The Problems Caused By Experiential Learning


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Many years before I fully understood extroverted and neurotypical privileges, I participated in several experiential learning sessions. The obvious goal of one of the sessions was to solve a problem as a team in a high-risk simulation. The underlying goal was to do it in a way that made people trust you and want to work with you. The most “trusted” people in the end were the “winners”.

All of this left me with a bad taste in my mouth, but it wasn’t until I sat down and drew up a list of ways people are encouraged to gain confidence and seem “fun to work with” that impacted me. how incredibly it was excluding the whole experience.

Many gamification-style learning experiences are designed to encourage extroverted and neurotypical behaviors. Think fast. Move faster. Take a smile. To sing. Run around. Dress up in fun hats. Think aloud. Solve the problem quickly on the spot. Be gregarious. Be a risk taker. Collaborate. Collaborate. Collaborate.

If you don’t “pull away” regularly from the workplace, it may be easy to engage in such activities, perhaps even fun. But for marginalized people, creating situations like this can often lead to greater marginalization and alarming insecurity. In the case of this particular simulation, remaining silent, observing, and taking on a supporting role, which are surely features we also need in the workplace, were safe ways to label ourselves as “unreliable”.

Related: Why inclusive collaboration is the answer to a company’s most existential threats

How the other destroys security

A feature of this type of learning experience is often the “gotcha” moment. Spend two hours trying to solve a problem only to discover that your computer never had enough context to solve it or that the problem was intentionally unsolvable. Instruct the almighty consultant-facilitator to say “I understand!” before continuing to tell a bit of the complicated story morality that equates your learning experience with the day-to-day work in your organization.

Lack of psychological security in this type of exercise is deeply problematic. Trying to get people to change their behavior without making them safe first is a model for failure, and only aggravates the pain felt by marginalized groups, as their differences are felt as reasons for reprimand rather than diversity. to be honored.

According to UC Berkeley’s multimedia magazine Othering and Belonging: “Other” is a term that not only encompasses the many expressions of prejudice based on group identities, but also provides a clarifying framework that reveals a set of processes and conditions. common. which propagate group-based inequality and marginality. “The other is” a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that generate persistent marginality and inequality in any of the full range of human differences based on group identities. “

Unintentional disruption of participants in learning design is an issue that needs much more attention. In short, many experiential learning sessions are built on the premise that a team working in harmony and homogeneity is the best way to solve problems and manage difficult problems in the workplace. He treats collaboration as the ultimate goal and combines openness and gregariousness with trust without considering the dozens of other ways in which people work and provide value to their teams and organizations.

Related: 6 ways to lead neurodiversity in the workplace

The assumption of collaboration

Much of life is virtual now, which means that being present is often overlooked as a valid contribution. In other words, to be perceived as “appearing,” you need to talk about something in Slack’s chat, email, Zoom call, social media feed, and more. The concept of contribution is much externalized, which is then equated with value, because this is what jobs with extroverted privileges claim to be so important: collaboration.

And yet there is a long line of scientists, artists, innovators, and professional dreamers working alone, quietly waiting on the wings of history to prove that not a word needs to be said to create something that can change the world. world.

Collaboration and teamwork have room, for sure. But presenting them as the only way to solve problems makes a big flashback to people who work well on their own, who don’t need to speak often or out loud to have valuable things to offer, and who may prefer accuracy to speed. to get the job done. done well.

The truth is that not all collaboration is good collaboration. Ambiguity, group thinking, lack of clarity about roles, and talking too much, are all ways in which collaboration can fail. Understanding who is doing the work and who is riding in the head can also be difficult and can lead to interpersonal conflicts that ultimately damage projects, teams, and relationships.

Ways to create more inclusive learning experiences

To ensure that your learning experiences are truly inclusive, it is crucial to design learning and training with high standards of psychological safety and to consider the impact on the most marginalized people in the room. Here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • Have all participants felt safe? Psychologically safe? Mentally, physically and emotionally safe?

  • Have you reviewed people about to be subjected to high-pressure simulations to make sure none of them suffer from social anxiety, PTSD, sensory processing sensitivities, or any other mental health issues that could lead to triggers and collapses?

  • Is the only way to “win” this activity through extroverted and neurotypical behavior?

  • Is the only way to win is collaboration?

  • Are people discouraged from potentially using their strengths, who may not align with this high-pressure situation, and therefore feel less or alienated?

  • Does the activity itself take into account people with hearing processing disorders and sensory processing disorders?

  • Above all, what is the learning goal that requires high pressure / experiential / gamification learning experiences as opposed to some other vehicle to learn and change behavior?

Related: How to talk about the diversity of disability in the workplace

In my 20-year career as a learning and development professional, I have often heard colleagues say that there is discomfort for true learning to occur. There are two problems with this approach to learning. First, the world itself is a source of discomfort for many people who do not fit into privileged categories, so why should we make them even more uncomfortable as we learn? “No pain, no gain” is an archaic practice that even the most die-hard athletes no longer subscribe to. Second, there are many safe ways to get people to stretch, flex, and grow without being insecure. Good learning experiences that are backed by a good user experience can ensure that goals are achieved without losing half (or more) of participants along the way.

Keeping people safe is kind. Keeping expectations clear is kind. Minimizing ambiguity is kind. Teaching people in a way that honors their strengths and wiring is not only friendly, but also helps you achieve those learning goals and honors the hard work your L&D team did in the learning experience first. For truly effective learning experiences, security and inclusion are essential.

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