Experiential Education Is Key to Event Success

If you look at all the ways meeting and event planners have been trying to change the way they offer education, whether by holding TED-style talks, crowdsourcing session topics, or using cutting-edge technology, one thing becomes obvious: There's a movement afoot to enhance the experience of learning. The PowerPoint lecture has steadily been losing favor, and for good reason.

"As I'm working with clients and they start talking about their breakouts, I can tell you almost all of them say their breakouts are boring," says Greg Bogue, vice president of experience design for Maritz Global Events. "We used to say that content was king. It seems to me that the participant is now king." He adds that that is changing the way that they are looking at education. They are now taking into account people's way of learning, whereas before, we had a message to tell someone. Now we're realizing that for them to get the message, we need to get it to them in the way that they can consume it effectively.

Boredom aside, "experiencing" is also a more effective way to learn. A growing body of research points to the fact that people learn from experience far better than they do from lectures, says Stephanie Thomason, associate professor of management at the University of Tampa's John H. Sykes College of Business and president of the National Society for Experiential Education.

"Students learn better if they're doing something and if they're actually applying it," says Thomason, who is also associate director of the university's TECO Energy Center for Leadership. "That's what experiential learning is all about. It's about getting them out there, doing the process -- even to the extent of sometimes having students teach the material. Learning by doing enhances learning and enhances retention. Students are not just given concepts. Instead they're out there applying the concepts, and they're more likely to retain and understand those concepts."

It's why the university's finance students use an investment fund with real money to trade in the stock market, Thomason adds. "The students watch the money increase or decrease, and they've actually been able to keep up with the stock exchange. That's a good thing."

Educating Like Life Depends on It
Once firefighters have recovered from injuries that kept them off the job, they usually have to see a doctor who specializes in occupational medicine to get medical clearance to go back to their physically demanding jobs. The decisions those doctors make can be more than just career-ending, they are literally life and death.

Which is why, this past April in Chicago, some 30 doctors attending the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine's (ACOEM) 101st annual American Occupational Health Conference (AOHC) donned 65 pounds of protective firefighting gear and spent three hours running up stairs, dragging fire hoses up ladders, and using pike poles to bash holes in mock ceilings at Chicago's Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy. They didn't have to undergo these tasks to learn about assessing the fitness of firefighters -- a separate session at the Sheraton Grand Chicago covered that. The activity did, however, give medical professionals the direct experience of just what their prospective patients face every day.

"Until you've been there, put on the gear, stood next to the fire, you don't really understand what the job is," says Dr. Daniel G. Samo, who has been arranging these hands-on educational sessions for the AOHC for a decade and serves as an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, medical director of the Northwestern Medical Group's Division of Public Safety Medicine, and a principal member of the National Fire Protection Association's Technical Committee on Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health. "The doctors who did this have a much better understanding of the tasks of a firefighter, and of how strenuous and difficult they are. Climb up two or three flights of stairs wearing 65 pounds of gear, and you'll have a better idea of what it's like to climb 80 flights. Lift the saw that firefighters use to cut ventilation holes in the roof and you have a better idea of what that means to someone with back pain. Stand right next to fire, so you know what 1,400 degrees feels like. That's why it's very important, educationally. It puts the medicine into the perspective of the job."

It doesn't hurt that this type of experiential learning session is hugely popular, he notes. "As far as the success of the conference, it sells out in a heartbeat. It's always very popular."

Experience Alone Isn't Enough
However, providing an experience is not the same as teaching, notes Preston Yarborough, faculty and senior project director for the Center for Creative Leadership. "The most important part of using experiential education methodology is the intentionality behind what you're doing," he says. "We don't necessarily learn from experience by itself but rather by reflecting on that experience, creating meaning from it, and then using that meaning to influence how we operate in the future. It is absolutely vital to come back and discuss an experience in the classroom setting."

That's why all of those trust- and teamwork-building executive challenge courses aren't really about getting participants to work together to get someone from one platform to another on a ropes course -- they are about the discussion that follows it.

"Part of it is making sure that we're actually trying to learn from it," Yarborough notes. "We're going through this activity and we're trying to connect insight that this activity provided to the broader thing that we're trying to learn. Unfortunately, a lot of times people just leave it at, 'We went outside and did some sort of teambuilding activity together.'"

The point, Yarborough adds, is not just to do the activity. "The goal is to figure out how what you learned from that experience applies to how you're operating as a team. That might inform how you operate more effectively with one another in your work environment, too. That's where the facilitator comes in. It's the facilitator -- the person who is leading the meeting -- that can help to take a group through that inquiry process so they can come up with insights," he says.

Yarborough recommends a three-step inquiry process known as "What? So What? Now What?" that begins when the experience is over and the group is joined by a facilitator to discuss it. The first step -- "What?" -- is a simple group reflection on what it did, he says. The second step -- "So What?" -- explores what knowledge the group gained from that activity. What was significant, and why. The final step in the process, "Now What?" is where participants discuss what they will do differently next time in order to operate more effectively. "If you don't go through that 'What? So What? Now What?' progression, it is very easy to leave the insight behind," he says.

Experiential learning should have a traditional learning component, Thomason agrees. This idea is heavily based, she adds, on David Kolb's book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, published in 1984. His four-stage Experiential Learning Cycle is pictured.

Another lesson from Kolb is, "students learn better if you first give them the application and then give them the concept," according to Thomason, who adds, "the discussion among the students is a really big component of experiential education. Sitting back and reflecting on it is when it kind of all meshes together in their mind and they understand the whole process."

Planning the Experience
"When you go back to the 'why' -- and the 'why' is, I think, the cornerstone reason companies integrate experiential education into their programs -- it has to do with two things," says Eva Aimable-Kolosko, director of event operations, North America, for CWT Meetings & Events. "No. 1 is providing inspiration to attendees, and No. 2 is allowing them to get a grasp of something bigger. Experiential education allows them to connect the dots from the company's vision to the company's day-to-day operations." It also equips salespeople to speak intelligently when customers want to know how a product is manufactured or created, and how it can best be used, she adds.

The ride-and-drive events automakers hold for car salespeople is a perfect example of this type of experiential learning, says Kelly Aumaier, executive producer of events and learning at Maritz Motivation Solutions. "A good ride-and-drive is part education, part sales rally, and part brand reinforcement," she notes, adding that while the technical specs and the amenities -- like the sound system and climate-control features -- provide a foundation, how a car "feels" is often the key to a sale.

"Cars are emotional, visceral things," Aumaier says. "A ride-and-drive event is about creating that kind of passion for the sales consultants who will be selling the vehicle. Automotive manufacturers spend a lot of money to create eye-catching imagery of their products, but there is just nothing like sitting in or driving a car." And being able to express that to a customer can make or break a deal.

Experiential education such as visiting a firefighter training facility is about "the live, 3-D aspect," says ACOEM's director of education and meetings, Joyce Paschall, CAE, CMP-HC, CMM. "I can touch it, feel it, smell it, hear it, and see it. It's really engaging all the senses in Technicolor."

At the same time, Paschall notes that the worksite visits are expected to be more educational than entertaining. "We want such visits to be educational at a physician's level of knowledge or learning," she says. That means starting the planning process six to eight months out, and finding local members who can recommend venues worth visiting and facilitate the arrangements.

None of this makes experiential education easy for the executives and planners running meetings and events. Planners recognize that the traditional education delivery model is not as valued as it once was, Bogue says, but coming to terms with the idea that "content needs to be owned by the community, not by the planner or the planning organization," is going to be very difficult.

"They want everything buttoned up when they get to the show, and people are showing up and saying, 'Yeah, but I really need an answer to this. This is what I want to talk about,'" Bogue adds. "That's very frightening for planners. You bring this stuff up with them and they say, 'Oh my God, what's that going to do to my plan?'" 

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