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Experiential Learning: Six Key Questions to Test for Authenticity and Impact

25/02/2014 12:59 GMT | Updated 27/04/2014 10:59 BST

When the great Pete Seeger died last month the world lost a truly authentic individual. Seeger combined music and activism in a way that never compromised his core principles. Not only that, but he had a great way with words. When asked the difference between education and experience, he famously quipped:

"Education is what you get when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get when you don't."

While undoubtedly witty, it's not a distinction I buy. On the contrary, I firmly believe experience and education are capable of being highly potent partners, delivering huge benefits for personal and professional development. David Kolb who together with Ron Fry refined the concept of experiential learning (EL) in the 70's, defined it as a process in which:

"knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience."

This provides some scope for interpretation, and merely because something is promoted as EL is no guarantee of its effectiveness. Not infrequently it's easier to divine the experiential element of an alleged EL opportunity than the process by which the "grasping" and "transforming" - in other words the learning - will take place.

So to test for authenticity and effectiveness I would recommend the following five questions:

1. Does the programme have specific learning outcomes?

If the stated outcomes go no deeper than "great for developing communication and leadership skills" you can be sure little attention has been given to how learning will occur. The desired learning outcomes should dictate the design of the experience, not vice versa.

2. Are participants pre-assessed?

Whether self-assessment, standardised assessment, peer assessment, 360˚ degree assessment or a combination of all, the key thing is for participants and their trainers to know the starting point.

3. Does the programme follow a structured learning cycle?

The numerous variations on the experiential learning cycle all derive from the work of Kolb and Fry, whose EL model comprises:

• Experiencing/doing

• Reviewing and reflecting on the experience

• Drawing learning from the reflection

• Applying and testing the learning through active experimentation

• Reviewing and reflecting on the active experimentation

If stages two to five are not explicit, the chances are this is not a planned learning experience.

4. Is there formal observation and coaching of participants during the experience?

It's common to say we learn from experience. But how true is this? All too often we unconsciously repeat and embed behaviours of which we are unaware and - were we not - would very much wish to change. In EL learning comes to the fore when participant and observer engage in a conversation framed around powerful questions such as: "did you notice that ...?"; "why did you do ... ?"; "how did it make you feel when...?" "does this happen at work?"; "what does that tell you"?" etc. Few of us are sufficiently self-aware and adept at learning autonomously to independently achieve the insights this approach yields.

5. Does the programme provide structured debriefing?

Though all experiences offer opportunities for learning, there is more impact from those that challenge. Challenge is good then, but tends to evoke strong emotions, and these demand sensitive management; participants should never be left to walk away from an experience with feelings unresolved and overpowering. Instead they need structured space and time to formally discuss, process and learn from them.

6. Does the programme provide structured re-assessment?

If participants do not formally review the impact of the process on their development, the intervention will have been largely in vain. Effective re-assessment can articulate and cement what has been learned and identify areas in which further development is required.

If having asked these six questions, the answers are "yes" you can begin to feel confident that you are looking at a process destined to yield learning and development.

Pete Seeger, the man who refused to compromise, toted a banjo emblazoned with the legend "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." Those in search of experiential learning should be equally dismissive of compromise. Learning occurs not from isolated experience. It occurs when experience is surrounded by structured processes, which, in the most sensitive way possible, of course, force participants to develop. If the answers to one or more of the six questions is "no", then it should be a case of, "close but no Seeger."