Learning by Crashing

Dan Carusi Dan Carusi, Learning and Development, Organizational Development, T+D

“Experiential Learning” is the process of making meaning from direct experience, i.e., learning from experience.  We’ve done this most of our lives—such as learning to ride a bicycle—yet many learning professionals ignore this approach when it comes to skill and competency development within an organization.  The formal classroom experience is not going to cut it unless there is the opportunity to skin your knees a couple of times, or for me, learning by crashing down a mountain.

I recently took the family to the mountains of West Virginia for a long weekend of skiing and snowboarding.  It was a beautiful weekend for winter sports with several inches of fresh snow falling each evening.  Now, as some of you may have read in my earlier blogs, I’m a water guy with web toes and gills, so the thought of hurling oneself down the mountain at high speeds is somewhat intimidating.

My initial plan involved a bottle of wine and the hot tub, but since snowboarding appears to be very similar to surfing, off I went with my 12-year- old son to carve up the mountain.  “No problem,” I said to myself as I started the one-hour introductory lesson.  After convincing the instructor that I was in the correct class and that I really did believe it was a good idea to learn to snowboard at my age, we got started.  Basically, it wasy 15 minutes of instructor time with some focus on simple turns before heading to the beginner slope.  I was even feeling really good about my progress when the young instructor commented on how I was learning very quickly for someone my age.  Yes, I know, not really a compliment but very empowering at that moment in time.

I successfully navigated the chair lift and avoided the death threats from my fellow winter sports enthusiasts by not shutting down the lift at the top of the slope—for those of you guilty of this, you know what I’m talking about.  The instructor pulls me aside and says “Here is the plan, go down the mountain and fall.”  What?  I paid for a lesson to be told what I already knew was going to be the outcome?  The whole point of investing an hour of my time was to avoid falling and to buy some precious time before I would actually be required to go down the mountain.  However, being a good student, off I went crashing down the mountain.

Now, the cool thing about the beginner slope is that everyone looks the same.  Bodies flying all over the slope with mass carnage, yet a very safe environment to learn.  Over the course of a couple of hours I began to realize two things—my body was beginning to hurt and I was starting to get a feel for the board.  Not realizing what was happening, I was learning from each run and making the necessary adjustments by building on what I already experienced.  Go back to your childhood and remember how you learned to ride a bike.  We learned and improved with each attempt until mastering the skill.  Very cool!

Day two of the ski weekend, and I awakened with a newfound confidence and a hungry eagerness to conquer the mountain.  Off I went to the top of the mountain with my son; I paused and mumbled under my breath “This is a little higher than I was anticipating,” but down the mountain we went.  Yes, more crashes… but about half way down the two-mile run I started to carve across the slope.  The same feeling I experienced from surfing was running through my veins as I carved the final S-curve and completed the run.  Awesome!  “Again!” I yelled to my son, and we went on to complete several more runs.  Remember, this is my version, so please play along.

We decided to do one more run before calling it for the day.  Building and learning from the experiences of the earlier runs, I was bursting with confidence.  Not sure what happened next but I must have caught an edge… resulting in a hard crash down the mountain.  I mean, this fall could make the Olympic Alpine highlights reel.  I eventually slid to a stop on my back and quickly assessed if anything was broken, but more importantly, who may have witnessed my embarrassing fall.  I managed to get myself down the remainder of the mountain to the house where I retired to the hot tub with a bottle of wine (where I wanted to be to begin with).  The bruised bone and sprained shoulder has now heeled, so I can declare the weekend a complete success.

So, what did I learn and how does this apply to adult learning?  One, over-confidence still results in a very bad outcome.  Two, when building training programs, make sure it is experiential in nature and allows the learner to continuously build on what they have learned until they master the skill.  The learning must not end when the formal class ends.  Learning professionals need to create an environment where the learner can apply what they learned and then reflect on what worked and what did not in order to improve the skill.  The learner must be willing to be actively involved in the experience, as I was with the snowboarding, or it will not be successful.

So, take a look at your standard academic-based training and start developing direct experiences into the learning program—allow your employees the opportunity to crash down the mountain a couple of times and finally graduate from the beginner’s slope.