The Future of Learning Is Experiential

Jeff Bezos once said, “It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher’ [or], ‘Jeff, I love Amazon, I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’”

Our default is to focus on what things will or may look like in the future. We brainstorm, theorize, and strategize about the possibilities. Bezos’ statement is so powerful because he reframed the approach. He focused on what wasn’t possible, and he shifted Amazon’s strategy accordingly.

In a similar spirit, take a moment to consider the world of talent development. What has no chance of being true in the future? What is simply not possible five years, 10 years, or even 20 years from now?

Can you imagine a time in the future when new hires, seasoned managers or top executives will prefer to be less involved in their learning and, instead, desire more lecture-based learning experiences? Try to imagine a time in the future when a learner says, “It would have been great if that training used more PowerPoint slides,” or “The only thing that the training was lacking was more individual assignments that involved reading research on the principles of people management.”

This is the world that exists, and it isn’t slowing down.

The future of learning is experiential for two core reasons:

  1. Learning competes with numerous potential distractions that are only a click away
  2. The modern learner desires to play an active role in all areas of his or her lives.

Experiential learning refers to playing an active role in learning as opposed to being a passive consumer of the learning. This type of learning can improve results; according the University of Minnesota’s Center for Educational Innovation, “The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) has examined the engagement experiences of hundreds of thousands of students from over 1600 colleges and universities since 2000. The consistent results of these data show that hands-on, integrative, and collaborative active learning experiences lead to high levels of student achievement and personal development.”

In addition, according to the University of California at Berkeley’s graduate student instructor teaching guide, “More complex thought processes are more beneficial for learning because they involve a greater number of neural connections and more neurological cross-talk. Active learning takes advantage of this cross-talk, stimulating a variety of areas of the brain and promoting memory.”

The Distracted Learner

You may be reading this article on a mobile device. At any given time, you can click or swipe, and, in seconds, you are working on something different, playing a game or browsing the web.

We manage emails, text messages, and social media notifications with agile reflexes, only to fall behind. We reply in dedicated messaging apps, respond to friend requests and dive into one cat video — then wonder where the last 45 minutes went.

Any time a learner walks into training or logs into a virtual classroom, they are fighting against a multitude of distractions. They are contending with numerous items on their to-do lists, which they can access from the device in their pocket or the keyboard in front of them.

The notifications on learners’ phones are even more enticing when training is passive. Effective training demands action and involvement. Experiential learning is a vital tool to ward off the plethora of distractions vying for our learners’ attention.

According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, getting employees to make time for learning is the top challenge for talent development professionals. As a baseline, you have a prospective learner who is inundated with work and easily distracted. Experiential learning provides the solution to engaging learners and enabling them to absorb, retain, and apply learning.

Demanding control

Less than 15 years ago, there was no Uber, no Instagram, and no Amazon Prime. To say there has been a seismic shift in the level of control, convenience, and personalization we now have in our lives is an understatement of epic proportions.

Now, think about the world 15 years from now. Imagine your morning routine, your weekday workflow, and your weekends. Do you believe you will have less control over personalizing and crafting those experiences?

Take this perspective into the world of learning and development (L&D), and you begin to understand why learners today demand to be involved in the experience. The youngest learners grew up with Google, Alexa, and Siri for their queries and YouTube as their instructors.

3 Ideas to Integrate Experiential Learning and Give Learners Control

Case Studies and Role-playing

Take real-life scenarios and role-play the challenges, the various approaches a person could take, and the potential outcomes. Business schools have used the case study method to great success, and corporate L&D programs can implement a similar approach. The ability to simulate real-world scenarios and provide participants with a platform to practice different approaches is critical to professional development.

Feedback, Coaching and Mentorship Programs

Many organizations incorporate models that encourage senior leaders inside and outside of the organization to coach rising leaders. These coaching conversations should not simply focus on the day-to-day lives of each party. To be truly effective, coaching and mentoring must integrate experiential learning.

Construct coaching frameworks that allow pairs to explore various scenarios and provide an arena for learners to practice potential outcomes. Allow the coaches/mentors to share their own stories and guide an immersive environment. Enhance learning moments by providing scenario-based conversations that reflect real-world challenges. This practice allows for true learning through practice in the place of simple conversations that recap the prior two weeks of performance.

Action Learning Projects

When training groups are split into cohorts, you experience the added benefit of building camaraderie among participants. Embrace that benefit, and give each group a company challenge. Maybe it’s a strategic priority to improve the onboarding of campus hires or an exercise in breaking down cross-functional barriers while simultaneously removing monthly all-hands meetings. Whatever you choose, set a group of learners on a journey to prepare and present its potential solutions. If possible, include a competitive element where multiple teams concoct different approaches and are judged on their performance and creativity.

The Future of Learning

Impactful learning must first break through the numerous barriers of distraction and provide learners the level of control they are accustomed to. Passive approaches to learning delivery fail to take advantage of the opportunity to positively impact today’s leaders as well as the leaders of the future.

In LinkedIn’s workplace learning survey, 94% of respondents said they would stay with their current employer longer if it invested in their career development. Use experiential learning to bridge the gap between theory and practice and capitalize on the desire for more development opportunities.

What better way to close a conversation about the future than with a quote from Aristotle from 350 BCE: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”


abilitie develops leadership development programs and simulations designed to meet the individual needs of your organization’s hi-potential and senior leaders. With blended curricula that can be delivered virtually, hybrid, or in-person, participants gain leadership skills through cohort-based business competitions and virtual mini-MBA programs. Used by Fortune 500 companies worldwide, Abilitie’s award-winning programs have successfully taught and inspired 25,000+ learners in over 50 countries.

Written for OEB Global 2022 by the team at abilitie

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