Experiential learning - Interview with Kathryn Ann Alder

Attēls: RSVP Logo

The publishing of this interview is coordinated with RSVP Design.


RSVP (répondez s'il vous plaît) reminds me the meaning "Please confirm, reply“. How and why this abbreviation became your educational brand?

You are right! RSVP does mean those things in French. However, for us the name came from the first letters of 4 words that we use when we design our activities. We want our activities to be Relevant, Simple (for a trainer to use and set up - no complex equipment, no need to take hours getting the activity ready), Versatile (lots of different applications so that it offers good value to those who buy it) and Practical (hands on, engaging people in doing something, a practical illustration of theoretical learning). However, we also like the idea that we extend an invitation to our clients to work with us and they reply!

What do you mean by experiential learning?

Experiential learning is the process by which we learn from our experiences: the things that happen to us. We learn most successfully when we go through 4 steps in a process: having the experience, taking time to notice what happened and reflect on that (eg. Did I get the results I was looking for, how did that person respond to my questions, how did I feel at the time?) drawing conclusion after our reflection and then using those conclusions to plan a new action that we can apply to a similar future experience. If we fail to go through those steps we may fail to learn from experience, meaning that we repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Or we jump to incorrect conclusions and so fail to improve our performance and simply make a new set of errors!

We help people to develop this ‘learning competence’ by giving them structured experiences, carefully designed de-briefs and development plans to enable them to apply their learning as they move forward.

Which are the main skills that RSVP develops the most?

RSVP Design aims to offer resources and an approach to training that supports people in becoming more effective and independent learners. So I guess you could say our real expertise is in ‘learning to learn’. We have three main aspects to our work:

  1. Training trainers in experiential learning methods and facilitation skills so that they can use those in their own training work, whatever the subject of their training
  2. Designing specific learning programmes, events and activities for our clients in order to meet their needs (eg. Designing a leadership simulation for a business school, or designing an activity to illustrate a particular theoretical model that a client uses)
  3. Creating tools that focus on a specific learning area (eg communication skills, negotiating skills, project management skills, teamwork skills). Most of our work focuses on the skills people need to work with other people in teams and organisations, eg. teamwork, management and leadership skills. However, we also work in other areas such as innovation and strategy development.

What do you think trainers and educators can do to improve their training?

I think there are a number of key problems with the way a lot of education and training is designed and presented. Some of the issues are:

  • Students lack compelling reasons to learn - they do training because it is expected and it becomes a ‘tick-box’ exercise
  • Students learn passively rather than actively
  • Training content is seen as knowledge to be gained and remembered rather than skills to be acquired
  • Training and educational environments are competitive rather than collaborative
  • Too many learning sessions use a ‘one size fits all approach’ which does not address different individual needs
  • Learners do not feel accountable for their own learning: they don’t manage their learning themselves

I think trainers can do a great deal to improve the quality of their training provision and address some of these problems. Here are some suggestions!

  • Learn more about how people learn and use this to design a learning process that helps to build leader’s confidence and ability to direct their own learning.
  • Use activity based-learning. Match the activity to the learning objectives and use it to sensitise learners to issues or to provide a rehearsal ground in which they can practise skills.
  • Ensure that there is plenty of group work and discussion and that many voices are heard. Build in time for reflection - give students a chance to think about the content and work out their own responses - don’t be afraid of silence.
  • Use repetition - give students the chance to repeat similar activities (perhaps adding a change of an increase in complexity each time) so that they have genuine opportunities to apply their learning.
  • Ensure that after every training students have specific action points that they can take away and work on. We want all training to lead to change i.e. students should do something differently as a result of their training.

According to your experience, can you estimate to where will the experiential education will be developing in the coming years?

Experiential learning was a very popular concept some years ago but it was mainly associated with outdoor learning, team building and personal development work. It tended to use big, challenging experiences such as climbing, ropes courses and navigation activities, combined with problem-solving tasks, to give people personal and team challenges. Then it became less popular in corporate training because it took a long time, was expensive and because the outdoor environment did not work for everyone.

Now I think the understanding of what we mean by experiential learning has changed somewhat and it is becoming much more popular again - but we think of it as a learning methodology rather than a particular type of activity. We no longer really need to train people in ‘subject content’ or knowledge. People can find anything they need to know on the internet! Instead we need to work with people on different skills: research skills, critical thinking skills, change management skills, relationship building skills and facilitation skills. We need to focus on generic skills that help people to be flexible, adaptable and to be able to contribute effectively to changing teams, changing organisations and constantly changing pressures. We believe the most important skill that experiential learning methods offer is the ability to learn from your own experiences. Experiential learning is beginning to focus much more on giving people opportunities to rehearse and refine their skills and behaviours in activities that are ‘simulations’ of their real life experience and represent the complexity of modern organisations.

What are the most significant current themes in leadership and management training, in your opinion?

I think a number of themes that are emerging are really important as we think about the world we will live in in the future.

One is sustainability. How do we create leaders with a real focus on building organisations that are contributing to the sustainability of our environment and our communities? How do we encourage longer-term thinking, even if this is at the expense of short-term profit? How do we encourage big organisations to make more responsible decisions? How can every employee contribute to the reduction of waste, re-use of valuable resources and the care of people in our society?

Another issue is the need for much better training in critical thinking, supporting the ability to make sense of the vast amounts of information we see every day. We do not need to teach people how to access information or give them more knowledge - they can find out everything they need to know from a smartphone. But we do need to focus much more on good judgement, teaching people to evaluate the information they read, think for themselves and not allow themselves to be influenced by what we have come to call ‘fake news’.

A third issue is resilience - “helping people to prepare for, recover from and adapt in the face of stress, challenge or adversity”. Lives are fast, challenging and stressful, even in countries of relative peace and calm. Leaders and managers need to be much more aware of how to manage emotion, both their own emotions and those of others, as part of building resilience. The idea that emotion has no place in business is dead: we now know that emotion drives all behaviour and we need much more focus on the implications of this and the ways in which we can enhance renewing emotions and reduce depleting ones.

And of course, the ever accelerating pace of technological development. I have no doubt that our training will look very different in 5 years time and that modern technology will continue to offer us exciting new options in how we communicate and relate. However, I also believe that our strong human drive to connect face-to-face with others will ensure that there will still be real value in developing and improving our inter-personal skills: particularly those related to building trust, understanding different perspectives and negotiating to reach shared meaning and agreement.