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Rod Webb

Glasstap Limited

Director and Co-Founder

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Breaking the Fun Ceiling


When it comes to experiential learning it seems that, for many, there’s a ceiling beyond which learning has to stop being fun.

"Oh, we couldn’t use that activity with senior managers, it’s much too fun”, or words to that effect. It’s a complaint I often hear combined with a request for more ‘academic’ material for senior people. 

Many trainers hold on to the idea that getting senior managers involved in ‘games’ will somehow demean the learning experience – that unless the learning is delivered in a dry manner, senior people won’t give it any credibility.

So, are we suggesting that when we reach a certain level, our brains stop working the way they did before? That somehow we learn differently? Or is something else at play here?

I want to explore the idea that using fun, experiential learning with senior teams is somehow ‘wrong’ in more detail. And I’ll begin in this blog, by considering one aspect of learning; retention.

Think back to what you had for dinner the day before yesterday. Now, honestly, did the memory return quickly as a verbal description – a sort of itemised list? Of course it didn’t – you may have visualised yourself having dinner. And, unless you had a particularly interesting dinner two days ago, you may have had to piece different bits of memory together in order to recall the detail of what you ate – recalling what you were doing not just at the time, but before and afterwards, where you were and who you were with, in order to complete the ‘picture’.

Our brains work by creating patterns with information. What’s more, we remember stuff that stands out as unusual – so, something mundane like what you had for dinner a couple of days ago might have been more difficult to recall than you’d expect. 

Why is this? Well, basically, we’re being bombarded with information through all of our senses 24 hours a day. Our brains don’t store all of it. Analysing different sensory inputs and deciding whether a piece of information is worth retaining – whether it’s worth forming a long-term memory from that experience – is believed to be the role of the hippocampus, along with another part of the brain called the frontal cortex. 

It’s interesting isn’t it that when we refer to something as being memorable, we actually mean that it was different, or unusual. A lasting memory was formed simply because the experience was striking.

Now, think about all the lectures you’ve ever attended – and be honest – what percentage of them have left lasting memories? It doesn’t matter how senior your position, 80% of what you hear (and I deliberately avoid using the word ‘learn’) in a presentation will be lost within 24 hours (unless you’re very, very disciplined in the way you review the information you’re given – and most of us don’t have the time for that).

The fact is that the memory is not, as we sometimes like to think, a huge filing cabinet filled with easily retrievable bits of paper, but a complex chemical mechanism whereby unusual experiences form new connections in the brain, and in doing so form new patterns and new memories.

So, for learning to stick it needs to be different and unusual. And one way to make it out of the ordinary is to make the learning experiential, involving and, yes, fun.

So, where does the perception that training for senior people can’t be experiential and fun come from?

Personally, I blame our system of education, which for most of us progressed from learning through full sensory experiences; the alphabet by song; geometry and architecture playing with Lego; understanding colours by mixing them up and making a mess etc. and ended with us sitting in increasingly vast auditoriums listening to topic experts droning on, with their scripts available for everyone to see courtesy of an overhead projector or PowerPoint.

Our past experiences have, in other words, shaped our perception of what is the right and what is the wrong way for ‘clever’ people to learn. As Witches of Glum beautifully illustrates, our formative years create some pretty powerful stereotypes and ingrained beliefs – and these include beliefs about what learning should look and feel like when we reach a certain level.

The problem for most trainers is that the audience also holds this firm belief about what their training should look like.

But if fun, memorable activities are going to help retention of learning, should we shy away from them? I don’t think so. For me, the challenge is around developing the skills and confidence to be able to use unusual, experiential activities in a way that overcomes the barriers and opens the learners’ minds to new, or rather, old ways of learning. 

Using tools like our case studies are a great way to create a more involved learning experience and can provide a gateway to more creative exercises like Hotel Doldrums, Hungry Chick Inn and Island of Opportunity.

In a future blog, I’ll look at how experiential learning can help trainers avoid the credibility barrier when working with senior groups. For now though, just remember how custard pies stick to the faces of clowns - and remember that pies stands for Peculiar Involving Experiences Stick.

Rod Webb

Author Profile Picture
Rod Webb

Director and Co-Founder

Read more from Rod Webb

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