A Frog Kingdom, a Dressmaker, and a Lesson in Experiential Design
Updated: Oct 14, 2022
On December 1, 1884, young Daffodil found herself plummeting through the bottom of a lakebed into the frog kingdom of the Croäxaxicans, crashing right through the ceiling of the Royal Hall, dripping black mud on the rich green carpet, and speaking none of the local Froggais. Within a few months time, she had learned the local language, become royal Dressmaker Plenipotentiary, and a confidant and advisor to the Royal Family.
Daffodil was given an experiential education-- the ability to learn through doing. This was quite uncommon for girls of her time whose parents wanted to see their daughters grow up "thoughtful and good." Experiential education enabled her to move past the typical female role of "accomplished marriage material" and into a participating citizen of the world (or at least, Croäxaxica).
By now, you might be thinking, "Nicole, that's one weird story you've dreamed up," but I can't take credit.
Daffodil and the Croäxaxicans: A Romance of History was written by Augusta Webster, published in 1884. The book is a response to other works of children's fantasy with female protagonists, including Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, intended to show that a girl could be more than a vapid, shallow being trained in accomplishments to please a husband. Webster wanted a real education for them.
Webster was a feminist, board of education member, and women's suffragist who wanted to prepare women to be voting citizens. Daffodil was her vehicle for demonstrating her philosophy on female education. It's an argument that girls who are allowed to learn through play and through experiential learning, like boys, can become contributing members of society. It is only society that holds them back.
As you can imagine, Webster's work was not well-received and, despite being a fun read by today's standards, it fell out of print (unlike Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But that's another essay for another day...).
What We Learn from Daffodil about Learning
The Power of Play
My favorite line from Daffodil is "But they did not teach her to play." Her parents are wise and austere and afraid of contaminating her goodness by introducing her to poorly behaved children. She is allowed to learn her lessons, and that is all.
Does that sound like training you've been through as an adult? No room for interpretation. No room to get messy with challenging subjects. No room to explore.
Play is a powerful tool for allowing people to learn in low stakes situations. It's also a powerful tool for innovation. In play-- or for adults who consider themselves too sophisticated to play, exploration and experimentation-- you make errors, you make discoveries, and you come to new conclusions. You make connections that could not have otherwise been made.
We have to make space for our learner's to play, especially when we want them to learn complex things, like good decision-making and leadership.
Immersion Leads to Quick Learning
When Daffodil plops into the Royal Hall, she knows nothing about Croäxaxican culture or language. She learns by observing, repeating, trying, failing, and trying again. She has no choice but to learn if she wants to navigate this new world successfully, and so she does.
Being placed into a scenario, rather than told about one, can help people learn faster. It empowers them to think on their toes, so that they can respond when the context doesn't mirror the exact ones they encountered while learning.
Create immersive spaces with meaningful challenges, and let your learners go. And remember, while immersive can mean immersive tech like VR or MR, it can also be new surroundings (field trip, anyone?) or role playing.
"It Depends on Yourself"
Daffodil often tells herself "It depends on yourself," and in experiential learning, you become your own guide. What you take from the experience isn't cookie-cutter.
For some, that means deep learning. For others, it means surface level. Sometimes, the lessons take a bit to bake and aren't realized until after the experience. That's ok. Get comfortable with the idea that everyone is not on the same journey.
As learning designers, what we can do is design in a way that encourages self-efficacy and offers the space to wade through uncertainty without dire consequence.
Encourage Questions & Reflection
The Royal Croäxaxican are hot-headed and a bit spoiled by their position. Daffodil wins their favor and is seen as a trusted advisor. She leads the royal family to many decisions. And for the most part, she does it simply by asking good questions, ones that help them think through their decision-making and ones that help refine her own.
Questions are essential to experiential learning. It's not enough to just practice and do. Great experiential learning requires reflection, feedback, and revision (and repeat).
Success is Defined by What You Do Not What You Know
In Daffodil's world, learning to play the piano or being able to recite lessons made one a good little girl, but we quickly see all that "knowing" did nothing to serve her in Croäxaxica. In Croäxaxica, we also get a glimpse of the Regius Professor of Everything, who seems to know everything and is able to do nothing at the same time.
The bar for success of experiential learning is not what you learn, but what you do with the things you take from that experience. When you consider the metrics for success of your experiential learning, realize that you're looking to describe transformations that may not be as neatly packaged as as those you can measure with Kirkpatrick's Level 2.
In Daffodil's case, she's able to solve a number of the royal family's problems, and most importantly, she is able to use her new knowledge to defend others. When the Queen sentences the Head Royal Physician and Regius Professor of Everything to death by boa constrictor, Daffodil is able to point out the flaws in the Queen's logic and recant the death sentence. Not only that, but the Queen decides the boa constrictor will be fed to he is full of mushrooms and never fed a frog again.
If you were designing Daffodil's experience, it's doubtful your metric would have been "End the death penalty." Instead, it could have been something along the lines of "Make meaningful counterarguments by exploiting logical fallacies in your opponent's argument."
Consider behavior change or metacognitive frameworks acquired over knowledge areas when defining your metrics.
Embrace a Continued Learning Culture
Unlike Alice, when Daffodil makes her way back home, she is a changed girl. It's not just a silly daydream. Daffodil has, in fact, been gone for months.
But suddenly, she's back in the real world and her experience is largely ignored. There is no space for her to be this politically-adept experienced female that she's been trained to be.
Don't do that to your people. Let the richness of experiential learning soak into the work they do every day. Make space to discuss it. Create opportunities to re-reflect on it occasionally. Allow them to continue developing their new skills and finding ways to employ what they've learned.
When you put people through an experiential learning, they're likely to make transformations-- small or large. But if there is no space for them to use what they have learned, they will go back to old patterns of thinking and doing.
Create a culture that encourages learners to continue playing, exploring, and sharing ideas.
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