The conventional wisdom of growing through experiences is undoubtedly well-founded. However, people who have gone through similar experiences, do not necessarily walk away with the same outcomes. One reason why, is the degree to which they consciously and objectively analyze their experiences for learned lessons, with the objective of informing future action. In other words, the extent to which they reflect upon their experiences.
When you think of it, expecting to passively learn through things happening to you, is comparable to what students learn by just sitting through a class. There is definitely something to take away, but it is the extent to which students are actively engaged and invested in their learning process that determines how much they will benefit from this class.
Experiential learning as a continuous cycle
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle is a good way to visualize the learning process. According to Kolb, reflective observation is the way to build on experience and extract meaning and insight out of it. The process is not productive, however, until we have taken our conclusions into the real world to test and verify. It is a cycle where steps continue to feed into each other in a never-ending manner, as long as we continue to learn.
An experience in this sense does not have to be a once-in-a-lifetime momentous event. Reading a book, attending a workshop, participating in a challenging project or even a difficult conversation can all be learning opportunities, if coupled with reflection.
Optimizing critical reflection
As is the case with any cognitive activity though, reflection may or may not be effective or fruitful. Depending on personal tendencies, some people might lash out at themselves in self-sabotaging criticism. Others merely review events to confirm pre-held opinions and reinforce their own thinking patterns. This is why using a framework to guide the reflection process could be of great value.
The following questions following Gibb’s Reflective Cycle can provide a practical framework to structure one’s thinking and make sense of tricky situations.
Keep in mind that considering multiple perspectives, recognizing different interpretations for an event and challenging yourself to provide evidence for your own and for opposing assumptions go a long way in truly unwrapping and learning from an experience. On the long-term, incorporating these habits into your everyday thinking could make a difference between a lifelong learner and a self-complacent person disconnected from reality.