Learning More Effectively From Experience

April 13, 2022

By Ken Spero

If ‘Experience is the Best Teacher’ and simulations approximate experience, then simulations can provide an excellent opportunity for learning in the context of professional leadership development. So how does this work? When approaching the challenge of learning, it is crucial to acknowledge that there is a distinction between learning from ‘teaching’ and learning from ‘experience.’ Once we have that as a baseline of understanding, we can examine how or where learning happens in ‘experience.’ In the context of this posting, I am going to focus on how learning can happen in a manufactured experience or a simulation. A key distinction of ‘learning from experience’ is that any experience can be valuable, good-bad-or indifferent. This is because, often, the experience helps us improve our judgment in the future. In fact, “Good judgment is the result of experience. Good experience is often the result of bad judgment (Chad Checketts).” Therefore, when it comes to simulation or manufactured experience, the exercise needs to be compelling and in context so that the student can process it as a realistic experience, but beyond that, there is flexibility.

So, where can and does the learning take place? When it comes to designing experience, there are several learning levers that I have found in my almost 30 years of utilizing simulations that we can leverage to make the experience both meaningful and developmental. It is important to note that the learning can come with any one of these items and combinations; therein lies the power of simulation that it provides numerous opportunities for developmental engagement, and the learning flows from there. Once the students are engaged, the learning opportunity grows dramatically and increases their interest in further learning. The learning levers include:

The Narrative

This is the story, or the case if you will. Because of the power and potential of storytelling, reading the narrative can provide insights and opportunities for development.

The Media 

Given the engagement power of storytelling with simulations, sometimes, even text-driven simulations can be highly effective. Text can even be the first choice in designing simulations because they provide an opportunity to present issues without the distraction that often comes with media. Furthermore, the text provides flexibility and scalability because it can keep costs down, increase production speed, and ensure that the application is easily updated over time. It also keeps the size of the files down. However, when it comes to contextual and interpersonal issues, often there are things we need to see or benefit from hearing, and so the use of media is another potential ‘Lever’ that can be used. Capturing non-verbal communications and cues can be valuable in what they convey and allow participants to practice noticing, depending on the design. One student who has used simulations reports that “simulations are an excellent tool to practice the competencies that I will use as an administrator. They were also the most helpful in preparing for behavioral interview questions that provide a scenario. As a result of the simulations, I am able to explain exactly what steps I would take to resolve a situation.” The media scenarios mentioned play a significant role in the emotional and psychological response that happens during the sim as it puts them in the “room.” 

The Choice Options

The key benefit of learning from experience is improved judgment; making a decision is integral to the experience equation. Approaching a decision point, a fork in the road prompts critical thinking and an opportunity to exercise judgment. This is part of the ‘art form’ of sim development in that how we articulate choice can be both evocative and provocative. After all, if an option prompts a knee-jerk or visceral response, it is an opportunity to reflect on why that was a reaction and whether the response is sourced in rational thinking or not. Engaging in critical thinking by creating muscle memory around exercising judgment before action is a valuable learning opportunity irrespective of what comes next, let alone having the opportunity for experiencing consequences.

Social Learning I

If the simulations are being delivered in a group setting, group discussions around the narrative or the decision choices provide an additional opportunity for organic and collaborative peer-sourced learning. Realistic and contextual scenarios can evoke discussion around an individual’s experience that they find relevant. Sharing their experiences and insights provides a vehicle for significant and valuable social learning that significantly increases the sim approach’s value. Even complicated issues can be raised in this way for discussion in a non-confrontational way, where they can be explored and, if appropriately facilitated, directed towards courses of action.

Consequences of Decisions

One of the critical issues with mindlessness and decision-making is that we ignore or do not think about the consequences of our actions. By experiencing consequences, both positive and negative, we gain insight into the issues at play that made the decision one that required judgment. Like the Choice Options, consequences can be realistic and provocative. If a student is engaged in the flow of the narrative/story, they might be expecting a particular pathway to play out. In designing the simulation, we can reinforce and provoke when necessary. After all, in real life, just because we expect something to happen does not mean it will.

Furthermore, there are often situations in which the right decision does not result in the expected consequence due to outside stimuli outside of our control, and yet, we still need to deal with those consequences. This is a crucial opportunity for us to help our students build Resilience and continue to use good judgment even when the situation does not go as planned. The Social Learning opportunity continues with the Consequences as the experience gets discussed and processed through the filters of the team’s experiences and perspectives.

Tradeoff Report

When it comes to these context-driven issues, the challenge is not just to make people more comfortable with making decisions but with being comfortable making the tough decisions and solving the challenging problems. When there is no good answer or when the best answer also has significant negatives associated with it, the real challenge is. We need to create a situation where the focus is not on making our students feel ‘good’ because that will not always happen. We want to provide students with the practice of making those difficult decisions where they know that even if they make the optimal choice, parts of the outcome will be wrong. Simulation provides a context for this kind of meaningful learning-by-doing, and the Tradeoff Report provides:

  • The insight and understanding of the issues at play.
  • The tradeoffs/cause & effect manifest in the scenario and broader context.
  • Insight into the stakeholders beyond the obvious ones affected by the context.
  • Demonstrates the impact of time and what can make the students successful in the future.
Narrative Feedback

Alternatively, in addition to consequences, the designer can write feedback on the choice (either delivered immediately or delayed) that explains the issues and why the choice selected was good or bad. The feedback can be as expansive or limited as fits the overall learning objective of the exercise and can also be used to link to other elements (e-learning, synchronous module, and so on) within the learning program. The feedback explains the learning objectives addressed by that particular scenario. It is then followed by a description of the effects of the decision made.

Social Learning II

Small-Group Debrief – When delivering the simulation in small groups, once they finish playing it, they can collaboratively reflect upon the experience they had and the decisions they made as they review the detailed feedback in the form of the final Tradeoff Report and Feedback Report. This is an opportunity to process the experience and further benefit from the shared experience and having the opportunity to share past, related real-life experiences.

Social Learning III

Large Group Debrief – The simulations are delivered, bringing the group together to reflect upon the shared experience and how it applies to their situations is key to cementing the learning into the participants’ Experience Portfolios. In this context, the leader, who may be an outside facilitator or an administrator, can use the experience to guide the team in meaningful discussion and planning relative to activities in the building or district and lay the groundwork for additional experiences and interventions in the future.

Simulations have proven to create experiences that prepare users for real-life experiences before entering the workplace. Whether used synchronously in large or small groups as part of social learning or asynchronously on your own time, there is a valuable and developmental experience to be had. SchoolSims simulations are developed for current and aspiring school leaders and teachers to manufacture experiences that they can tap into when on the job.