The Four Corners of Experiential Learning

April 10, 2024

Over the past twenty-five years, it’s been such a fulfilling experience to watch how experiential learning has made its way into every facet of education. From the application of ideas in corporate education, to rethinking college classrooms, to imagining the K-12 experience from a project-based approach around how we teach “The Three Little Pigs” to student research, you can’t pick up a brochure or strategic plan for learning without “learning through experience” being at the core.

…and I think we’re just beginning the journey.

As Knowledge Launch gets ready to embark on its twenty-fifth year, I’m committed to think more concretely around the principles that crystallize effective experiential learning. Over the year, I’m looking forward to diving into them and thinking about new ways to apply them in light of emerging technologies, new expectations, and a willingness to completely reimagine the delivery of learning (which was a silver lining from COVID.)

So, with that… Here are the four principles I look forward to exploring together.

Compelling environments: The best experiential learning takes a participant (notice I don’t say ‘learner’ because experiential learning requires leaning in to participate) outside of a comfort zone. We build actual houses to explore technology infrastructure. We take participants to neighborhoods in emerging cities. We create virtual experiences to allow participants to assume new roles. All of these environments are created to drive focus and a willingness to suspend long held constraints about capabilities and beliefs that “what I’m learning can’t be applied here.”

Case-based fact patterns: It’s easy to gloss over the abstract. It doesn’t apply to me and certainly doesn’t make sense in my context. However, chewing over a fact pattern or a case allows participants to suspend disbelief and to immerse themselves into a business, a challenge, or an opportunity that requires specific solutions and answers. There has to be a deliverable. It may be a presentation or it may be a prototype, but a case allows for a different kind of engagement with content.

Community-building: The environment for impact requires individuals to collaborate, recognize strengths and build on them to help drive purpose. The best experiential learning doesn’t happen in a silo. Rather, it allows for new connections to be built and drives home the need for multiple voices to be used to answer big questions. It also allows participants to gain perspectives on how diverse insights can lead to different and often better solutions. As technologies continue to improve, the ability to bring in those perspectives through augmented reality and unimagined tools will allow for deeper, more exciting opportunities to build community.

Competitive impulse: Participants need motivation. After looking at a lot of ways to do this, from cash rewards to recognition, I’ve come to believe that the itch that most participants want to scratch is to compete and show mastery of a topic or of an opportunity. Competition doesn’t always have to be against another participant. Sometimes, it can be trying to beat your own performance or historical results. However, giving a participant a chance to improve a score or find the way to a leaderboard often seems to be the secret sauce for someone to fully engage.

Throughout our teams, I use this lens as an initial test for the strength of an experiential learning design. This year, we’re committed to drilling down on these further and pushing the envelope for how we improve our own environments to build stronger cases that build community and allow for our participants to recognize they are a part of the best learning experience.