The Experiential Effect

By Stuart Mackenzie 6th June 2019

Economists will tell you that the “experience economy” is thriving. Expenditure on live entertainment in the UK – such as the theatre, concerts, or events – has increased by a quarter since 2012. There is a similar narrative in the United States where statistics show in the five years following 2012, the money spent on entrance fees to the arts and other entertainment rose by 15%. You may well have noticed that businesses are starting to offer more experiential events: escape rooms, secret cinemas, sleepovers in museums, and “retail-tainment”– all to satisfy the hunger for memorable, absorbing, and immersive experiences.

It seems counterintuitive then that for a while, learning and development – an industry that focuses on sustained knowledge retention – was moving away from memorable and immersive training and towards the merely functional. The move to digital learning products was driven not just by a desire to save costs, but also by the perception that in today’s business environment we are all “time poor” – the belief being that if bite-sized learning was delivered digitally, people could snack on it at their desks. But while digital learning might save time, experiential learning is time well spent.

More recently, we have been having conversations with our clients who are expressing their need to move back towards classroom based experiential learning. We were interested to explore what may be driving this.

Experience the Difference

The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius expressed his belief in the importance of learning from experience when he wrote:

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

Confucius related the acquisition of understanding and knowledge directly to living and experiencing.

The original model for classroom learning was based on the monastic tradition; the methodology of the most senior monks reading from their reverential notes and then more junior monks scribing into their own books. Many lectures today still seem to imitate this practice and become a process where the notes of the professor are transferred to the notes of the student without knowledge ever passing through the mind of either.

Experiential learning is different from “chalk and talk” lectures, and different from digital webinars and eLearning. The benefits on offer are an increased cognitive understanding, physiological rehearsal, and enhanced recall.

Research conducted by Dr Stephan Hamann at Atlanta’s Emory University suggests that the role of emotions in the formation of memory is fundamental. His findings from neuroimaging, neuropsychological studies and neural stimulation indicated that emotions trigger specific cognitive and neural chain reactions which enhance memories. Think for example of a time when you were particularly moved, or excited, or scared – doesn’t this memory feel more tangible and real in your mind?

Professor Steve Mentz at St John’s University reached a similar conclusion – that in his experience, teaching at its core responds best to human encounters, and that learning is increased and accelerated by shared human connection. Experiential learning is about getting higher levels of stimulation and instilling a quality of emotion in the event, which in turn increases the level of comprehension, recollection, and behavioural change.

Our Experience with the Experiential

Each training event that we run at Maynard Leigh is based on the interplay between the experience and the individual, which means it is never standardised. The learning is always personal, existing only in the mind of the person who has been engaged on an emotional, intellectual, and behavioural level. No two participants have the same experience because each experience derives from the interaction between the training and the personal state of mind. In blended learning packages, the digital platforms are used only to support and extend the personalised classroom learning event.

As a result, each learner still has significant memories of the course for years afterwards, as well as an enhanced relationship with the content which aids the recall and embeds the behavioural change. We call this the “Think Feel Act” learning technique – it refers to the balance of the cognitive, the emotional intelligence, and the resulting behavioural change.

Our sessions also allow a safe space for participants to rehearse a variety of helpful and impactful behaviours – some more familiar than others. Rehearsal accelerates the embodiment of these behaviours so that they become effective habits in a shorter amount of time.

In one of our workshops, we issue a leadership challenge to participants that uses a set of tennis balls and a wastepaper basket. The challenge ends up giving participants a very hands-on experience of leadership rather than just a lecture and some notes, where they have to inhabit leadership styles ranging from directive to coaching, and deal with diagnosis, feedback, contracting, motivation, and skills development. The experience of navigating the challenge, the frustration of the difficulties, and the moment of victory are resonant with feelings, understanding, and involvement.

Experiential learning moves the learner away from passive participation – which is encouraged by digital learning – and into a more active participation, which ensures that the training both absorbs and immerses the learner.

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