Experiential Learning: Not Just for Newbies

Categories: Winnthinks

There’s a truly profound Chinese proverb that is often quoted by trainers, and it goes like this:

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

It’s the powerful principle behind pretty much every meaningful bit of learning you’ve ever done – particularly those occasions when you did something truly stupid, survived and promised to ‘never do that again’. It’s why the little boy on Frinton beach a couple of sunny weekends ago didn’t stop chucking sand around until it blew back in his face. It’s why my friend’s daughter will never, ever pull a cat’s tail again. It’s why I haven’t drunk Malibu for 30 years (shudder).

People development experts call it ‘experiential learning’ or sometimes ‘self discovery learning’ – and pleasant experiential learning can be just as powerful as the stuff that hurts. After serendipitously adding the juice of an extra half a lemon to my lemon meringue pie recipe once, I haven’t looked back.

Experiential learning happens in a cycle*; you have an experience (such as carrying out a task or interacting with someone), and having done that you reflect on the experience and how it went. You’ll pull out the lessons you learned and decide how you would do things differently next time. You then take all that forward to the next time you do the task, applying the necessary tweaks. And so on. It’s the most natural learning process in the world, and often happens without any conscious input from you at all.

Managers, trainers and parents alike could and should be constantly harnessing the power of experiential learning, but all too often we default to a ‘do as I say’ approach when allocating new tasks and ways of working to our people. The ‘right’ way to do something is presented as a fait accompli. Whilst this may seem quicker in the short term, the learner will often miss out on the deeper understanding of WHY that approach is the best. That often means that although they will do that thing ‘your’ way in future, it may not be with any great care or sense of conviction – until perhaps they get it wrong. THAT’S the point at which your learner will say “Oh, yes, I get it now!”

Now, whilst I’m not advocating that every learning scenario is appropriate for a totally ‘trial and error’ kind of approach (driving instructors, bomb disposal experts, airline pilots and electricians will be particularly pleased to hear this), encouraging learning at your place of work using the experiential learning principles will definitely help your people ‘get it’, mind, body and soul, when they pick up a new task or responsibility. Here are six ways to help your people discover their own learning, even when you can’t let them have a totally free rein:

  • 1. Wherever possible, get your learner involved in completing the actual task, not just observing it.
  • 2. Discuss the stages with them whilst they do the work. Ask them loads of questions. What do they think needs to happen next? Why?
  • 3. Give a good balance of supportive and developmental feedback, and as their confidence and competence grows, take more and more steps back until they are accomplishing the task under their own steam.
  • 4. Get them to think through the reasoning behind the way they are being shown to do the task. What other ways could they approach it? What could be the advantages of that? What could go wrong? If your way truly is the best way, their own logic will demonstrate that to them.
  • 5. If you can’t let your learner loose on the actual task because it’s too high risk, find a way to simulate it. Realistic ‘dummy’ phone calls, problem solving tasks, in-tray exercises and yes, even the much maligned role play, are all effective ways of bringing the Real World into the place of learning.
  • 6. Instead of presenting all the answers tied up with a bow, set the learner a research task, so he or she takes responsibility for finding out what they need to know. It will give the bare facts far greater context and depth, and give your learners more of a sense of ownership over what they have discovered..

And remember: learners have fewer pre-conceived ideas about something new, so every now and then expect to be hit between the eyes by a brilliant NEW ‘right way’ of getting the work done! Experiential learning is something we should all be consciously doing on a continuous basis. It isn’t just for Newbies.

*David A Kolb’s Learning Styles Model, ‘Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development’ (1984).


  1. As always, brilliant Rebecca.

    I can’t endorse this enough. If you want your employees to truly engage with something then this is the way to go. There’s a difference between knowing something and understanding something. Experiential learning is a powerful way of bridging the gap between the two.

  2. Thanks, Clive. Yes, we’ve been on both sides of the experience, haven’t we!

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