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  • Writer's pictureGraham Hutchings

The learning theories which drive Serious Games

Most learning curriculums and learning designs are still based on Benjamin

Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy, which classifies learning objectives into a hierarchy.

Bloom's theory posits that learning focused on the higher parts of the hierarchy

should result in deeper knowledge – assuming the levels beneath have been


"Game-based learning can help bring real-world experiences and practices to life and make the content more engaging and relatable to the learners."

Rachel Washington, Senior Manager at PWC 2021

Recognising that the learning process works differently for different learners,

topics and contexts, adaptive and agile learning principles have rightly

challenged the fixed and hierarchical nature of the model. Nevertheless, Bloom's

central arguments remain valid (Berger, 2018). The critical challenge most

corporate learning programs face is in the “applying” phase of the model: much

training remains dry and theoretical, never attaining the highest categories of

learning –analysing, evaluating, and creating.

PBS' experiential learning – or

“learn by doing” – methodology is

underpinned by David Kolb’s

(1984) experiential learning cycle,

which is linked to the most

common theories of how people

gain knowledge, especially

behaviourism. An effective

learning experience built on this

framework will ensure that all

categories of Bloom’s taxonomy

are covered.

Essentially, learning happens when the learner experiences something, gets

feedback on it through observed results or reflection, learns from it and

experiences it again – this time practising different behaviours to achieve

different (hopefully improved!) outcomes. In this sense, learning also happens

through “reflecting on doing.”

Anyone who has observed a toddler learning to walk, or a lion cub practising its hunting skills, will recall the "try, fail, try, fail, try, succeed" sequence that is the essence of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (Forman, 1985).

Of course, the notion of experimentation and failure clashes with the risk-averse

nature of most organisations. The financial consequences of things going wrong,

and the absence of psychological safety in many workforces, makes

experimentation impractical. So, if we want to recreate this learning cycle

effectively, we have to accurately recreate the context that our learner is facing

in a safe and – ideally – fun way. This is one of PBS' specialties.

Central to both agile learning and PBS’ serious games is the power of social

learning. In a disconnected, disparate workforce, it is perhaps unsurprising that

participants regularly state the experience was impactful for this very reason.

For whilst “learning by doing” can be effective for learning solitary tasks, it must

be combined with social learning to match the reality of the complex challenges

faced by organisations – and to surface the multitude of capabilities and

perspectives of a group of people (Bandura, 1977). In this forum, critical thinking,

complex problem solving and innovation can thrive.

A flock of birds, the ultimate complex-yet-agile system, survives threats and

reaches its destination by moving in unison without any obvious leader or

structure. In the same way, a high performing team in a PBS serious game is one

which creates an inclusive environment for decision making, knowledge sharing

and self-aware reflection. This is social learning in action. This method promotes

21st-century theories of learning (connectivism) and of agile organisational

structure. If recreated by learners in their real jobs, this will lead to profound

competitive advantages for their companies (WGU, 2021; Laloux, 2014).

The solutions to complex challenges lie with the people on the front lines who

deal with customers, suppliers, and processes every day. The catalyst of a serious

game allows these solutions to be expressed, practised, optimised and shared in

a safe way. Just as this approach hands power from leadership to their teams, so

too should the role of the “sage on the stage” become increasingly redundant

when addressing complex topics. Learners should discover rather than be told as

there are rarely any standardised right answers.

In uniting experiential learning with social learning, PBS’ serious games create a

unique opportunity for learners to practise solving relevant problems, together, in

a safe but realistic way. They are then equipped to implement these solutions

when they get back to their real jobs.

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