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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

The value of learning by doing

By Sharon Aschaiek
Special to the Toronto Sun

"I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand."

-- Confucius

In 2001, the University Health Network in Toronto commissioned a theatrical simulations company called Plays that Work to help enhance communication between employees and implement a new code of conduct. The goal was to engage the employees in dramatic re-enactments of issues that might arise in their workplace, and devise strategies to deal with them.
Increased efficiency at work

UHN editor Paula Halpin was among the participants: she'd signed up to learn how to manage her temper during disagreements with co-workers.

"You started feeling the emotion that you'd normally feel during a workplace conflict, and it felt real," Halpin says. "We then talked about how we felt, and how we would get past the anger to achieve some calm dialogue and work towards a resolution."

Experiential learning is an HR tool that many companies use to motivate their staff, promote teambuilding, develop leaders and address staff conflicts. Employees today may find themselves walking on coals, racing cars, swinging from ropes or playing drums as part of corporate HR initiatives. But is it all play and no work? And do users really get their money's worth?

Halpin thinks so. She says she's since successfully incorporated the techniques she learned into her general approach with people.

"I find now that I'm not trying to avoid conflict anymore," Halpin says. "I listen to people more, see their point of view and meet them half way."

UHN employee opinion surveys and other studies conducted since the experience have indicated that overall communication and co-operation between staff have improved.

But some experts say the answers are far from black and white, arguing that much depends on the objectives of the user company, the expertise of the vendor and the expectations of the individual participants.

"It's important to distinguish between experiential learning of a career skill, and an interpersonal experience that might help groups bond," says Debra Gilin, a psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychology at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. "Sometimes music therapy, cooking classes or Cuban drumming can be fun and can help groups gel, but are you learning a job skill? Not necessarily."

Gilin designs experiential learning exercises for a course she teaches on organizational change and development. She says that learning by doing can be a useful career development tool for individuals who want to learn a specific skill, such as public speaking, selling or communicating with others.

But when corporations instigate experiential learning, the benefits may have less staying power.

"Ask yourself, how widely applicable is the skill that's being taught, and can it be applied to my career?" Gilin says. "If you know you're going to stay with the company for life, then it works out well. If not, then be aware that it may not contribute to your larger skill set."

For Scott Popovich, experiential learning proved to be a valuable tool for increasing efficiency at his workplace. On a calm Wednesday morning last April, Popovich, the reservation manager at the Harbour Towers Hotel in Victoria, B.C., and his 13 colleagues slid into a canoe on the shores of Lake Cowichan and, under the guidance of a facilitator from Horizon Group, a corporate team-building and leadership company, began paddling their way to effective team building.

With every stroke of their oars, he says, they learned the sink-or-swim mentality that would help them collaborate more effectively back at the hotel.

"What you take away is that you need to maintain a dialogue with each other to keep up with change," Popovich says.

The truth is that little research exists on the subject. One 1992 study of 6,200 participants from 26 American companies who'd participated in low-impact, outdoor-based experiential training found that while working groups became more functional, there were no significant changes to individual behaviours such as self esteem and locus of control -- even though these were cited as some of the reasons for using the programs.

A mountain of anecdotal evidence points to the popularity of experiential learning, usually because it's often a lot of fun. But when the boundaries between play and learning become blurred, it becomes difficult to measure the usefulness of experiential learning.

Whether or not dramatic simulations or canoe rides actually deliver lasting career lessons, both Gilin and Popovich said they had fun and feel that they benefited professionally.

"I think acting out real-life scenarios is a very effective way of teaching, and much more effective than just discussing the theory of conflict resolution," Gilin says. "You're learning to be in the moment and deal with it in an emotional and practical way."

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