All The World’s A Stage: How To Design Transformative Learning Experiences

All learning experiences are just rehearsals for life.

But unlike in real life, staged learning experiences happen in a psychologically safe environment where the learners – or “actors” – can improvise and then design their future roles in life.

Whether you’re a learning experience designer or not, the lessons that learning professionals can impart to anyone designing for transformation(s) can help you to prepare your audience for the greatest performance they’ll ever give: that of their own lives.

Illustration by visual thinkologist Kevin Dulle

Bernd Gibson is a learning enabler who designs or stages experiences for transformation(s). Ahead of the publication of his new book The Immersive Theatre of Learning, he shares some of the techniques, inspirations and tools that have shaped his work as well as a few of his own frameworks including:

  • Learnscaping: how to design spaces where guests can experiment and learn.
  • D.R.E.A.M: the five pillars to transformation design.
  • Learning Ensembles: how to turn a diverse group of strangers into a community of learners.

If all the world’s a stage and everyone’s an actor, here’s how to become the stage director, set designer or playwright that helps set the stage for your audience to transform.

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Why You Should Design For Transformative Learning Experiences

There’s a big difference between designing for assimilative learning and transformative learning, as set out by Jack Mezirow:

  • Assimilative learning is about absorbing, processing and regurgitating information, probably for an exam. This is the sort of learning generally favoured in both corporate settings and universities. The problem is that once you’ve taken the exam, you promptly forget what you’ve learned. When you think about university you might remember your graduation ceremony, your favourite teacher, or your first love – but you probably won’t remember the content of your course.
  • Transformative learning, on the other hand, is about changing the learner. It can be a much more uncomfortable experience, involving dilemmas, cognitive dissonance, and existential questions – but the impact on the learner can go much deeper and last much longer.

A Holistic Approach To Designing Learning Experiences

To approach transformative learning design, we need to take into account both the conscious mind and the emotions. This means taking all of the below into account:

  • Be learner-centred, not content-centred. When working with universities, Gibson often finds himself being given a syllabus to focus on – but he prefers to research and empathise with who he’ll be working with before coming up with any content or experiences.
  • Involve the head, heart and body. 
  • Get people’s attention to engage their emotions and create durable memories. 
  • Talk to both the conscious and subconscious mind. When children up to the age of around 8 engage in learning, it’s always a very playful experience. This is because their prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed yet, so they respond more intuitively than with their conscious mind. We take it for granted that we don’t have to do this with adults – but this means learning experiences are often too much cognitive and not enough emotional.
  • Make your experience brain-friendly. How we learn depends on the mood and state we’re in. When we’re at work we’re mainly in beta brainwaves, but to be creative we have to slow down to alpha, and then jump over to the highest frequency, gamma. These different states require different experiences.

Life Is Roleplay: Learning Experiences As Rehearsals For Life

Shakespeare said that “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players”. 

And in their seminal book The Experience Economy, Joe Pine and James Gilmore said that “every business is a stage, and all the professionals are actors”. 

Basically, all life is roleplay. We try on new roles everywhere we go – at work we might be professionals or students, but we’re also friends, parents, children, musicians, artists, climbers, guides, and so on. We’re the same people, but slip into these different roles.

The role of the learning experience designer is to prepare people for a new role they’re going to play, or help them to create a new role for their future self.

“Learning experiences are rehearsals for life. The theatre is a place to try out things before they go into the real world.”

Bernd Gibson

The 4 Different Levels Of Using Story To Design Learning Experiences

One key way to connect with learners on an emotional level is, of course, through story. Gibson sets out four different levels for using story when designing learning experiences:

  1. Storytelling. For example, when Gibson works in intercultural fields to help people adapt to new cultures or change their corporate culture, storytelling can be about sharing previous experiences to make sense of it. However, if you haven’t had any of this experience yet, you can’t tell stories about it.
  2. Storyboarding. Here experience is used as a story. Learners go through a story with a dramatic structure and climax to understand an experience they haven’t yet had. Gibson created The Alien Experience to help people work through intercultural elements in a gamified, more abstract way that focused on difference in general rather than specific cultures.
  3. Storyshaping. Here learners are given certain elements so they can come up with a story of their own, much like in some escape rooms or immersive theatre. They research their avatar and fill in their story. This is an activity of empathy where they can slip into someone else’s skin and culture.
  4. Storyliving. This final stage involves accompanying people as they undergo an actual experience, learn from it, and conceptualise it.

Throughout this journey, you should design several powerful moments that when added up, may lead to transformation(s).

From The Sage On The Stage To The Guide On The Side

Traditional learning experiences, as in universities or corporate talks, favour the “sage on the stage” model: one person’s experience and knowledge is prioritised while everyone else listens and absorbs it.

Transformative learning experiences prefer a “guide on the side” model, where the stage is opened up for several learners to try things out.

As for the cast who occupies this stage, Gibson breaks it into 4 groups:

  1. Teachers, trainers, and facilitators → stage directors and critical audience, giving feedback to the actors.
  2. Learners → “spect-actors”, a mixture between spectators and actors as set out by Augusto Boal.
  3. Learning experience designers → playwrights.
  4. Stakeholders – i.e. the surrounding community including customers, managers, people you socialise with, team, etc) → audience

Building The Stage For Transformations

So how can we begin to build the stage for such transformative learning experiences?

(Note: Gibson prefers the plural of transformations, as we cannot assume to know the sole transformation someone should aspire to. We can set the direction, but we then need to design for a range of transformations, as in any group of learners not everyone will want to change in the same way.)

  1. Start with a safe space. Without emotional and psychological safety, there is no sharing  or learning. This is where learning institutions often go wrong – people are scared to have bad grades or mess up.
  1. Start with the learner. Similar disciplines like instructional design start with the content, but to transform we must start with the person.
  2. Create experiences. These can be a game, mystery, challenge, simulation, roleplay, and so on. One experience isn’t enough: there has to be a whole series lined up in a particular way to create a learning journey that leads to transformations, for example from easy to very difficult.

As in Mat Duerden’s Hierarchy of Experiences, in order for learning to be worthwhile, these experiences have to be meaningful and transformative. They might also be memorable, but this alone won’t change your learner.

The Cycle Of Experiential Learning

Based on David Kolb’s work from the 1980s, Gibson has simplified his cycle of experiential learning: observe, think, do, feel. 

In a traditional learning experience such as a university, we normally start with thinking about a topic, then we go out and apply it, which creates an experience we have feelings about, which we then write a report on (think, do, feel, observe).

In a transformative learning experience, we instead start at the top. People observe themselves and others to see what has just happened. Then we conceptualise a method or tool. Then we try it out in a different context through experience, to see how it makes people feel (observe, think, do, feel).

The Flow Channel Is The Learning Channel

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sets out in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, attaining a flow state is about finding that sweet spot where the challenge is inspiring and difficult enough that learners can mobilise all their existing skills, or stretch to a little higher than they can usually manage and learn new ones.

If the challenge is too high, it results in panic. If it’s too low, it results in boredom. Learning experiences are therefore about challenging the learner and allowing them to fail. The flow channel is the learning channel.

Learning experiences are also about mirroring and finding an emotional response in other people. As neurologist Dr Paul Zak says:

“Immersion is a neurologic state in which one is attentive to an experience and it resonates emotionally.”

Dr Paul Zak

The Theatre Is A Rehearsal For The Revolution

When we include elements of surprise in our learning experiences, we make learning more fun, more disruptive, and deeper. In Punchdrunk Enrichment, for example – immersive theatre company Punchdrunk’s educational series where they go into schools – they get teachers on board to prep the kids before the actors show up and something unexpected happens. 

They borrow several elements from immersive theatre, including:

  • Awe and wonder
  • A compelling story
  • A special place
  • Unfolds over time
  • Learners are spect-actors
  • The facilitator (or Joke) is neutral and ensures proceedings
  • The spect-actors find solutions

This sense of disruption and the unexpected is a crucial element in paving the way for transformations. Just as Augusto Boal said, “The theater itself is not revolutionary: it is a rehearsal for the revolution.”, so the learning experience is a rehearsal for life.

The Art Of Learn Scaping

There are several different forms of immersion, including:

  • Emotional
  • Cognitive
  • Active
  • Sensory
  • Virtual
  • Social

Another important form of immersion is physical, which is where Gibson’s Learn Scaping framework comes in.

The current stages of learning are usually a classroom or lecture hall. These are pretty uninspiring, and are designed to look like most people’s offices – they are designed for functionality, not inspiration. You can change this, however, by bringing props like masks or keys into the room, or decorating it to match your theme.

Some newer stages of learning are more innovative and more flexible. For example, in a recent learning experience staged by Gibson a room was themed to look like the House of Commons, inspiring students to engage with it in a more active way.

Finally, as Claus Raasted says, if you don’t have the room, just take people somewhere more inspiring! (We saw this in action at the inaugural World Experience Summit, where he took his audience off-site to the car park for an interactive session.)

Gibson has set out a Learn Scaping Checklist for what you should have in your room:

  • Theme/story
  • Purpose
  • Emotional effect

He also reminds you that you should design for the 5Ps:

  • People
  • Place
  • Props
  • Pace (choreography)
  • Principles (rules, games)

And that your learning experience should be a DREAM and contain:

  • Drama
  • Relationship – not only to each other, but also to what they already know
  • Emotion
  • Action
  • Meaning – this is the most important and is not the same as purpose, as it creates value for learners

Learning Ensembles: Designing Inclusive Learning Experiences

In a classical orchestra, the conductor has to bring all the different performers together so they perform in unison and resonate in harmony, as one ensemble.

Similarly, the learning experience designer has to bring a group who have been thrown together into one ensemble by creating a safe space in which they can learn as much from each other as from the facilitator.

To do this, you must recognise the ways in which people differ from one another, which include (but are no means limited to):

Emotional state, extroverts or introverts, openness to change and learning, active or passive, energy levels, leaders or followers, emotional or rational, levels of language, previous experience(s), attention span, differently abled, levels of courage, preferred learning style…

It also means using DE&I and Belonging as tools to bring people together and take them on a journey from strangers to family, or to a “community of strangers”.

  • Diversity means recognising different voices (strangers).
  • Equity means making sure all voices are heard (acquaintances).
  • Inclusion means making their contributions important (friends).
  • Belonging means creating those bonds (family).

The WXO Take-Out

If you’re a learning experience designer, Gibson’s frameworks are obviously gold – but for anyone looking to design for transformation(s), there are plenty of takeaways that you can apply in your own experiences. 

We think designing an experience where people feel emotionally, psychologically and physically safe is key, and starting with the learner, not the content. Accepting that any one person’s journey isn’t linear, and that we can’t control the transformation that someone aspires to or will actually have, is also key to creating the stage and setting the direction for it to occur.

So next time you’re designing an experience, ask yourself:

  1. To what extent do you create a safe space in which guests can try out new things?
  2. What relationship do you want to create with your guests, or within the group you host for your experience?
  3. How do you cater for the diversity of individuals? How do you create a community of strangers?

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