Scott's Note:

My pal Thiagi had some great thoughts that he expressed in the TRDEV list. He graciously allows me to edit and repost them for the benefit of our readers:


Thiagi's Thinking on Experiential Learning (and its benefits)

by: Sivasailam Thiagarajan <thiagi@THIAGI.COM>


The Intelligent Choice

Our Australian colleagues Phil Rutherford and John Sleigh had very useful comments regarding Pam Wyess' request for explanations why experiential learning works. Here are some additional rationale from another one my articles:

WHEN TRAINERS CHALLENGE ME with "Why should I use games and experiential activities", I list impressive research findings from cognitive sciences. These findings suggest that traditional training is severely limited -- and interactive, experiential techniques have great potential.

Here are some specific details:

YOU ARE OF TWO MINDS. Professor Seymour Epstein at the University of Massachusetts has a ground-breaking theory of intelligence called Cognitive Experiential Self Theory (CEST), which suggests that we have an experiential mind and a rational mind. Our experiential mind learns directly, thinks quickly, pays attention to the outcome, and forgets slowly. Our rational mind learns indirectly, thinks deliberately, pays attention to the process, and forgets rapidly. Epstein's contention is that you need both your minds. Games and interactive strategies appeal directly to the experiential mind. When combined with debriefing discussions, they provide a powerfully balanced approach to whole-brain learning.

YOU HAVE THREE INTELLIGENCES. Robert J. Sternberg, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University, has demonstrated that someone can be highly creative and practical but have a low IQ. According to Sternberg's research, practical and creative intelligence are better predictors of job effectiveness than analytical intelligence which is measured by IQ tests. Interactive, experiential techniques can develop your practical and creative intelligence and enhance your success.

YOU HAVE SEVEN INTELLIGENCES. Professor Howard Gardner at the Harvard University developed the revolutionary concept of multiple intelligences. According to this theory, you have (at least) seven types of intelligence:

linguistic intelligence (thinking in words and using language),
logical-mathematical intelligence (quantifying and working with hypotheses),
kinesthetic intelligence (acquiring physical skills),
spatial intelligence (three-dimensional thinking),
musical intelligence (working with pitch, rhythm, timbre, and tone),
interpersonal intelligence (interacting with others), and
intrapersonal intelligence (understanding one's self).

Traditional training caters almost exclusively to the first two intelligences. However, jobs demand other types of intelligence. Games and experiential activities tap into all of your intelligences and get you ready for the real world

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING. In his national bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman draws upon brain and behavioral research to show that being smart goes beyond your IQ. You need emotional intelligence with self-awareness, impulse control, persistence, motivation, and empathy. The principles and procedures related to emotional intelligence are best learned by experiencing these factors and analyzing their impact. Traditional training fails miserably to sharpen our emotional intelligence. Experiential and interactive approaches are obvious strategies of choice.

THERE ARE NO MAGIC BULLETS. But decades of research studies endorse games, simulations, and other experiential activities that use of different types of intelligence.


Some More Thoughts

The following statements are my opinions based on facilitating experiential activities for the past 97 years. Although you can find empirical data to support any of these opinions in any introductory psychology text, I make no claims about their scientific validity or generalizability.

In the late 60s I took a course on mathematical theories of learning from a brilliant psychologist, Frank Restle. As an impertinent young grad student I decided to reduce all validated principles of learning to seven laws to fulfil the course assignment. Thirty years later I dusted them off and incorporated in an editorial comment in November issue to the GameLetter to explain why experiential learning is so powerful and how they can be made more powerful.


Here's a quick recap of the seven laws of learning that have consistently worked with different groups in different countries. After a brief statement of each law, I discuss how it applies to interactive, experiential learning activities.

LAW OF REINFORCEMENT: Participants learn to repeat behaviors that are rewarded.

I make sure that training activities provide several opportunities for earning rewards. I require participants to make frequent decisions and responses. The scoring system rewards people for correct responses. During the first few rounds of the activity, even partially-correct answers are rewarded. The reward is clearly associated with the response. In addition to score points, participant behaviors earn such social rewards as praise and recognition from team members and spectators.


LAW OF EMOTIONAL LEARNING: Events that are accompanied by intense emotions result in long-lasting learning.

I constantly remind myself that boredom is not conducive to learning. Training games, simulations, and role plays add emotional element to learning. I make sure that emotions don't become too intense and interfere with learning. I also make sure that participants don't learn dysfunctional behaviors because of intense emotions. I debrief participants after emotional activities to analyze their feelings and learn from their reactions. Sometimes I conduct specially-designed games to help participants unlearn undesirable behaviors acquired in the grip of powerful emotions.


LAW OF ACTIVE LEARNING: Active responding produces more effective learning than passive listening or reading.

I intersperse lectures and reading assignments with active-learning episodes such as quizzes and puzzles. I provide participants with ample opportunities to respond by asking questions, encouraging them to ask questions, answering their questions, and questioning their answers.


LAW OF PRACTICE AND FEEDBACK: Learners cannot master skills without repeated practice and relevant feedback.

I don't confuse understanding a procedure with ability to perform it. I invest ample time in conducting activities that provide repeated practice and feedback. I make sure that the training activities incorporate immediate and useful feedback from peers and experts. I use rating scales, checklists, and other devices to ensure that the feedback is objective and useful.


LAW OF PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE: New learning should be linked to (and build upon) the experiences of the learner.

I check the entry level of the participants by using appropriate activities. I remind myself that adults bring a variety of rich experiences to the training classroom. I design activities to ensure easy adjustments to fit different entry levels and to incorporate relevant experiences. I frequently use Structured Sharing formats (see July TGL) to help participants share their experiences.


LAW OF INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES: Different people learn in different ways.

My training activities accommodate a variety of learning styles. I make sure that participants can respond by writing, speaking, drawing, and acting out. I encourage and permit participants to learn individually, in pairs, and in teams. Through team-learning activities, I ensure that participants receive individual attention from their peers. I use a variety of scoring systems to encourage different learning styles.


LAW OF RELEVANCE: Effective learning is relevant to the learner's life and work.

I use simulations and role plays to increase the link between the learning situation and the real world. My games incorporate realistic problems and challenges from a variety of workplace situations. After a training activity, I debrief the participants and discuss strategies for applying what they learned in the game to their real-world context. I require the participants to walk the talk and to demonstrate their ability to transfer abstract theory to concrete conditions.


Are you a law-abiding trainer? Both common sense and empirical research support [maybe] support these seven laws of learning. they apply to all types of learning by all types of learners. Check your most recent training activity against the seven laws. Which ones did you make use of and which ones did you violate? When you design your next training activity use these laws as an evaluation checklist.



Sivasailam Thiagarajan
4423 East Trailridge Road
Bloomington, IN 47408

Telephone: 812.332.1478
FAX: 812.332.5701


(Visit our site for free experiential activities and facilitation tips)

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