When six-year-old Alec had his first eye exam at school, he was informed that he needed glasses. Why had he not mentioned this to anyone? Did he not know that he couldn’t see well? His parents immediately took him to the ophthalmologist who examined him, then identified the customized lenses that would switch his 20/100 vision to 20/20. When Alec put on his glasses for the first time, he looked out the window and said, “I never knew that trees had tiny branches and leaves!”
Although obvious once his vision was corrected, Alec was unable to know what was missing from his view. He had adapted to what was habitual, and he didn’t know what he couldn’t see. Glasses helped, but only because they were custom-made just for him.
When we train and up-skill people in our organizations, we often give them materials and manuals to read, with no consideration that they might need a custom lens to manage the learning. The same holds true when we expect people to work on teams, make decisions, and innovate without making sure that they are seeing the whole picture.
With experiential learning, we have the models, the tools, and the tested processes to enable people to take charge of their own customized learning and development; like finding a lens for the mind’s eye that will allow them to view themselves clearly as they learn. This is not learning in the restricted sense of being in a classroom. It is how we live our lives, solve problems, make decisions, partner, and parent.
“It was like flipping on the light switch when I learned about experiential learning and the process of learning. It was completely life changing,” said Lena, a corporate communications professional. By understanding the ideal process to use when making changes, Lena learned that she had had a blind spot in her own sight line. She was oblivious to the need to practice what she read about and watched role models do, so that she could get feedback on her own abilities. In fact, she recognized that she had so little experience getting feedback that she actually avoided practicing for fear of negative feedback. Once Lena realized that the learning cycle mapped the way people are wired to learn, she took more chances to immediately try things out rather than just thinking about them. For instance, when her company provided a communication effectiveness training, Lena immediately tested out the principles with her boss, her husband, and her co-workers. If she paid attention, she realized that the environment was constantly providing feedback about her ability to communicate effectively if she used a learning lens on life.
Once we help individual employees to pay attention to their own learning needs – in effect, providing prescription lenses – we are doing so much more than just teaching or training; we are giving them the tools to take with them in all aspects of their lives. The old adage “Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” applies here: Give people a lens that allows them to see, and you empower them to learn for life.
To take this analogy even further, the experiential learning lens allows individuals to not only see themselves with more clarity – their own learning styles and adjustments they need to make in order to learn more successfully – but experiential learning also helps us see how others learn, which is necessary to work together successfully in teams, and for a common organization.
And these metaphorical glasses can zoom, too. Seeing things through an experiential learning lens allows you to zoom in and out, to see where you are on the learning cycle and what to do next to take manage any situation more effectively. It’s all “learning”!
Once individuals put on the experiential learning lens, people can become more effective in any circumstance. If people need to transition, upskill, or move from a position of individual contributor to leader, prepare them first with the experiential learning lens. Once they can see clearly – even those things they did not even know were missing—they will never be able to unsee what they have discovered. Then, others can watch them transform in the process.
Kay Peterson is founder and CEO of The Institute for Experiential Learning. To learn more about the institute and her work, visit https://www.experientiallearninginstitute.org/.