Building Sandcastles: Experiential Learning

I took my family on vacation last week. My pre-school son spent considerable time digging in the beach sand. I watched closely as so many of his creations were destroyed in front of his eyes. As an adult with some sandcastle-building experience, I could have spared him the pain of loss by offering him some early-vacation advice. I did not. 

I got my start in "education" in 2001 when I became a Police Firearms Instructor. Unexpectedly, the 5-day course I attended to receive my instructor certification was little more than a beefed-up shooter class. The curriculum did not get into the principles or theory of adult learning.  It ignored any research or science related to human development, growth, or understanding. And it most certainly did not address students' emotional connections to learning.

I emerged from the weeklong class as a slightly better shooter, but without any of the skills I'd need to be an educator. I'd have to figure those out by myself along the way.

Predictably, I screwed up. A lot. In fact, I STILL do.

Since 2001, my role as a police trainer has expanded. I started as a helper to the senior trainers. I slowly offered suggestions to curriculum. I then began designing my own curriculum, and ultimately providing in-depth train-the-trainer workshops. 

As I look back now at those 10+ year old lesson plans of mine, I am embarrassed at what I was doing. And what I was thinking. 

There are two perspectives of experiential learning intertwined here:

  1. My personal journey at becoming a better instructor.
  2. My students' growth, becoming better police officers.

The best instructor is merely a facilitator in the process of self-discovery...who himself is learning in parallel to his students. Here are eight of the many mistakes I made along the way, while trying to teach others:

I stressed standardized procedure. I searched for the ideal method or protocol. That became the standard. I explained it. I demonstrated it. The student replicated it. Everything was choreographed and rehearsed until perfected. Understanding was not necessary. Just do it.

I ignored the emotions of the students. Emotions and feeling were the soft stuff. We surely did not need that on the firearms range or tactical sites.  To me, teaching and learning was a mechanical relationship. Information flowed one-way: from instructor to student.

I stifled individual creativity. Creativity would be a break from the standardized procedure. There was no format to evaluate or test decisions or performances that did not match the technical standard. Creativity meant unpredictability. And unpredictability made me afraid. 

I did not address the power of fear. Fear is an extremely powerful and limiting emotion. Students who were afraid would not experiment with new options for fear of ridicule, failure, or isolation. (Which was good....just follow the standard, right!?) 

I gave the answers up too freely. I didn't have time in the training schedule to allow students to figure things out for themselves. (Efficiency!) Instead, I just gave them the solutions and used the time for them to practice and repeat the techniques. I just couldn't figure out why they didn't remember the answers later! 

I failed to give context or relevancy. Scenarios or problem-solving was not feasible. That required resources, time, and manpower. The students would figure out what tools to use when the situation presented itself in the real world, right? 

I prevented student failure. I couldn't bear to watch failure. It made my eyes hurt. What was easier? Just stop the student before s/he failed to keep them from wasting time doing the wrong thing. STOP! Here is the right way. Now do it over! 

I tried to impress others with what I knew and could do. You see, I was the instructor because I knew more than the students. The problem was that not every student knew how great or knowledgeable I was. Certainly there would be opportunities to prove it. If not, I'd make the opportunity. Now watch and listen.

Each of the above statements begin with "I"...and purposefully. I own these mistakes. They are my failures. Not yours. Not my fellow instructors'. Not my supervisors'. Mine. 

Thankfully, along the way, I was smart enough to take the advice of a mentor: Surround yourself with all-stars. I did just that. I joined professional organizations. I read journals, books, and articles on learning. I talked with the best of the best. I looked outside my industry. I've had a lot of help to guide me on my journey to becoming a better educator. 

I'm proud of the sandcastle I'm building right now. But I also realize this is just another learning experience for me. As high as I hold my head for my current projects, with certainty, I will look back on today and think about how much better it could have been...

Among those who have seen so many of my previous sandcastles crumble include: my bosses; my teachers; my mentors; my students; my partners; my readers.  I'm fortunate to have them. I appreciate the freedoms they've given to allow my failure... and ultimately, my growth. They allow me to exercise creativity and tinker with the unorthodox. I get to experiment with new material, new methods, new tools, new strategies...with the understanding some of them will simply not work. And that's OK.

In building sandcastles, there are no standard blueprints.  The process is filled with emotion and creativity. There is fear and failure...and lots of "right" answers. It's driven by opportunity and problems. It's more about the experience and less about its permanency. 

Sandcastles go away, but they serve a purpose in the learning journey: Experience.As long as you allow the experiences to teach you. And as long as the next one is better.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model


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