Sense working overtime; Reflections on experiential learning

 

Senses Working Overtime

“Trying to taste the difference ‘tween a lemon and a lime. Pain and pleasure, and the church bells softly chime”

[XTC lyrics, 1982]  – http://youtu.be/07Fp-omNXCw

 

I’m old enough to remember the delights of XTC’s Andy Partridge playing live on HQ or Top of the Pops. Their strong sense of English culture was delivered through rurally-inspired quirky 80s pop, imbued with Wiltshire accents. So I’m probably old and worn-out enough to be excused one, intuitive hypothesis of my own:

 

‘Individual & Organisational Learning can only truly be an enriching experience when at least two of our five senses are awakened simultaneously’

 

Being a personal hypothesis, it hasn’t yet been scientifically investigated or validated. But stick with me, please. I may be a left-field OD person, but my maverick words & actions are usually underpinned with good intentions. So indulge me as I reflect on experiential learning with some real examples:

 

‘Touch & Vision’

I designed and jointly facilitated a 2.5 day residential programme for Scottish Universities between 2003 and 2008. This ‘Middle Manager Development’ (MMD) programme included two tactile activities in Day 1; individuals representing their career journey to date through a ‘roadmap’ exercise using coloured markers on flipchart paper, then teams choosing and designing a team brand using fabric pens on single-colour t-shirts. Both of these encouraged a sense of play by participants; the ‘roadmaps’ remained on the walls during the programme sessions to provide visual reminders of learning objectives and prompts to the facilitators to link theory to practice. As a result of appealing to two senses, a high degree of engagement with the MMD process was achieved in the first few hours of Day 1.

 

We then used 5 experiential learning team tasks on Day 2 to bring leadership and group problem-solving themes to life. Appealing to multiple senses, this experiential afternoon was consistently the most highly rated component of the whole MMD programme. In the optional follow-up reflective action-learning event run 6 months later, photos taken of the teams undertaking the various experiential tasks were used as a fun way of reconnecting the participants back to a time where they were engaged learners. I saw real progress in terms of leadership; and the participants left the action-learning event with a refreshed set of personal development actions.

 

‘Vision & Sound’

Okay, it was fairly hard to resist the direct cultural reference to David Bowie; if it had been a Brian Eno track title, heck I would have succumbed. The combination of pictorial images and spoken words is a powerful fusion. I’ve used RSVP Design’s Images of Organisation flexibly in a variety of contexts. Images of Organisations

 

aa-thumbnailI recall particularly one team session when we used it in two stages. It was a Finance/Student Admissions team entering a specific lean improvement phase to improve information process flows and help enhance the overall student experience.

 

Stage One involved the individual selection of an Images card to reflect how it felt working in the team. Individuals shared their image using their own words to convey their own meaning; they told powerful short stories.

 

Stage Two involved the same individuals picking another Images card to reflect the desired future state of the team post-improvement. Their future story, their vision if you like, allowed them to articulate their engagement & excitement around change and any lingering fears that remained.

 

I have in mind to find a similar experiential application of the Oblique Strategies card deck by Eno & Schmidt using spoken words to articulate the creative unblocking ideas, but that one is for another day.

 

‘Sound & Taste’

Both sounds (e.g. music) and tastes (e.g. hot buttered toast) are powerful stimulus triggers. Here I am writing this piece early on a cold & wet November Saturday morning. I’m listening to the electronic soundscapes of the PolyFauna iPhone app designed by Thom Yorke, Nigel Godrich and Stanley Donwood, tasting a mug of comforting breakfast tea and some delicious toasted organic wholemeal bread with butter and my Aunts homemade marmalade. The sounds & the tastes are making it easy for these words to flow.

 

Those same sounds and tastes will trigger memories of composing this Blog for years to come. They have the capability to unlock the experience and associated reflective learning from deep within; they can put me right back in that creative moment and mindset. You don’t get that kind of product promise with Tesco’s Value marmalade.

 

‘Taste & Smell’

This combination is probably the most powerful one, yet the least attempted within the corporate training world. I’m currently experimenting with it via the medium of a charity creative-writing event with a malt whisky theme and live tasting of craft beer from San Francisco. The event is being hosted by the University of St Andrews on 7th February 2015.

 

If this works, and I think the taste & smell of Scottish Whisky and Californian Beer will be a heady partnership to inspire the event participants to write flash fiction, my next plan is to develop a learn through cooking activity. A kind of Ready, Steady, Cook experience to build teamwork in the kitchen! It will work. Based on what I hear about the Smell Maps that are being compiled by Kate McLean, there may be more extreme ideas. Scratch & Sniff cultural mapping around change initiatives, any one?

 

So, with the festive season of food & wine indulgence almost upon us what better example to finish on? We have at least 5 senses. So as designers of learning events, ensure you tap into at least 2 of the 5 senses to maximise the impact of experiential learning.

 

Enjoy the turkey, trimmings and a large helping of Rioja. And maybe a wee cheeky Monkey 47 G&T before dinner provided you can taste the difference ‘tween a lemon and a lime!

 

Sandy Wilkie

Independent Consultant & Friend of RSVP Design

 

 

 

 

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