How experiential learning gives you lessons you'll never forget

How experiential learning gives you lessons you’ll never forget

1st March 2019

Take a walk around the headquarters of Ashridge Hult Executive Education and you might stumble upon a group of people apparently goofing around on a slackline. Don’t be fooled though, these people aren’t slackers. They’re on an Ashridge course.

Along with joining a pit crew, playing the ukulele, running a simulated business for a very sped-up year and building Lego models, walking a slackline is one of the many activities that Ashridge faculty use to drum vital leadership skills into executive training participants.

It’s all part of a training approach called experiential learning, or what is more commonly known as learning by doing – a form of teaching that is as old as learning itself.

Before most people had the option of going to school, ancient crafts would be passed down through apprenticeships. Our brain is hardwired to respond to such lessons.

In education, the traditional classroom experience, which in management training translates to seminars and lectures, is a relatively new development that on its own, has varying degrees of success.

Experiential learning is going through a renaissance in leadership and management development, and it’s clear why.

Think back to your own learning experiences and chances are the ones you remember the most are the ones where a teacher was able to bring a subject to life. For instance, learning about biology in the park, surrounded by living things.

A large body of research confirms our intuitive sense that learning by doing can be more effective than trying to absorb large amounts of information in a classroom setting.

And in management, learning properly is in many ways more important than when you are at school. Make a mistake as a high school student and you might flunk your exams. Make a mistake as a CEO and your entire business could go under.

That is precisely why, for example, business investors appreciate the presence of ‘gray hair’ on the boards of the companies they are looking to back.

Older executives are expected to have had more opportunity to learn from mistakes, making them a safer bet to take a business forward.

The best business schools try to emulate and accelerate this process for less experienced managers. The challenge is how to cram a lifetime of learning into a short leadership program. It isn’t enough just to hope that some of the classic mistakes of management will crop up by chance while a student is on a course.

Instead, by creating situations where a particular outcome is highly likely, teachers can get participants to learn valuable lessons quickly, that can later be translated to their own work setting.

The trick, says Rachel Sceats, head of experiential learning at Ashridge is to make sure that activities are carefully selected to meet the aims of a training program, and then fully integrated into the overall course structure.

Without this strong integration, there is always a danger that a practical exercise will end up like so many corporate away days: fun for some, perhaps, but otherwise largely devoid of business value.

Perhaps the best example of this ability for experiential learning to condense traditional learning cycles is in a program called The Leadership Experience.

Ashridge claims that it normally takes 10 years of bitter experience in the field for a leader to acquire the knowledge obtained in this program. Based on extensive research, the program condenses this learning into just three and a half days.

In a program that is described as ‘not for the faint-hearted’, involving a uniquely immersive simulation that puts participants under ‘carefully measured stress’, attendees get a crash course in:

· Making decisions within uncertain, ambiguous contexts

· Stepping up to take responsibility and to lead

· Delivering results through and with others

· Handling difficult conversations

· Managing stress and recovery.

The beauty of the program is that it does all of this in a completely safe environment, where it is OK to fail. “It’s giving you experience of things you will need to do to progress at work” says Rachel, “It’s a really remarkable way of learning.”

Paul Griffith
Professor of Practice

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