What is experiential leadership development? How does it work? Is it effective? These are all valid questions that deserve answers—especially if you run a business or an organization like NASA, which dreamed up landing mankind on the moon. News flash: their trip upwards out of earth’s atmosphere in 1969 was 100% experiential learning.
In this blog post, we will explore the world of experiential leadership training and find out what makes it so special. We’ll start by discussing what experiential learning is and how it works. After that, we’ll take a look at some research on the effectiveness of experiential learning. Finally, we’ll explore how experiential learning supports leadership development.
What Is Experiential Leadership Development?
According to the Association for Experiential Education (AEE), “Experiential education is a process whereby students engage in direct experience and reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, and change attitudes.” In other words, experiential learning is all about hands-on experience. It allows participants to learn by doing, which is often considered to be a more effective way to learn than in traditional classroom settings.
Is Experiential Learning Effective?
The short answer to this question is “yes.” Experiential learning is considered more effective than classroom learning for a number of reasons, including:
1. It engages emotions as well as intellect, providing a higher rate of retention than classroom learning, which may only be accessible to a portion of the students in class. This can drive the information home in a personal and effective way, often outstripping the efficacy of a traditional lecture.
2. It applies theory in a tangible, hands-on way, allowing students to apply what they’ve learned in a way that helps them to remember the theory and add real-world tools to their skillset.
3. It’s a faster way to learn; since experiential learning includes emotions as well as intellect, it relies on critical thinking, problem-solving, and decisive action to solidify a participant’s learning.
4. It can profoundly impact participants, potentially even creating thought paradigm shifts that may end up useful in leadership opportunities to come—often more so than classroom learning.
5. It can be catered to the individual; whereas classroom learning is based on one curriculum to serve all students, experiential learning expands this into personalized learning opportunities.
What Is the Experiential Learning Cycle?
Developed by David Kolb in 1984, Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) relies on four stages: concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. According to Kolb, some learners may have a natural inclination towards one or two stages over the other two, for example—but as long as the information is retained, the experiential learning is considered a success. So, what do the stages of experiential learning mean? They can be broken down as follows:
1. Concrete Learning: This is the phase in which a participant either experiences something new for the first time, or reinterprets a past experience through a new perspective.
2. Reflective Observation: This crucial step is when the participant applies meaning to the experience based on their observations and reflections of what happened.
3. Abstract Conceptualization: During this phase of the learning cycle, a participant will continue their thought process based on their observations, potentially coming to conclusions, forming new ideas, or changing previous thinking patterns.
4. Active Experimentation: Whether through a series of ongoing experimentation or just a one-off attempt, this is the phase in which the learner applies the concepts they’ve come up with as a result of their conceptualization and takes it into real-world practice. This can create another new experience, starting the cycle afresh.
Kolb elaborates that there are four categories of learning styles: diverging, assimilating, converging, and accommodating. A diverging learner is a keen observer that prefers to focus a great deal of energy on the first two steps before stepping into the experimentation. This type of learner may also prefer to work in groups and tend to be curious and imaginative.
An assimilating learner is one who prefers obtaining clear information, perhaps favoring analytics and data over people and emotions. This type of learner excels at both reflective observation and abstract conceptualization.
Converging learners prefer doing over thinking—though they are adept problem-solvers. A converging learner will also likely experiment, excelling in the last two stages of the experiential learning cycle.
An accommodating learner is an intuitive, practical learner who seeks out challenges and actively experiments based on concrete learning for continued growth and development.
Which learning style are you?
Examples of Experiential Learning Activities
There are all kinds of ways to practice ELT. For reference, if you were curious about plant nutritional needs, you might start a composting project. If you were interested in learning to rock climb, you might climb a wall at your local rock gym before learning the beta around the route. If you wanted to better understand wild animals, you might volunteer at a local wildlife sanctuary. The possibilities are only limited by the scope of your imagination and your budget. Other examples of experiential learning activities include:
· Science or art projects
· Role playing
· Keeping a regular journal
· Internship programs or residencies
· Travel or field trips
· Games, escape rooms, or obstacle courses
Benefits of Experiential Learning in Leadership
We’ve already touched on some of the ways experiential learning is more effective than classroom learning—but what are its other benefits? More specifically, why is experiential leadership training important? Here are some of the top reasons why experiential leadership training is beneficial in addition to being effective:
1. It promotes teamwork, as collaboration is often a part of the experiential process. This can strengthen bonds within your community, organization, or business that create crew cohesion and cooperation.
2. It provides an opportunity for hands-on experience, which better equips developing leaders with collaborative, critical thinking, creative problem solving, and decisive action skills in real-time.
3. It inspires confident leadership, as a leader who has more experience solving problems in their field is going to be not only more competent but more confident as well.
4. It creates a productive culture by motivating each participant to step up to the plate and test their knowledge in a tangible way. When more people push for excellence, you develop a strong company culture of productivity and motivated, autonomous leadership.
5. It creates space for reflection. Sometimes, after an experience, we need to straighten out our thoughts through some kind of After Action Review (AAR). In experiential learning theory, the more we can reflect on what worked and what didn’t during an action or experience, the more decisive and effective leaders we can be moving forward.
Experiential Leadership Training With PMLG
Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Experiential Learning Theory, from each learner’s unique learning style to the ELT cycle itself. Now that we know a little bit more about ELT and its efficacy, we must ask: what does experiential learning do for developing leaders? Most find that they retain information better, gain confidence, add to their real-world skillset, and strengthen bonds with their team.