Lessons from Learning Like A Dolphin

In a short period of time, experiential learning can provide key insights into life and work that help us make sense of our experiences. These quick illuminations provide a basis for reflection and understanding that is more powerful because it is both embodied and demonstrated.

I had a good reminder of this at Engage Nova Scotia’s event on Tough Collaborations, the latest work of Adam Kahane and his colleague Ian Prinsloo. One of the premises in Tough Collaborations is working with emergence and they used an exercise they called Learning Like A Dolphin to illustrate this point.

One person is asked to leave the room and the rest of the group is asked to come up with a very specific thing that they want the one person to learn. In this case, it was to stack three chairs underneath a light fixture in the middle of the room. When the person comes back in the room, the only guidance the group can give her is to clap – the same way a dolphin would be trained. The dolphin learns part 1 of a game through being positively reinforced until it understands the first step. Then, the second step is added in and, again, positively reinforced until they get it. And so it goes until the full repertoire is good.

In this play experience, the group was to clap at the first thing the volunteer did that would support her learning the task. It took only ten minutes but felt a lot longer – for the group and especially for her. As she stood in the right location, the group clapped. When she moved out of range, there was silence. When she touched a chair, the group clapped. When she stood on the chair, there was silence. For awhile, she stood and looked at the group to see if she could discern anything. She did notice that some people were looking up at the light fixture which clued her into location.

Members of the group were not always consistent in their feedback, clapping at different times for different things.

3-chairs-stacked-and-an-extraShe finally got four chairs in the centre of the room and she lined them up in a couple of different ways, turned them around, sat on them and mostly received silence. When she picked up one chair, there was clapping and it was in that moment she figured out about stacking the chairs. Within ten minutes she had accomplished the task. That’s when the debrief started.

When she was asked about her experience and what she felt or thought she shared some of the following: about half way through she wondered what she had gotten herself into, would she find her way and figure it out, would someone rescue her. The real life corollary: we often only realize part way through, if ever, what it is we have agreed to do in any given situation and certainly in any situation that is complex.

She was asked if she understood what it was she was supposed to have learned and she honestly answered, no. Even though she had completed the task successfully, there was no understanding of the meaning of the accomplishment. Now, granted, it was a game, but there is still a real life analogy. How well have we communicated the greater context of the work so that it has meaning to the people tasked with carrying it out?

Feedback from the crowd was mixed, confusing the message. It showed up at different times when she moved or when she touched the chairs. Also, people were in different vantage points so where the center of the fixture was wasn’t clear. Some abdicated their responsibility to the “authority” in the room: the facilitator who set up the exercise.

There was a breakthrough moment – when she figured out it was about stacking the chairs – and towards the end the learning quickened. At the beginning she was operating in a vacuum so it took longer to figure out the first steps. But once things began to come together, it was a lot easier to figure out number of chairs or directionality.

When she did just stand still, there was no feedback whatsoever so any movement offered information.

In terms of working with emergence, Adam and Ian brought it back to the following lessons:

  • Move toward
  • Stay connected – if you have a large goal begin with small things
  • Be experimental – build knowledge piece by piece and discover what your options might be
  • By systematic to gain an understanding and then take a leap
  • Embrace your emotions – and others too – throughout the experience. There is a lot of information that is helpful to understanding where you are and find your way through the process.
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