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Experiential learning: The human-centred approach

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Published: April 18, 2024
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Manuel Larenas is a Senior Consultant at Impact North America

When it comes to learning, many of us might think of experiences in traditional, curriculum-based education. We might think of sitting for exams at college or university, surrounded by four bland walls and florescent lighting (yikes). Or we might imagine ourselves sat in front of a screen, working through a content library checklist. 

We probably acquired some facts and information through these methods, but can any of us really say that these experiences motivated us to take action? That they provoked a profound shift in our perspective or behaviour? That they sparked change? 

The truth is that this type of learning isn’t ideal for humans. In other words, it doesn’t create the ideal conditions for transformational learning (I’m using the word ‘transform’ in the literal, most simple sense – as in, to literally change the way we view ourselves, others, and situations). Because at our hearts, we’re not just passive consumers of content, destined to absorb and regurgitate information. We’re emotional, social, fun-loving, imperfect, dynamic, vulnerable human beings, with individual needs, desires, fears and preferences. 

What is experiential learning?

At Impact, we’ve been pioneering our experiential learning methodology since 1980, for one reason and one reason only: Because if lasting change for our world starts with people, we need to take a human-centred approach to learning! 

Our experiential learning methodology integrates the four key ways in which people learn: knowledge acquisition, skills development, direct experience, and reflection. Through each of these modes, the learner adapts, embeds, and reinforces the things they learn. Experiential learning is a dynamic process that occurs when all four of these elements are intertwined and used to test and build on one another.

What’s unique about our approach is that there is no set order or cycle through which the learner should move through the four domains – often it is in the movement between the domains where the learning happens. Ensuring that there is repeated interaction between all four areas is how we use experiential learning in our solutions, as it enables people to experiment, make sense of, link that meaning making to what is innately a priority for them, and drive their own learning. In this way, the learner is always at the centre of the learning.

Why is experiential learning the human-centred approach for learning and change?

1. Treating people like human beings: Our learning solutions treat participants like human beings – not passive content consumers, tick boxes, or machines. Our programmes normally see people working together and learning from each other, they are tailored for their particular context, and they are led by what people actually need – not technology, tools, or content.  

2. Focusing on essential human skills: Experiential learning activates core human skills, such as empathy, dialogue, curiosity, and listening. These are some of the essential capacities that make humans brilliant, that catalyse meaningful human interactions, and that underpin every great leader, innovator, and relationship builder. We don’t try and solve people’s problems for them, nor do we tell them what to do. Instead, we empower them to experiment, have quality conversations, to get curious about themselves and others, and to continuously drive their own learning and growth – and these are the things that shift the dial. 

3. Creating the right conditions: We know that the most powerful learning happens outside of our comfort zones. This is when the growth mindset is unlocked. For this reason, our experiential learning solutions involve inviting people into uncomfortable situations, but they always take place in psychologically safe environments, which we have spent time building and adapting for the individual and the group. Often, this process of psychological safety building gets overlooked on programmes, but these are the foundations that allow the breakthrough moments to emerge – that enable people to experiment, take risks, find the impetus for change, and practise a shift in behaviour. Keeping people in a space of learning rather than performance or panic is key. 

4. Generating awareness: We often say that experiential learning is about enabling people to see themselves – to really see themselves. Our solutions combine challenging experiences with powerful facilitated reflection time to help people notice things about themselves: how they show up, how they react to certain things, where their blind spots are, and what impact their leadership action has on others. Gaining insight into ourselves can empower new perspectives and be a powerful catalyst for change. Part of this is also about being aware of others and their diverse needs and perspectives. All of this contributes to an individual’s awareness of themselves and how they impact upon wider systems, empowering people to be better leaders of teams and to liberate others’ potential.  

5. Sparking positive impact: Experiential learning isn’t an event, it’s an ongoing process. The goal is that people are empowered to transfer the techniques they have learnt into the workplace and beyond, that they can regularly step into uncertainty, hold high-quality dialogue, experiment with new skills, and create psychologically safe environments for learning and growth. And the idea is that they are not only able to do this for themselves, but for others too. When a leader regularly practices (and role models) all of this, the impacts reverberate throughout their team and wider organisation, creating thriving cultures of learning in which human beings can grow, develop, and achieve their potential. 

We know that lasting change starts with human beings – with human behaviour, relationships, mindsets and action. And experiential learning is the most human-centred approach. It empowers learners to lead their own learning, equips them with the skills to practice learning as an ongoing process, and enables them to create these environments and opportunities for others. In this way, experiential learning not only puts the human at the heart of the learning process, but also liberates their potential to create positive change in the world. 

Find out more:

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