Experiential learning… what is it? How does it work? Is it just a fad or is it the way we are programmed as human beings?
Guest post by Richard Jacobs
2,500 years ago Confucius said “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”. Has this wisdom gone out of date or is it still as relevant today as it has always been?
One of my clients trained as a priest. He told me this story… he and the other trainee priests were discussing the importance of sermon writing. The instructor set them to work on a sermon about “The Good Samaritan”. They had half an hour to work on their pieces and absolutely had to start on time in the room across the courtyard. If they were even a minute late the door would be locked. They set to work on their sermons at a furious pace, determined to put the story across in the most compelling light. When the time came, they rushed across the courtyard in a flurry of cassocks to get to the seminar room before the doors were locked. On their way they scurried past a man who was on the floor of the courtyard writhing in pain and unable to stand (an actor). On arriving in the seminar room their instructor praised them for their punctuality and said ‘just out of interest what was going on with that man in the courtyard”. They looked sheepishly at each other and explained that they couldn’t stop because they absolutely had to be in the seminar room on time to give their ‘Good Samaritan’ sermons. The Instructor replied “what good is it to tell the story, if you cannot live by it?”.
I have been delivering InterActive theatre based sessions and experiential learning for 20 years to hundreds of thousands of people and this story sums up how compelling and peerless it is as a form. The Good Samaritan incident lasted only a few minutes and yet this moment stayed with my client for over 30 years and has defined his life. It was experiential. It took an idea and brought it home so that it could be felt as well as understood. No other form of learning is as complete. It engages people intellectually, emotionally and physically. People make personal and collective choices and they have the opportunity to have put ideas into practice so that they can seamlessly apply them elsewhere in their lives and work thereafter.
Experiential learning speaks to people emotionally, intellectually and physically. It addresses more of us than traditional learning models and therefore is a more complete mechanism for development.
So what exactly is it? What forms does it take and how can it be applied in the areas of Organisational learning and communication?
Over the last 20 years I have had the pleasure and privilege of experimenting with this wondrous form in many different. Here are some examples of how we have put it to work and the results:
We have used InterActive theatre extensively divert with organisations ranging from Coca Cola, Cemex, Subsea7 and Leading management consultancy firms through to government bodies, London Transport, NHS and public institutions. The subject areas for these programs ranged from management issues, conflict resolution, talent management, driving effective meetings through to ethics, mental health, stress management, personal development and self-empowerment.
Here’s a short film showing how InterAct works:
In essence we create a short punchy play based on the issues people face. The play is always set outside the host organisation to give people another level of perspective and to ensure that the audience does not assume that the characters are based on people with whom they work. The story ends in disaster for the lead character. We then establish how many years’ experience lies dormant and untapped in the room. 100 people with 10 years’ experience apiece is 1,000 years experience. What does it know? Is there any issue or situation that a millennium’s worth of know-how couldn’t solve if properly leveraged? We start the play again. This time the audience takes the helm, stopping the action and trying out new ideas and approaches to progress the situations. They can come on stage and replace the central character, call out from their seats, side coach actors, text thoughts into a character’s mind, become a tag team and any other number of ways of InterActing which are comfortable to them. We improvise around that input, exploring the ramifications, moving forward and back in time and testing the ideas. Anything goes. The audience builds on each other’s ideas and experiences, has a perfectly tailored ‘rehearsal for reality’ and can put into practice any training we or others have given them on the subject area. Learning is locked at the end of each session and can be supported with media, digital resources and train the trainer programmes. Sessions take between 90 minutes and 3 hours and group sizes range from 40 – 250.
It is said that ‘the ability to see the outcomes of choices before taking action is the beginnings of wisdom’. InterAct breeds that capability.
One of the most startling examples of the power and transformatory impact of InterAct was a piece of work we did uniting the teams of an NHS trust and social services. Historically these two teams (numbering approximately 350 people) had had such a poor relationship for nearly 10 years that patients had literally died waiting for the attention. In response, we created a piece of theatre set in a restaurant called Meat and 2 Veg. In the restaurant there worked two chefs. One was a Cornish, salt of the earth meat chef, the other was a French subtle sauce-wielding aficionado. Both were talented, funny and likeable but they did not get on. The restaurant was building up to a crux moment. A leading food critic was to review the restaurant – a favourable mention would make them and a poor one would break them. Could they pull it together? Ultimately they couldn’t. Mistakes are made and the restaurant was closed.
We then turned to the audience to solve the problems. They walked us through it scene by scene, giving advice, taking the stage, changing behaviours and shifting attitudes…. often with hilarious consequences.
At the end of each session we asked the group “is there anything you have seen here on stage that would not be equally effective back in your workplace?” They concluded that all they had experienced and witnessed was repeatable every day and since the ideas had come from them in the first place they needed no training to put them into action. Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice says “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces”. In other words we could solve all our problems if we only followed our own advice”. In this case we gave the audience an opportunity to Google their own best advice to themselves with comedy and lightness to alleviate the seriousness of the issues and with the ability to become aware of the acumen they already hold.
A problem that had existed for ten years was cleared up in a week.
And finally…. the area which arguably has the greatest impact on us and our lives is also the one which currently uses experiential learning the least… personal development. We have used InterAct and a wide variety of immersive experiences to help people play out thoughts and decision-making, disempower their doubts and boost their confidence, and face the situations they find most challenging in new, empowering ways.
It has been said that “nobody argues with their own suggestions”. There is an extraordinary simplicity and elegance about InterAct. Every audience finds their own level, the learning from sessions is powerful and practical and the solutions people derive from the sessions are actioned and embodied.
More than that though, it works in ways which do not fit onto a spreadsheet. InterAct is deeply human. It brings out the best in people and shows them how to repeat it at will.
After 10 years experimenting with InterAct I developed a new form of immersive learning to develop Purposeful Leadership.
Imagine… walking through a series of situations all played out with actors. Some emotional, some strategic with lots of unexpected twists and turns. You have to make choices according to your Purpose and core values. No stop button, no reflection just moving from one situation to another. Like life but more condensed. I call it The Odyssey.
True leaders, great leaders, can take people through the fog of the unknown with a steady hand. Leading in daylight with clear skies and a following wind is easy. That’s about clarity of communication, on-boarding and collective responsibility. However great leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King led people with no certainty of an outcome. They led through Purpose and principle and they were invincible.
Leadership does not exist within the safe confines of our heads. It is not theoretical. It is practical, immediate and needs to live in every interaction we have. John Cleese once famously said “An Englishman’s idea of a perfect life is to go from cradle to grave without the slightest hint of embarrassment”. For many this has become a modus operandi. The Purpose of a rite of passage and thus of the Odyssey, is to place ourselves beyond our comfort zone, outside the often closely controlled parameters of our existence so that we can reach new depths, mine new capacities and discover ourselves anew. It is this discovery which breeds the depth of character necessary to truly lead in a world where the rate of change means that no outcomes are sure. The Odyssey does not give people information, it gives them knowledge… derived from experience, of how to lead purposefully.
There is a saying in Africa “if you want to see a lot of animals dig a water hole”. In other words create a reason and a focal point around which your target audience can gather. My first company Black Diamond Films marketed and distributed extreme sports film and video (skiing, snowboarding, surfing, climbing etc). To raise awareness for our ski films we would hold events at dry ski slopes and invite the television cameras along. Families would gather, the events were broadcast on television and people came to the films. The brands who wanted to be in contact with a highly enthusiastic ski-crowd such as Salomon, Ray-Ban, Nissan, Hugo Boss etc sponsored the events and gave away goods. Everybody was happy. Essentially we had dug a number of waterholes, people gathered and an eco-system developed.
We have now developed InterAct and immersive experiences to act as water holes to attract brands whilst giving people a highly engaging learning experience. For example we developed a programme called ‘The Theatre of Love’ using InterAct for dating and relationships. The audience get an unparalleled and highly entertaining ‘rehearsal for reality’ and brands in the beauty and hospitality sector get to connect directly with their market-sector.
Mass communication has become mass engagement. The question for organisations and brands today is not “how do we communicate compellingly with our people and market” but “how do we engage them to be actively involved with us?” Video, animation, print, text etc are excellent tools for one-way communication. Immersive experiences and InterAct are perfect tools for helping people engage with a message.
Could a one-way communication on the importance of health and safety at work have the same impact as engaging people through a piece of InterActive theatre or planting fake hazards to test awareness?
Would telling people to ‘do more exercise for their health’ actually make them do more exercise? If, however it becomes fun and experiential, won’t they just do it?
InterAct and immersive experiences are embedded into stories. This means that they translate perfectly into films, animations and other forms of digital media which makes these programs easy and inexpensive to sustain and grow.
For many of the projects outlined above we have created SmartBooks (online books with embedded video, InterActivity and downloads), films, powerpoint presentations and animations to grow learning and adoption long after the sessions. In the case of Sandwell Council this media allowed them to create over 100 programs based on our original offer over the following 5 years, many of which won awards in their own right.
This is an idea we have been developing over the last 2 years and is a digital iteration of InterActive theatre. In essence we conduct a webinar for a group of people. They watch a short video of a challenging situation or scenario played out by actors. We discuss and train different ways of dealing with the situation. The actors from the video then appear on-screen in the webinar itself. Participants get their ‘rehearsal for reality’ trying out their ideas and building on each other’s suggestions. They can work in pairs and teams supporting each other in the text and notes facility and the whole experience is recorded as a digital resource they can refer to indefinitely.
Digital InterAct allows people spread across multiple locations to participate engagingly without leaving their desks. The moment they come off the webinar they can put their learning into practice there and then. It’s a great form and one which will grow and grow in the coming years.
We were born to learn through experience. We are not just brains, we think, we feel, we act. To educate one of these facets at the expense of the others seems like a hugely wasted opportunity. InterAct and experiential learning is fun, it’s stimulating and it works… better than any other form of learning and communication I have ever encountered.
When he said “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand” Confucius was not confused.
What do you want people to do with their learning and development… to think about it…. or get stuck in?