Unveiling the True Meaning of Experiential Learning

The real world is a perfect learning environment: It contextualises, creates urgency, increases empathy, demans creativity and collaboration. And yet, L&D designers seem to lack the framework to leverage experiential learning to its full potential.

Learning in context

Experiential learning is commonly defined as the process through which knowledge, skills and feelings are acquired and applied in an immediate and relevant setting by the learner, or in the words of HR professor and practitioner Lenore Borzak, through “direct encounter with the phenomena being studied rather than merely thinking about the encounter, or only considering the possibility of doing something about it”.

While this seems like a truism, many forget about the crucial important of context in the process of designing a learning experience. Often times, experiential learning programs occur in rather static contexts that have little similarity with the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous) world that organizations live in today. If the purpose of a L&D program is to build acute awareness of the uncertainty and fast disruption of business ecosystems, exposure to these characteristics becomes a key point of the learner’s journey. Creating a safe environment for experimentation is paramount, however “in-vitro” examination is merely a way to acquire information. Real learning happens in the real world, where change is non linear and often tumultuous.

In order to embed learning in our fast-changing environments, L&D designers need to fight the temptation of creating strictly controlled learning environments, as learning can’t be discarnate and needs a relevant context to occur in. Instead, they should aim for experimentation in real-world contexts, volatile as they may be.

Learning in communities

In their important theoretical treaty, Situated: Learning Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Jean Lave, anthropologist, and Etienne Wenger, computer scientist, push forward the notion that learning is fundamentally a social process, that occurs through the process of participation in communities of practice. Through examples spanning midwives, tailors, or quartermasters communities, they place learning in social relations – or as they call them, situations of co-participation – rather than look at is as a process of knowledge acquisition.

Learning is most effective when learners are given opportunities to engage actively in a community and build relationships with others who participate in the same process. Too often, L&D programs are thought of in terms of learners’ cohorts, or of “target groups”. Instead, thinking about learners as community members and embedding community-shaping elements (such as storytelling, team-building, and sharing of spaces – both physical and virtual) into the L&D strategies creates shared commitments amongst organizational members and strengthens ownership around the resulting transformation processes.

Multidimensional learning

Susan Warner Weil and Ian McGill categorize experiential learning into four “villages”. In their model, these villages represent four distinct emphases for experiential learning, each of which forms the basis for a cluster of interrelated ideas and concerns.

  • Village One is particularly concerned with assessing and accrediting learning from life and work experience as the basis for creating new routes into education, training and employment opportunities.
  • Village Two focuses on experiential learning as a basis for bringing change in structures, purposes and curricula.
  • Village Three emphasizes experiential learning as a basis for group consciousness raising, community action and social change.
  • Village Four is concerned about personal growth and self-awareness.

While Weil & McGill’s work aims mostly at classifying the educational areas in which experiential learning is deployed, we believe it provides an excellent framework for L&D designers to create engaging, memorable and impactful learning experiences than span across these four main dimensions.

An experiential learning program should draw on learners’ real-life experiences, and be thought of as a driver for transformation at the individual, group and organizational level.


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