Experiential exercises have significant impacts on individual and organizational learning and development. Experience, as well as research, says that participating and practicing is 15 times more impactful than sitting in a classroom. So, no wonder we are seeing more and more people use experiential exercised to generate reflection, teamwork and learning.
Being involved and engaged is, well, being involved and engaged.
The visual, auditory and kinesthetic anchors for memory are all hooked up and operating, making the connections needed for later processing, storage and retrieval of the experiences.
A temptation was to go off into a “neuroscience” kind of explanation, since that is all the rage these days. I have a doctorate in behavioral neurophysiology from Chapel Hill back in 1977 and have been consulting on people and performance since 1978, and
None of this neuroscience stuff is all that practical
when one needs to simply learn about behavior.
Sure, it sounds really good, but is it really helpful to know how that amygdala you have is involved in your emotions or how the hippocampus is involved in distributing neuronal impulses or even how the Broca area of the dominant cortex or the Wernicke area of the posterior section of the superior temporal gyrus are involve in speech? (grin) . (This is all true, but so what!)
Motorola University in 1996 published an interesting chart that I reproduce here not knowing how to get permission for use but thinking that it can generate some useful thinking:
Me, I would have flipped it upside down, so that Teaching Others was at the top but that is MY learning and memory preference showing up, I guess. And, there is a good deal of controversy over the numbers and the meanings, something I will choose not to get into for this post. Let me simply state the obvious:
Being involved and actively engaged in the learning process helps generate better retention and understanding.
Learning, linking and understanding are neurologically determined — the brain is what controls the process and it is good that it is semi-automatic (since if it required much thinking or typing, not a lot of us would ever get it!).
Our brain uses chemical and physical changes in proteins and membranes to build the electrical circuits that make all this “living large” stuff possible. It works pretty seamlessly, and when it doesn’t, we all realize the consequences (Alzheimer’s, dementia, aphasia, coma, and the like. Heck, even growing older has measurable negative impacts for most of us. I was going to cite a reference, but I forgot what it was…).
What our brain does is encode our experiences into memories. If there is some boring lecture going on, guess what is probably not going to be recalled? If you are energetically participating in some mental or physical challenge, doesn’t it make sense that more things will be remembered?
Knowing that something might be useful later adds an important touch — helping someone hang a backpacking hammock works quite well when you know that you will be hanging your hammock the next day. Learning to start a fire with fire sticks or a flint striker is remembered when you know you will head off on a survival venture that afternoon.
Memory is about storage and subsequent retrieval. It is about encoding and categorizing and accessing the meaningful information later. Knowing the context for that learning is generally helpful.
In some of my team building deliveries, the group might have been through a course or a series of lectures on something or other. Let’s say that the subject is Project Management and the participants are shown a methodology for gathering information prior to planning a program. When we play The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, the funny thing is that the “learned” information or skills are often NOT transferred to the information gathering tabletop processes required to produce high levels of game performance.
So, in the debriefing, we review the choices made, generate discussions as to how the tools could be used, and then often project future scenarios or even do some problem solving whereby those tools are used. This kind of active debriefing process generates a motivation to learn and the kind of VAK needed to anchor the skills in place. We also encourage a diversity of ideas and reinforce differences in thinking styles, since these generate better options so often. The debriefings often focus on divergent thinking and questioning ideas. And this is MUCH different than simply lecturing them on what happened and what they should have learned. Their reflection makes it theirs and not yours.
Most people in most organizations are not observed to actually apply things they learned into workplace performance change and improvement. This learning transfer issue is a common problem with classroom training — people KNOW how to do things but choose to keep doing them as they did before.
Implementing change without changing feedback and measurement systems is also pretty hard to accomplish. Coaching can work, but coaches are often not available immediately after training has occurred.
What we suggest is an active kind of situation to involve and engage people, one that sets up a solid discussion of behavioral choices made along with thinking about possibilities. That activity might include projection, team-based agreement on desired future behaviors, some discussions about how improvements might be measured, personal commitment to doing things differently combined with some level of followup and coaching, and other things to help to anchor in the learning as well as generate new, sustainable behaviors in the future.
Generally, people remember their own behavior, and they tend to remember their mistakes and bad choices a bit more easily than all their good reactions and responses. In Lost Dutchman, we try to generate energy and emotion in our activities by adding pressures of time and scarcity of resources or some level of competition. Ideally the competitive situation has a balance of collaboration and cooperation built-in.
If organizations can better use these kinds of engaging activities, they can expect more learning to occur and more commitment to change to result.
For the FUN of It!
Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement products. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant who designs simple, powerful learning tools.
See the powerful new teambuilding game, The Collaboration Journey Challenge
Learn more about Scott at his LinkedIn site.