Monday, 28 September 2009

Experiential Learning

I recently (only about 2,300 years after the event!) came across this quote from Aristotle: "for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." It kind of sums up the problem with experiential learning. As Peter Honey (a couple of millennia more recently) said “learning from experience is tough, you get the test first then the lesson afterwards”.

And yet experiential learning remains one of the most important approaches to learning and development, especially in the world of work. Learning for work is about more than the acquisition of knowledge or even skills: it’s about applied learning, about changing behaviour; about demonstrating competence or more; about using the knowledge and skills acquired to gain performance improvements. And not just for the individual learner, but to share them with their work team and among the whole organisation – to achieve business results.

Given this importance, it’s odd that we don’t have very much simple language to explain it, as distinct from the range of terminology associated with learning through teaching and the classroom (or more recently, all the techie jargon associated with e-learning, but let’s not go there again). Some of the cumbersome phraseology in the last couple of paragraphs – “experiential learning”, “demonstrating competence”, “performance improvement” – requires quite a lot of explanation for what is essentially very simple activity.

I’m coming round to the view that “practice” is a succinct way of describing what we’re talking about. It’s commonly used to describe sporting activity, like football practice, or musical activity, like piano practice; it’s widely understood to represent the process of learning by doing things repeatedly, until you get them right; and it’s a common word with little ambiguity attached to it. We’re all familiar with the saying that practice makes perfect.

So perhaps we should talk less about “experiential learning” or “work-based learning” and more about plain, simple, practice.

I hope to get the opportunity soon to apply this thinking – to practice what I’m preaching. In fact, I’m dissembling a little: I know I’m going to be looking at this in a major new project I’ll soon be undertaking, so more on this theme will inevitably follow.

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