Rethinking Experiential Learning for Inclusivity and Safety

August 25, 2023

Rethinking Experiential Learning for Inclusivity and Safety

In the realm of learning and development, experiential learning has gained popularity for its immersive and interactive nature. However, it is important to examine these experiences through a leadership lens to ensure they foster inclusivity and safety for all participants. This blog explores the inherent problems with some gamification-style learning activities that tend to favor extroverted and neurotypical behaviors, leading to the marginalization of already marginalized individuals. By delving into these issues, we can uncover ways to create more inclusive and effective learning experiences.

Unveiling the Exclusionary Nature

Reflecting on my personal experiences with experiential learning, I realized the underlying biases present in many activities. One particular simulation aimed to solve problems in a high-stakes scenario, emphasizing the importance of trust-building and likeability. However, upon closer examination, I discovered that the activities predominantly favored extroverted and neurotypical traits, inadvertently excluding those who do not conform to these norms.

The Marginalization Dilemma

Gamification-style learning often encourages behaviors such as quick thinking, fast movement, and gregariousness. While these activities may be accessible and enjoyable for individuals who don't face marginalization, they can create further exclusion and a lack of safety for marginalized groups. Remaining silent, observing, and assuming supportive roles, which are valuable qualities in the workplace, may result in being labeled as "untrustworthy" within these simulations.

The Impact of Othering on Safety

One common feature of these learning experiences is the "gotcha" moment, where participants realize that the problem was either unsolvable or lacked sufficient context. Such exercises lack psychological safety, attempting to modify behavior without establishing a safe environment beforehand. This approach reinforces the pain felt by marginalized groups, making their differences feel like reprimands rather than celebrating their diversity.

Understanding Othering and Its Effects

The concept of "othering," as explained by the Othering and Belonging multimedia journal from UC Berkeley, encompasses various expressions of prejudice based on group identities. It highlights the processes and conditions that perpetuate inequality and marginalization. Unintentional othering in learning design is a pressing issue that requires greater attention. Many experiential learning sessions operate on the assumption that homogeneous teamwork is the most effective problem-solving approach. This disregards the countless ways individuals contribute value, work independently, and excel in accuracy over speed.

Redefining Collaboration

While collaboration and teamwork have their merits, it is essential to acknowledge the value of individual contributions and solitude. Merely being present and offering silent input can be powerful, and history is replete with examples of solitary thinkers who have transformed the world without uttering a word. Not all collaboration is effective, as ambiguity, groupthink, and a lack of role clarity can hinder progress and damage relationships.

Creating Inclusive Learning Experiences

To ensure inclusivity in learning experiences, it is vital to design with a focus on psychological safety and consider the impact on marginalized individuals. Here are key questions to guide the process:

  1. Does the experience foster psychological, mental, physical, and emotional safety for all participants?
  2. Have participants' diverse mental health needs and sensitivities been considered?
  3. Does winning require exclusively extroverted and neurotypical behavior?
  4. Does collaboration overshadow other valid ways of contributing?
  5. Are participants discouraged from utilizing their unique strengths that may not align with high-pressure situations?
  6. Does the activity accommodate individuals with auditory or sensory processing disorders?
  7. Is the high-pressure experiential approach necessary, or are there alternative methods to achieve the learning objectives?

The Kindness of Safety and Inclusion

Contrary to the belief that discomfort is essential for learning, it is crucial to prioritize safety and minimize unnecessary discomfort. Safety and inclusion can coexist with stretching and growth. By honoring individuals' strengths and wiring, aligning objectives with learning experiences, and leveraging user experience expertise, we can create effective learning journeys that empower participants without sacrificing their well-being.

Leadership plays a critical role in reshaping experiential learning to be more inclusive and safe for all participants. By recognizing the inherent biases and exclusionary aspects of certain activities, we can strive for learning experiences that celebrate diversity, honor individual strengths, and foster psychological safety. Through a thoughtful approach, we can create a learning environment that not only achieves objectives but also cultivates growth and empowers every individual on their unique journey.