A story about the power of experiential learning

by Adrian Segar

What approach should we use to teach participation techniques for meeting sessions?

With the rise of social learning and the decline in importance of formal learning, perhaps we should use experiential learning. On the other hand, in the same time needed to experience a limited set of participation techniques we can comprehensively describe many more. There again, perhaps experiencing a participation technique directly is a more effective way to cement both learning it and truly understanding its relevance. So, if we are teaching participation techniques, which of these two approaches is a better path for learning?

J’s light-bulb moment
Earlier this week I led a workshop at Meeting Professionals International’s World Education Congress (WEC). The 150-minute session covered a variety of techniques that foster and support meaningful participation during meetings. Participants spent most of their time using these techniques to learn about and connect with each other and explore questions about their experience at WEC and in the session itself.

As the workshop progressed, and I heard from the forty-six participants, it became clear that one of them, whom I’ll call J, had considerable prior experience with the techniques I was facilitating.

Near the end of the workshop I ran Plus/Delta (described in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love): a method that provides a fast, public evaluation of a session or entire meeting. As an advocate for transparency and feedback, I chose the subject of our Plus/Delta to be a group evaluation of the workshop itself. During the evaluation, J commented that he had hoped that I would cover more techniques by talking about them rather than having attendees experience them directly. He then contributed a simple and ingenious way to extend Plus/Delta that was new to me.

My heart sank, just a little. Here was J, an experienced facilitator of participation techniques, proposing that I should spend the workshop talking about techniques rather than facilitating experiences of them. Could I be going about this wrong?

I moved immediately into the last technique of the workshop, running fishbowl: a simple way to facilitate focused discussion with a large group. All participants sit in a large circle of chairs, but only people in the “fishbowl”, a small circle of chairs at the center, can speak. After a few minutes of comments, J entered the fishbowl.

J said that he had read about fishbowls many times before and he understood how they worked, but he had never tried one.

And then, to my surprise and delight, he told us that experiencing the fishbowl had been a revelation to him, because he had directly experienced the power of the technique in a way that significantly enhanced his understanding of it, which he had previously believed to be sufficient. It was poignant for me to hear J express a new point of view that contradicted what he had said only a few minutes earlier, and I admired his courage in sharing his learning with us all.

I too have struggled over the years to define the best balance between understanding techniques through description and understanding them through direct experience. J’s light-bulb moment fits for me; these days I am content to let attendees learn participation techniques, first through direct experience and then, if necessary, via reflection and discussion.

Postscript
At the end of the workshop, J hung around and we talked while I was packing up my equipment for a flight home.

He told me that his fishbowl sharing had unexpectedly reminded him of a session he had once attended, entitled “One hundred icebreakers in one hundred minutes”, consisting of rapid descriptions of a hundred ways to introduce attendees to each other.

His rueful comment?

“I don’t remember any of them.”

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  • It’s always fun to watch someone’s light bulb go off as their preconceived ideas are challenged and they suddenly get it!

    Adrian, I know that you’ve been touting that participating in an activity is better than listening about it for years. Thank goodness you’ve never tired from that mantra or strayed from your beliefs. You know it works. Getting others to try it is often the biggest challenge!

    Thankfully, the payoff is still the same. It works!

    • Jeff, it’s true that witnessing an “aha” like J’s now and again really maintains my motivation to advocate for what is still, unfortunately, quite a radical way to run conference sessions. Thanks for another piece of valued reinforcement.

      And I appreciate you for encouraging me last year to submit a proposal to MPI when I had my doubts about whether my work was appropriate for the conference. You told me that you thought I should and you were right; thank you for that!

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