5DL Tools: Experiential Learning with 5DL Practica™


No type of learning is more powerful than learning by doing, also called experiential learning. The combination of intention, focus, hands-on engagement, and repetition creates large, influential flows of information into the human nervous system that improve knowledge, skill, and habit acquisition, recall, and application. However, experiential learning can be a blunt instrument. Used carelessly, learners will still learn—but they may not learn what was intended and may even learn in ways that contradict or counteract the desired results. Just as with any other learning approach, experiential learning needs to be carefully designed if it is going to maximize effective learning productivity.

At fiveDlearning, we find experiential learning so powerful that we look for ways to build it into every engagement. Our preferred approach is a tool we’ve refined over many engagements that we call the 5DL Practicum™. The plural form is 5DL Practica™.

A Practicum differs from other types of experiential learning in that it is designed to meet more than one type of objective in an engagement. Many learning experiences are focused entirely on supporting the learner’s development. For convenience, such experiences often use “toy” exercises, such as a beginning chemistry lab experiment or computer programming exercise, to provide the necessary conditions for experiential learning. Our corporate values require us to maximize both personal learning and client ROI, so our learning experiences have at least two goals: maximize the learner’s learning productivity; and maximize the client’s ROI by delivering real-world value. That real-world value requirement is why we chose the word “practicum,” the Latin word for “practical.”

We’re not unique in deploying real-world experiences. Many experiential learning models use real-world applications. But we’re distinctive in the degree of consistency and rigor that we bring to the design of Practica. We’re also distinctive, and possibly unique, in the ways we integrate high-performance learning techniques to increase the value of the experience for both learner and client.

Our engagements usually offer many different opportunities to construct Practica. Clients engage us, after all, because they want to see real-world changes in something. What better way to structure learning than to build it around the real-world changes that the client engaged us to produce? The synergies are substantial:

  • Learners are more highly motivated when the experiences are real, improving their learning productivity;
  • Practicing real-world activities is the ideal environment for developing good habits, which (as we discuss elsewhere on the site) are essential to maximizing client ROI; and
  • Delivering real-world improvements early in the learning process generates “quick wins” for the client, building support for, and laying a solid foundation for, the long-term gains that maximize human development ROI.

Practica take as many different forms as there are projects, environments, and learners. However, they also tend to fall into broad classes. Here are a few of the most common:

Work-Task Improvement. The learner engages some work task that is currently performed in a way that is identified as sub-optimal. A Practicum is designed to equip the learner with new knowledge, skills, tools, techniques, and habits to improve markedly the performance of that task. In addition to improving performance against KPIs on the task, the learner develops deeper knowledge, skills, and habits that can be applied easily to additional tasks and in other domains (including outside of work). The client gains the benefit of improved KPI performance and (often) either decreased time-on-task, freeing-up the worker for other duties, or improved quality as well as quantity of output.

Policy, Procedure, Practice Redevelopment. Especially when the learner is at the management level, one of the most common Practicum targets is the improvement of one or more policies or procedures and accompanying practices related to the work of our engagement. Within the Practicum, the learner identifies desired objectives (changes or new-developments), and “works backward” (reverse engineers) to determine and develop the policy and/or procedural changes needed. S/he then develops practices designed to implement the policies and procedures, in the process learning the new practices her/himself. These Practica often require the learner to master several of the tools of fiveDlearning’s practice, possibly including Community Charrettes, the Five Dimensions, and BASHH (all explained elsewhere on our site).  Those tools, in turn, develop the learner’s productivity at additional roles and tasks going forward.

Organizational Realignment. Clients often engage us to improve their staffs without considering that an improved staff might become limited by existing organizational arrangements. As we work, we note situations where current organizational structures may prevent clients from realizing the full ROI on their human development investment. Instead of designing and implementing solutions for those bottlenecks ourselves, we develop Practica through which the client’s staff (at every relevant level) analyze, design, and implement the needed changes themselves, “owning” the process, their own learning, and the organization’s resultant, higher performance.

 These are the most common Practicum forms, but they do not exhaust the inventory. For example, when working with human development in a formal schooling environment, Practica can take the form of “service learning” projects, where learners develop important knowledge, skills, and habits (often tacit knowledge and skills) through performing some act(s) of service to their peers, their, schools, or their communities. When working with philanthropies and social investors, Practica can take the form of project or program reviews designed to reinforce key learnings needed to optimize investment performance going forward.  There are many more examples.

Practica can also be stacked for greater impact. In longer projects, it is common for learners to undertake multiple Practica, each successive one building on learnings from previous ones. We often build entire multi-year school curricula and professional development learning plans out of a series of carefully designed Practica coupled with non-experiential learning, training, and coaching.

For all their power, Practica are just one piece of the human development puzzle. They work best when they are delivered as part of a mix of approaches, including non-experiential learning and coaching. When properly balanced with these other tools in a well-designed engagement, Practica deliver tremendous benefits to learners and clients alike. Most importantly, the benefits they deliver continue to grow over time, as learners and organizations alike gain from the mixture of improved learner capabilities and present, real-world results that the Practica deliver. Without them, our engagements would deliver much poorer performance in terms of maximizing either learner learning productivity or client ROI on their human development investments.

We welcome your thoughts and comments below. Interested in learning more? Please drop us a note at info@fivedlearning.com.