What Makes a Learning Experience Unforgettable?

November 12, 2013

Last month I highlighted Alvin Toffler’s observation that 21st-century literacy meant the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn – being agile enough to acquire new knowledge and skills almost daily, in tune with the very dynamic and uncertain global economy we have created (“A New Look at Adult Learning”).

Now I want to reflect on several of my own experiences that have convinced me of the importance of Toffler’s observation.

Shortly after I graduated from college (a very long time ago!) I came across a book that has had a profound impact on my career and on my interest in adult learning, even though the book was primarily about reforming elementary and secondary public school education.

The book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, was written in 1971 by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (it’s still in print – the link is to its description on Amazon.com). It may be even more relevant today.

Postman and Weingartner paint an incredibly exciting picture of how education can (and should) extend beyond the four walls of the classroom and into the activities and events that fill the communities where students live.

By focusing on experiences in everyday life, teachers can turn students into journalists, researchers, and activists as well as skilled learners. That approach to education not only creates lifelong learners, but it also teaches students to be skeptical of established authority and conventional wisdom (hence the book title).

That is a far cry from traditional, classroom-based instruction in the which the teacher is the “expert” who tells the students the “facts” and tests students’ memorization of those facts. For me at least, Teaching as a Subversive Activity was a wake-up call to the power of inquiry and the value of learning to think for yourself.

Now fast-forward several years to my graduate school experience at Cornell University. At that time I had become convinced that creativity and creative problem-solving were “the answer” to poorly-led and over-managed organizations (in my search for a better way to manage I had quit a well-paying job out of frustration with my company’s executive leadership - or lack thereof - and dragged my wife and two small kids to Ithaca, New York, for three years of poverty and relearning).

As one part of my PhD program I conducted research on a group of undergraduates who were taking a two-credit course on local government and urban planning. The entire course was built around an early computer-based simulation of a city that had been developed by the Environmental Protection Agency to teach principles of sustainability in complex multi-stakeholder municipal settings.

I was interested in simulation and gaming as a form of education, so I was observing and interviewing the students as they took on and acted out various roles in the simulated city – mayor, city councilmen and women, local business owners, property developers, and so on.

And here’s why that was such an interesting project: most of the students were carrying four or five courses totaling 16-18 credits. This course carried just two credits, and there was only one three-hour class a week. Yet every single one of the students reported spending more time, and learning more, in that class than in any other course they were taking.

What was going on? Once again, the education was experiential, and it involved solving (simulated) real-world problems. The instructor typically engaged the students in a reflective conversation at the end of each class – but he wasn’t lecturing them or reporting facts that they had to memorize. Instead, he simply helped them make sense of their experiences.

The students were actively experiencing that simulated reality – with all the emotions, stresses, successes, and disappointments that characterize real life. In the process they were also learning deep and profound lessons about debating, conflict, negotiating, and inter-personal relationships. Those skills weren’t identified explicitly in the course syllabus, but they were at the heart of the value of the course.

I hope the message is obvious: when we are confronted with real-world high-stakes challenges, and given some minimal guidance in how to attack them, we are capable not only of producing powerful results, but also of learning important new skills along the way.

Again, that’s a far cry from most of the classrooms I inhabited during my formal education programs. Those very traditional learning environments were both consistent (rows of desks, a blackboard in front, and a teacher whose job was to tell us students the “truth” about history, politics, geometry, physics, or chemistry) and dull. Most of us found that form of education boring and meaningless, and once the end-of-term test was over we promptly forgot about 90% of the course content.

Here’s what really bothers me: too many of the conferences and professional development programs I attend (and speak at, for that matter), are still rooted in those 19th- and 20th-century methods of teaching, with all their underlying (and incorrect) assumptions about how we learn, why we learn, and what we learn.

I know we can do better. The good news is that there are more and more examples of learning environments and “tools” that are far more appropriate for adult learners and for the complex, uncertain, and rapidly changing world we are attempting to survive in.

Next time we’ll look at several contemporary examples as we focus on designing unforgettable learning experiences – and develop new skills that enable us to take charge of the future.


As usual, your comments and reactions to any of these articles are more than welcome. Please send your thoughts to us at any time, or post them here.

Do you want to create an unforgettable learning experience for your organization? Contact me for a free initial consultation about how to produce a turning-point event that enables you to take charge of your organization's future.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick Fullerton November 12, 2013 at 11:01 am

Greetings from Nova Scotia!

As a long time recipient of The Future of Work communications, I want you to know how much I appreciate your effort and generosity. This latest Newsletter resonates strongly with my experience. Like you, I see the power of experiential learning in my own development over my work career.

I’m also interested in your thoughts about how the current fascination with social media, computer games and various tech toys can be enlisted to enhance experiential learning. For example, I heard yesterday about a professor that invites students to tweet during class with feedback and suggestions. In my work with graduate students, I find I am often playing catch-up……

Thank you again for your insightful newsletters.


James Ware November 12, 2013 at 11:04 am

Rick, I appreciate your comments – thanks!

And you are right on target with highlighting computer games and social media as tools that foster even deeper experiential learning. My own experiences point me toward computer games and computer-based simulations as very powerful ways to make learning more “real” and to make new behaviors and skills “stick.”

Hmmm, that sounds like a future newsletter topic!

Thanks again.


Augusto Tomas November 12, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Thank You for a once more beautiful newsletter!

Yep, I agree with you and had also some rich experiences as a teacher as well as a student.

If you don’t mind in playing the game of “agreeing by disagreeing”, from my experience the person who delivers the message is as important as the method. A wonderful methodology will fail if the teacher don’t care about his teaching, and a “poor” or simple method could strive successfully by the energy the teacher brings to the classroom.

Today in a new world where the classes are going towards virtual avatar class experiences like the MITx, the human factor will be even more important in a virtual world.

At the end it is all about the energy “hook” between the teacher and the student, which could be in a simple format of the ancient Greek Socrates’ conversations, or by using complex technologies!

A final word: I believe that your undergraduate students where more motivated by your human energy than by the simulation method, but that is my opinion.


Kind Regards,


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