There are many tools and techniques at our disposal to enhance the learning experience. Each have their advantages, disadvantages and a place in education and corporate training. Understanding why experiential learning is such an important approach will better help you in determining which tool may be best for your situation.
Let’s begin with the theory behind experiential learning. Intuition tells us that experience is the best way to learn something, and we can’t truly master a skill without doing it. This is so intuitive that it has been the foundation of corporate training since the industrial revolution. On-the-job training (OJT) has been the training modality of choice for many companies, and has been recognized in the research behind the 70:20:10 model – where 70 percent of knowledge comes from on-the-job experience, and only 10 percent comes from formal training. Unfortunately, many training organizations focus their efforts on the formal classroom experience, leaving on-the-job training to be a somewhat ad hoc exercise where the worker learns on their own what to do and what not to do to be successful.
Understanding why experience is the best way to learn has been the life work of Dr. Anders Ericcson of Florida State University. In 1991, Ericcson published the article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Ericsson’s research was so profound that it formed the basis of a very popular book by Malcolm Gladwell, “Outliers.” In his book, Gladwell took the theory of deliberate practice and generalized it by saying that for someone to truly master a skill, they must perform that skill for at least 10,000 hours.
Ericcson somewhat agreed with the idea that it takes a lot of practice to master a skill, but never owned up to the notion that 10,000 hours was the magical number for every skill and learner. While Ericsson did conclude from his research that mastering a skill came from performing the skill a lot, mastery comes from what he refers to as deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is done through experience with a designed approach, getting continuous feedback from a mentor or coach, and doing it in a mindful way that is not intended to be fun, but in a way that the learner’s limits are challenged. Ericsson called these elements the six facets of deliberate practice and they form the principles of how we should think about experiential learning.
In today’s intended approach to experiential learning, it can be as simple as on-the-job training structured in a way that gets the learner to a desired level of proficiency as quickly and efficiently as possible. It can also be as sophisticated as using tools and technologies that deliver learning content in a form that simulates the job or skill.
Choosing the Right Training Approach
There are many considerations to evaluate when determining what approach is best for your organization. Here are three basic factors.
- Level of proprietary content. The characteristics of your learning audience need to be considered. Are the skills they need highly proprietary or are they available on the open market? If proprietary, experiential learning could be a valuable strategy as employees can only learn from the experience they will gain from your organization.
- Critical nature of the skills. Are the skills your workers need of high consequence? Meaning, if they make a mistake, the consequence of failure is very high and costly. If so, the use of artificial intelligence and adaptive tools may be a great way to ensure accuracy in understanding a worker’s true level of competence.
- Availability of technology. Is technology readily available so you can leverage the experiential tools? If so, you may already have the infrastructure you need to make it easier to deploy experiential tools.