Sometimes you CAN learn from experience

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People do not learn from experience. You may think you learn from experience but…People only learn from reflecting on their experience…

…This is why all education programming needs to adopt and adapt reflection and debriefing exercises during the session. If not, people will not learn.
—Jeff Hurt, Time To Face This Ironic Truth: We Do Not Learn From Experience

Jeff Hurt’s recent post makes the case for incorporating reflection/debriefing into all conference sessions. While I completely agree with him that these activities should be included, I think a small clarification is in order.

His post implies that you must debrief participant experience at events in order for learning to occur. If that were true, you would never learn anything from a lecture. While it’s true that lectures are one of the worst ways to attempt to teach people anything, there’s no question that some learning occurs via lectures for some people some of the time.

You probably discovered at school that if you took notes during a lecture (interestingly, handwritten notes seem to be more effective than typed notes) you retained more of the material than if you simply listened and tried to remember the lecture points later. This is because note-taking is a form of personal reflection/debriefing; it forces you to process, to some degree, the information you are hearing and this improves your associated memory and understanding, and consequent accuracy, quantity, and length of recall.

What this means is that it’s possible to learn from experience without external prompting or exercises—if you are capable of doing the necessary reflection yourself. One of the most powerful learning disciplines you can cultivate is the practice of regular reflection on your own experiences. I know that many impactful decisions and changes in my life have occurred through ongoing self-reflection rather than the feedback or advice of others.

During our education, we are rarely taught the value of regular honest self-reflection. By “honest” I mean self-reflection that neither avoids beating oneself up over “mistakes” or hard-to-stomach experiences nor glossing over them. Instead, cultivating your ability to dispassionately notice what is happening to you and periodically reflecting on what you have noticed allows you to learn effectively by yourself.

Having said this, I want to be clear that there is great value in learning from others. Conversation and connection with others give you opportunities to uncover and clarify your tacit knowledge: things bubbling under the surface that you don’t know you know. I think that a majority of our important learning occurs in this way. But we should not discount our significant capability to learn by ourselves.

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflection with others and by yourself will allow you to maximize your learning throughout your life.

Photo attribution: Flickr user markybon

Sometimes words are not enough

Adrian, Cara and grandkids on the top of Castle Rock
Adrian, Cara, and grandkids on the top of Castle Rock

A family picture taken on an Adirondack peak. We made it!

What was the journey like?

I’m not going to attempt to tell you. You had to be there.

We live in a world full of explanations. Sometimes it seems that we should be able to explain everything with the right words.

And yet it’s so hard to convey what an interactive participant-centered event is like to someone who hasn’t experienced one. I’ve tried to explain to over a thousand people the power and value of the Conferences That Work meeting format. Some people “get it” right away. But a significant number remain skeptical, somewhat unconvinced.

I end up advising people they have to participate in a Conferences That Work event to truly understand what this kind of learning and connection can be like. When they do, 98 percent become converts. The most common comment on evaluations is: “I don’t want to go to traditional events any more.

Why does this happen over and over again? Perhaps it’s because we live in a world where people are led to expect “experience” as something produced by a minority and broadcast to a group: experience as entertainment. Somehow we ignore the reality that the most important learning moments in our lives invariably occur when we participate and connect via sharing with others. Entertainment is fine when we’re tired and want to zone out in front of the TV and watch a movie. But entertainment rarely leads to long-term learning, growth, and change.

I salute and appreciate the growing number of people who are willing to risk saying “Yes!” to an event experience they don’t understand. Eventually, perhaps, participant-driven and participation-rich formats will become the new normal for face-to-face events.

Until then, we need to remember that, sometimes, words are not enough.