What is the Experiential Learning Cycle and how can assist with the delivery of physical skills training?
The video above is a bit of a follow-up to my previous video on what it means to fail – and if you watched that, then you’ll know that fail doesn’t really mean ‘fail’ – as in not succeeding – but actually ‘First Attempt In Learning’ (and if you want to check out that video if you haven’t seen it, then you can watch it via this blog post here.)
This time, we’re going to move on a little further and actually look at a very simple yet effective model which can be used to establish what it is we need to learn and to understand how we can use this to improve performance next time. And it’s something which I’ve used quite extensively in training for a number of years, and the good news is that it’s very easy to remember.
Now although the model might appear a little complex at first sight, it is actually quite straight forward because it bases itself on the principle that learners (and this includes adults) learn through experience. The version which I’ve always tended to use is the simplified derivative version which I always remember as ‘What? So What? Now What?’
By using the ELC, what we are effectively doing is allowing the cognitive process to operate both systematically and analytically so that we can proceed through what’s known as the four stages of competence: and this is where the learner progresses from ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ to ‘Conscious Incompetence’ and then on to ‘Conscious Competence’ and finally what’s known as ‘Unconscious Competence’.
Basically, what this means is that when learning say, for instance a skill, the learner goes through a process of being completely clueless about how to perform the skill right through to a state whereby they can actually perform it almost perfectly and without effort, without even having to consciously think about it. (And to actually find out more about the four stages of competence, check out my blog post here.)
But, in order to ensure that the learner’s journey through the four stages of competence, particularly stages 2 and 3, is effective, then they also need to learn and understand how the ELC process works – which is effectively learning by mistakes or errors etc. And this is especially relevant when learning physical skills such as physical intervention, self-defence and break-away or martial arts (but could also be equally applied to other skills such as communication or managing conflict.)
So let’s have a look at how the ELC works:
Well, first of all, there is the experience of doing or performing the skill or action – in other words, actually trying it out. So, let’s say an instructor is teaching a physical skill such as maybe a simple, low-level restraint technique and the learners have tried the technique after it’s been explained and demonstrated.
After having this done this, the first stage of the ELC is ‘What?’ In other words, what happened? Did the learner fully understand the skill and perform it correctly? If not, what was it that wasn’t correct? What was it that the learner got wrong? This is the identification stage. So, regarding our low-level restraint technique, after having been shown how to perform the technique, if some (if not all) of the learners don’t for some reason fully understand the skill then the instructor or trainer needs to identify what it is they don’t understand so this can be addressed.
This brings onto the second stage – ‘So What’? At this point, having identified what happened it’s then necessary to understand why it happened. So this is the analysis and evaluation stage, where we effectively try and figure out why something happened the way it did. Now, this might not necessarily be something negative, such as an error or mistake. It could also be that something went well, and it’s also certainly worthwhile analysing this so it can be replicated again. The main point is to gain an understanding so that the learner can move forward. So, going back to our restraint technique, at this stage the instructor should be analysing why the learners didn’t understand what they were learning and drawing conclusions from this.
The third stage of the ELC is ‘Now What?’ So having identified and evaluated what happened, we now to decide what needs to be done to bring the learner back on track. In other words, what can be done better or improved upon when we try performing the skill again – or, if the performance was positive, what can be done to build upon this to make it even better next time. So, in the case of our course participants learning the restraint skill, having decided why they didn’t understand the technique, the instructor now needs to decide what he or she needs to do to improve the learners’ understanding.
Finally, this brings back to the skill or action itself where the learner tries to perform it again. So, in the case of the restraint technique, the learners would have another go at practising it. Again, if they still have difficulties, then we continue around the ELC until this improves their performance.
The key to perfecting any skill is repetition, however without the aid of the ELC process this would actually be counter-productive if we don’t actually understand what it is we need to improve on in the first place. (This also relates to something sometimes called the ‘Law of Specificity’, which’ll be the subject of another future video.)
Now, it’s also worth mentioning that the ELC is not only useful in the training cycle, but also when debriefing actual incidents in order to learn from and improve practice and procedures. This is especially useful for staff in front-line roles such as security, police, health and social care and other similar roles.
And, it’s also an essential process to understand if you’re aiming to become an expert. If you wish to progress and develop in something, it’s essential that you identify and learn from your mistakes, understand what you need to do better next time and then do it. This, along with the process of repetition and an understanding of the four stages of competence, will certainly guarantee the path to expertise as long as you stick with it!
So that about wraps it up for ELC. If you have any questions about this, or any of the subjects covered in the other blog posts or videos, then you’re very welcome to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll try and answer them as best as I can.
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