Beyond the Ropes – Principles of facilitating experiential learning

Beyond the ropes explains 14 principles of experiential learning.
The author is Martin Thompson, founder of MTa Learning.
The article was first published in 2008.

Despite working as a facilitator of experiential learning for over 30 years and a developer of experiential activities for over 25 years, my understanding of the subject is still far from complete. However, it’s clear to me that some of the underlying principles which appear to be common sense are far from common practice. Let me explain:

Principle 1: The learner is central to the process throughout, the facilitator provides the learner with a service.

The principle that the success of the experiential approach to learning depends on the learners is fundamental. Therefore the facilitator must understand that learners can only make best use of their opportunities if they are ready, willing and able to become personally involved in the learning process: learners have to be prepared to actively develop their understanding, critique and evaluate the messages in their context and then work hard to apply appropriate learning.

Principle 2: Individuals can and do learn without facilitation.

Learners learn experientially by reflecting on their experiences, developing personal insights and understandings through involvement in intellectual, emotional and physical activity. This can be (and often is) done by an individual without any external help. A facilitator is not a prerequisite.

Experiential learning involves people in working things through for themselves and developing their own understanding, so facilitators should always be seeking ways to enable this to happen. Although effective facilitation can add tremendous value, facilitators should remember that inappropriate facilitation can hinder, rather than help learning; they should not instruct, proffer knowledge, proscribe or offer personal wisdom.

Principle 3: A facilitator should help create learning opportunities and enable others to recognise and make good use of these opportunities.

The facilitator can provide help with each aspect of the Learning Arena™ by creating an appropriate learning environment, providing an activity that will initiate the learning process, creating an atmosphere and framework conducive to constructively critical review, (guiding thinking and challenging to developing understanding) ensuring that any conceptual thinking is progressed to meaningful conclusions and opportunities for improvement identified.
Facilitation is a complex and skilled process.

Principle 4: You cannot predict the learning an individual will take from an activity.

Because individuals are personally involved in experiential learning individuals can take very different messages from a single event. An obvious example is one where a person fails to listen to another. If they are to learn, both individuals need to understand their part in their failure to communicate, but the causes could be numerous and therefore each persons learning very different.

So for example, behaviours seen in an individual who isn’t heard could be;
-doesn’t express ideas clearly
-doesn’t check the ‘listener has understood’
-speaks when the other person isn’t ready to listen
-doesn’t help the listener understand the significance of the information,
-fails to develop the idea, backs down when challenged etc.
Similarly example reasons why a ‘listener’ doesn’t listen could be;
-doesn’t see the issue as being important
-prejudges issues
-is distracted by personal thoughts
-doesn’t respect the other person (and or their views).
Therefore one event can provide the individuals involved with quite different or even diametrically opposed personal learning.

Principle 5: There is potential for the learning to be at several levels.

The lists in ‘Principle 4’ give behaviours that can result in individuals not being heard, not reasons for individuals not making themselves heard. Typically addressing and developing behavioural change is less challenging than addressing the reasons.

Taking this example further, it can be seen that there is a hierarchy of challenge that the facilitator can encourage the learner to address:
• realising the need (e.g. I won’t be listened to if the other person is speaking)
• developing the skill (e.g. speaking clearly and concisely)
• developing the confidence or self esteem (e.g. believing that I and my views are of value)
• challenging and changing personal attitudes (e.g. questioning personal drivers and belief systems).

Principle 6: Developing basic skills in a supportive environment is relatively simple: changing day to day behaviour is another matter.

After having read ‘Principle 5’ it might be tempting to go straight to the fundamentals and target attitudes first. (If you have a positive attitude and personal confidence it is easier to implement behavioural change.) However remembering that the learner has to want to learn, it is far safer to build the learners confidence through success with skill development and behavioural change in simple or superficial areas first. When some progress has been made it is time to consider raising and tackling more fundamental issues like personal confidence and attitudes to others.

N.B. A side effect of individuals beginning to use new skills and realise their benefits can be a growth in self esteem and personal confidence.

Principle 7: A learning activity is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The purpose of an experiential learning activity is to create an opportunity for valuable and memorable personal leaning: it is a platform for learning. The ideal activity will engage, stimulate and challenge with individuals becoming absorbed in the task as themselves. It will not involve role play.

All activities must be designed, managed and facilitated carefully so that the activity has impact, but it isn’t so memorable that these ‘activity memories’ override the impact and memory of the learning. If this happens, the lasting memory may be an aspect of the activity, not the learning that was realised.

Principle 8: An effective activity provides the opportunities for learning with as few distractions as possible.

It can be great fun to run ‘big activities’ (although some people hate them) and there is no doubt that ‘ropes courses’ and other outdoor team challenges can generate real learning opportunities and team bonding. However care should be taken with these big activities as the impact of the task may make it difficult focus attention on the learning. Similarly because of the complexity of the task many learning opportunities can be lost: valuable incidents can be forgotten, overlooked or submerged.

Although less memorable in themselves, running several short activities (10 – 30minutes) each followed by its own learning review will often have far greater long term impact that one big activity.

Principle 9: The learning review is a vital stage of every activity. It should be planned as part of the design, not left to chance.

Reviews can take many forms but all must engage the learners. The ideal review will involve the learner in personal thought, challenge and discussion before coming to some form of conclusion. It is often useful if a period of individual reflection, guided by open-ended or tick-box questionnaires, is followed by a facilitated discussion.

If it is to be of real benefit, the review must be an honest critique of what happened and the contributions of each individual. Real issues should not be swept under the carpet, but equally criticism must be constructive.

Principle 10: Remember to learn from the positives

It is all too easy to focus on the negatives. It’s obvious that if something goes wrong, or just doesn’t go as well as we hoped, there will be benefit in review and change. It can, however, be equally beneficial to review what’s gone well. It’s not only motivating to recognise and focus on success, but finding out what caused the success and seeking ways to make greater or wider use of it can reap tangible rewards.

Principle 11: A review discussion is an opportunity for learners, helped by the facilitator, to develop their own understanding and draw their own conclusions.

The role of the facilitator is to enable others to learn by drawing out the issues and developing the learning that is relevant to the individuals. The facilitator should ask questions that will stimulate thought about relevant issues and enable the group to use answers given to develop further thought and learning.

Principle 12: Don’t tell people what they should learn.

An observer is in a privileged position, often seeing aspects that are not obvious to others. If you observe a point that isn’t raised during a review it is legitimate to raise it, but only through questioning. If, despite questioning, individuals don’t relate to the point, there is no benefit in pursuing as any ‘learning’ will not be theirs. A better option is for you to run another activity designed to focus more attention on this specific point.

Whatever happens, don’t be tempted to provide a ‘professional analysis’ as this approach takes the ownership of the learning away from the individual.

Principle 13: Believe in the learners: they can and will make experiential learning opportunities work for them.

To be an effective facilitator of experiential learning you have to believe, really believe, in others. You have to believe that they have the potential to make progress and be committed to the fact that your role is to provide opportunities for others to learn and progress.

Principle 14: Forget your ego. Your success is individuals capitalising on their personal learning.

As an effective facilitator you have to be satisfied with the knowledge that you offer and develop opportunities for others to learn, many of which will go unused or undervalued. You have to accept that you are not offering ‘tangible and technical’ contributions and therefore will not be able to look back and say ‘I taught this person x or y’.

If you’re lucky however, every now and again in the years to come you will hear of some far reaching consequences that will go way beyond what you could ever have hoped or imagined.

Getting Started

The best way is to have a go: experience the process. Find a group of people who are happy to be ‘guinea pigs’ and just try a simple activity that is tried and tested. You may have been on the receiving end of one that you could use, but if not check out to see the range of experiential activities I have developed.

When you do, please remember;
• experiential learning should be stimulating and challenging for everyone
• to review and learn from the way you facilitated the process: seek areas of success for you to build upon as well as areas where you know can improve
• effective facilitation is a highly complex process: developing the skills offers potential for life long learning and personal reward.