Learning the Hard Way

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A few years ago, I participated in a 90-day boot camp for entrepreneurs. One of the learning objectives focused on negotiation. Instead of reading books or trying it out in the safety of a classroom, our task was live practice.

An online module provided the basics. I learned simple but effective tactics for negotiation in a few bullet points and one short story. The assignment was to negotiate the price of a few purchases throughout the week. Following each interaction, I had to reflect on what went well and what I could improve on for the next try.

It was the classic sink or swim approach to learning.

This should have been easy. My dad is a natural negotiator. I was often embarrassed as a child by his stubborn refusal to pay the retail price for anything. His comfort with the awkwardness of negotiating did not rub off on me.

At first, I hated the practice. The long pauses. The awkward eye contact. The directness. But over time, as you might imagine, it became easier. That knot in my stomach shrunk a little with each attempt and the “no’s” didn’t bother me as much. I became more confident which led to more success. A few bucks saved here, a free bike helmet there.

The point of this exercise was not to learn all there is to know about negotiation. We didn’t have the time and that is probably putting the cart before the horse. The goal was to feel what a negotiation feels like. After all, that feeling is the most difficult part. We wrestled with doubt and insecurity. We came to believe that value, and by extension price, was not set in stone. Reading about the topic could not teach us those things, but the experience gave us a foundation. From there, more knowledge and more practice would prepare us for more complex scenarios.

Much of education works the other way. Students focus on learning a lot about a subject on the belief that it will be useful in a future real life scenario. But knowledge, especially in the information age, is easy to come by. This puts a premium on experiential learning that focus on turning information into ability.

Experience is a far better teacher. While classroom instruction is clearly valuable, it should not be the cornerstone of teaching and learning that it is. A great lecture cannot replicate the uncertainty or ambiguity of knowledge in practice. It cannot make you feel the tension that comes when something meaningful is on the line. There is no court of public opinion and no client to impress in a classroom. The syllabus gives you a color by number guide to success.

20th century educator Edgar Dale developed the Cone of Experience to describe the value of different types of learning. According to this theory, the most effective tool for remembering what we’ve learned is “Doing the Real Thing.” Reading and hearing words are at the other end of the spectrum and don’t do much to help us remember.

Much of our education is built around the activities that Dale says are least effective. Students spend much of their reading and listening. Of course, great educators and institutions have always sought to connect knowledge and practice. But meaningful experience still tends to be a supplement to instruction. We need start with experience – a task or project or problem – and fill in other approaches as needed.

The good news is that this way of approaching education is on the rise. Crash courses for coding and data science are on the rise. Alternative MBA programs focus on bringing business concepts to market are attracting more students. Apprenticeships are en vogue.

Experience is becoming the focal point of the best learning experiences.

Despite this trend, many of the stalwarts of the education establishment remain unchanged. Flagship colleges and universities are building fast tracks to diplomas through online programs. Expensive and time intensive programs of study are the norm despite stagnant earnings for college graduates. Knowledge – not experience – is the still the goal.

The reasons for the slow about face are clear. Large institutions move slow. New models are risky. People tend to stick to what they know. The current approach still seems to work for many.

The future, though, belongs to the doers. And the future of education belongs to the schools that give learners the opportunity to get their hands dirty. A tendency for action over inaction is the most important skill we can teach. Good ideas, after all, are easy to come by. Teaching through experience closes the gap between what we can conceive and what we can put into practice. It makes the real world less ambiguous and easier to manage regardless of career or calling.

This is the approach of so many skilled professions: nursing, engineering, teaching. Students in these fields learn at the bedside, in the lab, and in the classroom. But this approach is available to all endeavors. Writers who write their first book. Philosophers who engage in public discourse. Human rights activists who serve on the front lines of a refugee crisis.

It’s time for us to shift our educational ecosystem to focus on learning by doing.

Experiential learning is difficult. The logistics are complex, the stakes are higher, and the role of the teacher is different. To create a future of learning that starts with action, we’ll need to rethink core ideas about what classrooms and schools should be.

Here are a few approaches – some of which are happening already – around ways to move the classroom more towards experience:

The schoolhouse storefront – Build schools with mixed-use space where students run bakeries, creative agencies, and local newspapers. Use these as living classrooms where students learn as challenges and opportunities arise.

The live action MBA – Offer pro bono consulting services to small-to-medium sized business. These engagements would form the bulk of the learning experience. Classroom learning could explore related topics and core business principles in parallel.

The in-house university – Explore creating full college programs within businesses. Students spend part of their time learning on the job and part of their time in the classroom. (There are interesting partnerships in IT and logistics exploring this approach.)

The co-working schoolhouse – Design degree programs located in co-working spaces for opportunity youth. Provide internships and work opportunities with businesses and nonprofits who use the space.

These small experiments are in search of a first mover to take them to scale. Traditional colleges and universities have the resources to try these ideas with experts at the helm. They can also attract significant partners to the table. This requires that education leaders choose to bet on what we know about the value of experience. In a time where new delivery models are our favorite form of disruption, the real opportunity is to rethink pedagogy all together and start with experience.

Experience adds context and provides a worthy challenge. It helps us distinguish between the information we need and the information we have available. It gives us real time feedback and sends us back to the drawing board. It is difficult and makes us persist in the direction of an uncertain end goal.

Experience is learning the hard way, making our educational time worth it and tuition dollars money well spent. That’s a deal my dad would take, even if he did try to talk you down a little bit on price.


Photo Credit: Stefan Stefancik