critical to facilitate the learning process to ensure your group enjoys more than just fun from the experience. This process, also known as a debrief, review, or reflection, is an opportunity for participants to think about what has been learned.
This ‘experiential’ methodology is ideally suited to the development of key 21st Century skills such as the ‘4 x Cs’ of collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity because these skills can be practiced through a series of carefully sequenced and facilitated experiences.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the use of this tool happens most effectively in a four-step process, and adopting this process will help your program – in whole or in part – become a more valuable and meaningful experience for everyone.
As shown in the diagram above, the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC), developed by David Kolb, is an ‘action-reflection’ model, and one of the foundations of adventure education.
The ELC will give you a structure to follow in your work as you seek to draw more meaning or learning from your program. It proposes that the transfer of learning will be more effective if what is being learned is discovered through actual experience.
This process, also known as a debrief, review, or reflection, is an opportunity for your group to process what has been learned from a particular experience. Guided by a series of reflective questions which you pose, your group can discuss significant topics and tackle relevant issues, such as communication and leadership within the group.
Within the context of a safe and supportive atmosphere (ideally governed by a ‘full value’ working agreement,) they can also provide feedback to one another and raise valuable learning points.
Obviously, this is higher-order, Stretch Zone stuff. Adopting the action-reflection model of the ELC means that your group can not expect to be fed the answers, so there’s work to be done. Starting small and building up over time, you can expect your group to continue to improve, testing the limits of their self-perceived boundaries.
To work effectively, this process works hand-in-hand with each of the other essential tools, especially when you have articulated the difference you want to make (set goals,) honoured choice, and agreed on a set of full value behaviourial norms.
How To Guide Learning Through Reflection
As I talk with others, many program leaders feel the least confident or competent in their ability to process an experience compared to their other leadership skills. Fair enough too, because we tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to trawl for pearls of wisdom every time we invite our groups to reflect on what they have learned from an experience.
When I think back to my son learning to ride a ‘big boy’s bike,’ even a very experienced experiential trainer like myself felt inadequate at times to help my son reflect on what was going wrong.
Happily, volumes have been written about the art and science of reflection skills and they can mostly be summarised into four simple steps:
- The Doing – the action or concrete experience.
- What? – reflecting on the facts of ‘what happened’ in the experience.
- So What? – generalising these facts, making connections, and looking for patterns.
- Now What? – applying this learning to the next experience, or ultimately, to people’s real lives – at school, home, work and play.
On one hand, this step-by-step approach points to the science of leading an effective reflection experience, as illustrated in the diagram of the Experiential Learning Cycle. While, on the other hand, the art of reflection is developed slowly, often discovered through trial and error and ‘gut’ feelings.
Learn More About Reflection Skills
You can learn how to make your debriefs and reflections more effective by dipping into the following content:
- Why Conduct a Debrief
- How to Make Debriefs Interesting & Fun
- Seven Reasons Debriefing is Important (video)
- What and What Not to Debrief (video)
- When to Debrief or Reflect (video)
- How to Ask Good Debrief Questions (video)
- Experiential Learning is not the same as Learning by Doing
Learning through reflection is just one of a set of five essential tools I use to help make a difference in the lives and performance of the groups I work with.
You can learn more about playmeo’s innovative approach to education by clicking the links below.
This article about the benefits of learning through reflection has been adapted from No Props No Problem: 150+ Outrageously Fun Group Games & Activities Using No Equipment and Serious Fun: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Leading Remarkably Fun Programs That Make a Difference.