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.
Learning from others—and by ourself
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