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Tell me about experiential learning
An Interview with Martin Thompson
This extract is based on an interview with Martin Thompson (MT), the founder of MTa Learning, by Evgeny Dotzenko (ED), Head of the HR Consulting Department in the Training Institute, Russia.
ED: What is the basic principle behind experiential learning?
MT: The basic principle behind experiential learning is that individuals are encouraged to work things out for themselves. In doing so they developing learning appropriate to them as individuals together with the commitment to make best use of that learning.
ED: Martin, when did you first realize that experiential learning is really worth something?
MT: I don’t remember specifically, but I do remember when I gave my first session using experiential learning. This happened after graduating from Cambridge University when I had my internship at Cadbury’s. I was assigned to teach the foremen some basics of accounting. I was allowed to do anything so I decided that the packing room would be the learning venue. We began exploring financial accounting by calculating specific costs related to the packing department. We calculated all the fixed and variable costs, counting everything that came in and went out.
At that time I was not aware that I had used experiential learning – I arrived at this method quite naturally. I was not taught it at school or university and I didn’t attend any special courses or training.
ED: So how did you understand that this is the approach that must be used, nurtured and developed?
MT: It worked!
ED: What do you like about this approach best of all?
MT: I like that it really engages people. It enables them to become something more than they are, because they learn something really important and relevant for them – something that they can relate with their real life situations. This is the learning that has real value for them.
ED: How do you evaluate the efficiency of your method – how do you estimate whether it worked or not?
MT: By the feedback that I get – often some time after the session. When I meet with some of the participants perhaps 12 months or 5 years later, and they tell me what changes occurred and what experiential learning gave them.
You can judge the effect even in a short timescale. Just think what changes could be observed here, in the course of this seminar (internal training at the Training Institute, ED. note). The effect is obvious. But it’s even more interesting to track the changes within one organization during several years after the experiential learning session. I have examples of peoples lives changing after a seminar or former participants getting promoted to high positions and demonstrating a willingness to train their people using experiential learning activities.
The most exciting thing is when people begin trusting experiential learning not only in their professional lives, but in their private lives, too, helping them to make positive changes.
ED: Experiential Learning is spreading and is popular now, and people tend to believe that using this method is very easy. But what are the critical aspects of it – if you could put them in two or three words?
MT: To really understand what experiential learning is, one must experience it. And it creates a real challenge. No lecture, article or book, however detailed and thought through it may be, can bring people to understand the deepness and effectiveness of this approach until they try it.
If you think of it, when one learns to walk, talk or interact with parents, it is experiential learning.
ED: You have been developing MTa’s unique Experiential Learning method for 35 years. Do you think that interest in it is still growing?
MT: The interest in it grows but in different countries in different ways. There is one potentially serious issue though – experiential learning may get a bad reputation, because some specialists have reduced it to the ‘game for the sake of the game’. The term experiential learning is used for anything – even paintball or handball. Playing for the sake of entertainment can never become the platform for learning.
ED: What kind of pitfalls should facilitators of experiential learning avoid?
МТ: Often facilitators focus on designing very long and complex activities that may take more than 1 or 2 hours, but provide little, if any, effective learning. Even a 10 minute activity can give rich food for thought, producing a two hour, in-depth discussion. Unfortunately, where the activity takes one, two or five hours only to be followed by a 10 minute debriefing or when the facilitator themselves tells the participants what they were supposed to learn in the process of the activity the power of experiential learning is greatly diminished .
ED: What would you recommend for those who are interested in experiential learning? What could they read or look out for?
МТ: They should do some activities with a good facilitator and get some hands-on experience with experiential learning activities.
ED: This is your first visit to Russia and your first acquaintance with Russians, isn’t it? What are you thoughts on using experiential learning in Russia?
МТ: Not quite. I have had a chance of working with Russians, but not in Russia.
In a broader sense, Russians are not different from other people (not taking into consideration cultural and other external differences), but as for their learning or behaviour during an experiential learning workshop, people are the same, be it Mumbai, Chicago or anywhere else…
Of course, here in Russia people have their own characters, and they are to be taken into account. Still, all superficial differences fade away rather quickly. Deep inside people are people, and the principles of their learning processes are the same.