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People learn when they do work
 
A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.   — Benazir Bhutto
 
We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. —  T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
 

Learning from
Experience
By Marcia L. Conner
 
With so much attention on simulations and action learning in education literature, it's unfortunate that many people don't know the underlying discipline of these two topics and arguably the foundation of most everything we learn: Experiential Education. The experiential learning field is vast and interesting. Here are some basics.

Overview of experiential learning
Websites about Experience
Books about Experience

Articles about Learning from Experience
Organizations worth knowing about

Overview of Experiential Learning

We take in information through our senses, yet we ultimately learn by doing. First, we watch and listen to others. Then we try doing things on our own. This sparks our interest and generates our motivation to self-discover.

Think back on learning to ride a bicycle, use a computer, dance, or sing. We took an action, saw the consequences of that action, and chose either to continue, or to take a new and different action. What allowed us to master the new skill was our active participation in the event and our reflection on what we attained. Experience and reflection taught more than any manual or lecture ever could.

Kurt Lewin wrote that little substantive learning takes place without involving something of all three aspects.[1] Learning also involves feeling things about the concepts (emotions) and doing something (action). These elements need not be distinctive. They can be, and often are, integrated.

In the book Experiential Learning, David Kolb describes learning as a four-step process. He identifies the steps as (1) watching and (2) thinking (mind), (3) feeling (emotion), and (4) doing (muscle). He draws primarily on the works of Dewey (who emphasized the need for learning to be grounded in experience), Lewin (who stressed the importance of a people being active in learning), and Jean Piaget (who described intelligence as the result of the interaction of the person and the environment).[2]

Kolb wrote that learners have immediate concrete experiences that allow us to reflect on new experience from different perspectives. From these reflective observations, we engage in abstract conceptualization, creating generalizations or principles that integrate our observations into sound theories. Finally, we use these generalizations or theories as guides to further action. Active experimentation allows us to test what we learn in new and more complex situations. The result is another concrete experience, but this time at a more complex level.

To be effective learners we must (1) perceive information, (2) reflect on how it will impact some aspect of our life, (3) compare how it fits into our own experiences, and (4) think about how this information offers new ways for us to act. Learning requires more than seeing, hearing, moving, or touching to learn. We integrate what we sense and think with what we feel and how we behave.

Without that integration, we're just passive participants and passive learning alone doesn't engage our higher brain functions or stimulate our senses to the point where we integrate our lessons into our existing schemes. We must do something with our knowledge.

Praxis is the Greek word that means action with reflection. (Praxis = Experience + Reflection > Action.) In educational situations, we describe, analyze, apply, and then implement our new learning. When we practice a skill, analyze our practice, and then repeat the practice at a higher level, we move practice to praxis. We learn what we're doing.

'Teaching by pouring in' refers to a medieval belief that we could teach people by drilling holes in the human head and, with a funnel, pour information into the brain. Though we now snicker at that model, we use equally absurd methods today. As long as professors model passive learning to future teachers as acceptable and useful, instructors will be unprepared and unwilling to use other techniques such as experiential learning.

Likewise, because many of us haven't seen other techniques, we don't know what we're missing. Active learning results in longer-term recall, synthesis, and problem-solving skills than learning by hearing, reading, or watching. Western education needs to move from a learning-by-telling model and even learning-by-observing (as in the case-method) to a learning-by-doing model. We must move from passivity to activity. We must learn to extrapolate from our experiences and see how to apply what we've done to new instances.

The main reason schools haven't integrated experiential-focused theories into all instruction remains a lack of understanding why and how learning-by-doing works.[3] Educators may recognize that experience teaches real-life skills, but they don't see the connection to learning facts. Most teachers still follow the drill-them-and-test-them school of educational thought.[4]

The problem with experiential learning is that in organizations we may not get to see the outcomes of our actions and, thus, cannot reflect on them to learn. The consequences of our actions may be in the too distant future or affect a part of the organization far removed from ours. Peter Senge reminds us:

We each have a learning horizon, a breadth of vision in time and space within which we assess our effectiveness. When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience. Herein lies the core learning dilemma that confronts organizations [and thus individuals]. We learn best from experience, but we never directly experience the consequences of many of our most important decisions.[5]

We must find ways to learn-by-doing and be able to reflect on what happened. Praxis makes the difference.

horizontal rule

[1] Kurt Lewin (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper Collins.

[2] David Kolb (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

[3] Kurt Hahn has also been a pioneer in this field. For more information see Richard Kraft and Mitchell Sakofs (Eds.) (1994). The theory of experiential education (2nd ed.). Boulder, CO: Association of Experiential Education.

[4] Roger C. Schank (1994, October). What we learn when we learn by doing. Technical Report 60. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University's Institute for the Learning Sciences.

[5] Peter Senge (1990). Education, in order to accomplish its ends, both for the individual learner and for the society, must be based upon experience—which is always the actual life—experience of some individual... The educational system must move one way or another, either backward to the intellectual and moral standards of a pre-scientific age or forward to ever greater utilization of scientific method in development of the possibilities of growing, expanding experience... There is no discipline to the tests of intelligent development and direction. John Dewey in Experience and Education in a chapter entitled, "The Means and Goals of Education."

Websites

Experiential Learning articles + critiques of David Kolb's theory. Roger Greenaway. Reviewing Skills Training. This is the most comprehensive review and list of experiential learning articles I have found. A masterful piece from Mr. Greenaway!

Wilderdom's Experiential Learning & Experiential Education offers background, philosophy, theory, practices and resources on the field.

CSA Europe has created a good overview of the field.

Infed (a favorite website of ours) reviews David Kolb's work in Experiential Learning, Kurt Lewin's take on Experiential Learning and Action Research and more.

The HRD Group addresses different aspects of putting experiential learning into practice.

eXperientia is from the work of Simon Priest, an experiential researcher who has made a career of learning about learning—experientially. Although no longer updated, this is an outstanding site addressing research, practitioners, related links and theory in the science.

Books

Experience & Education. John Dewey (Scribner, Reprint 1997). I re-read this small book at least once a year to reground myself in how people learn and the importance of experience. Also see Art As Experience by John Dewey.

Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. David Kolb (Prentice Hall, 1983). The classic text on experiential learning.

The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies are Turning Knowledge Into Action. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Robert Sutton (HBSP, 2000). This terrific book addresses action, instead of knowing at the key to individual and organizational success. While not specifically called Experiential Education, this book is about nothing else! Read "The Learning-Doing Gap: An Interview with Robert I. Sutton" by Beth Garlington Scofield (Learning in the New Economy Magazine, Fall 2000).

Field theory in social science (along with Resolving Social Conflicts). Kurt Lewin (c 1951, APA Reprint 1997).

The Experience Economy. B. Joseph Pine, James H. Gilmore (HBSP, 1999. This is the book that finally made business people start thinking and talking about experience. Also available in Audio Cassette (Abridged) and e-book (Microsoft Reader) formats.

Do It and Understand: The Bottom Line on Corporate Experiential Learning. Christopher C. Roland, Richard J. Wager, Robert J. Weigand (Kendall/Hunt, 1995). I met the authors of this book in the early 1990s at an AEE conference. I was quite impressed with their perspective and insight to the field. Many years later, when I stumbled upon this book, I was thrilled to find that the book equally conveyed their depth of knowledge and understanding of experience.

Flow: The psychology of optimum experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper and Row, 1991). Also see Finding Flow (Basic Books, 1997).

The Essential Elements of Facilitation. Simon Priest, Mike Gass and Lee Gillis (1999). Lakebay, WA: eXperientia. ISBN 0-7872-6611-6.

101 of the best Corporate Team-building Activities. Simon Priest and Karl Rohnke (1999). Lakebay, WA: eXperientia. ISBN 0-7872-6601-9.

Experiential Quotes: Wise words to live and work. Todd Miner & Simon Priest. (2000). Lakebay, WA: eXperientia. ISBN 0-9646541-3-X.

99 of the best Experiential Corporate Games. Simon Priest, Sam Sikes and Faith Evans (2000). Lakebay, WA: eXperientia. ISBN 0-9646541-4-8.

Articles

David Kolb, The Theory of Experiential Learning and ESL. Curtis Kelly Heian Jogakuin College (Osaka, Japan). The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 9, September 1997.

"e" Stands for Experiences: Blurring Work and Learning by Brian Miller (Learning in the New Economy Magazine, Fall 2000)

Experiential Learning on the Web. Tim Pickles. TrainingZone, April 1999. This article explores the development of experiential learning from its original proposal into some of its current refinements and applications today.

Introduction to Experientially Based Training and Development by Simon Priest (Learning in the New Economy Magazine, Winter 2001)

The Learning-Doing Gap: An Interview with Robert I. Sutton by Beth Garlington Scofield (Learning in the New Economy Magazine, Fall 2000).

Learning From Experience. Kolb's learning styles, developed more than a quarter of a century ago, suggest that there is more to learning by  experience than simple trial and error. This article first appeared in Issue 10 of The Antidote.

Organizations

Association for Business Simulations & Experiential Learning (ABSEL) is an American based association "whose purpose is to develop and promote the use of experiential techniques, simulations and assessment in the field of business education and development." It focuses on business simulation and especially computerized simulations with a strong academic bias.

The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) is a membership association dedicated to experiential learning students, educators and practitioners. The organization provides a network, publications, accreditation programs. They also offer regional chapters, bimonthly journal, conferences and a experiential-based training & development special interest group (EBTD SIG).

Australian Consortium on Experiential Learning (ACEE)
Sydney, Australia.
Email:
ruth.cohen@education.uts.edu.au
(publish the Australian Journal of Experiential Learning)

Brathay Development Training
Ambleside, Cumbria, United Kingdom
Email:
brathay@brathay.org.uk
Website:
www.brathay.org.uk

Community Development Resource Association (CDRA)
Woodstock, Cape Town, South Africa
Contact via
E-mail or see their Homepage

Council for Adult & Experiential Education (CAEL)
243 S. Wabash Ave., Suite 800
Chicago, IL 60604 USA
312-922-5909 tel, 312-922-1769 fax
E-mail: Membership,
eveit@cael.org or tflint@cael.org
Web site:
www.cael.org
(Magazine, conference, state representatives)

Cross-Cultural Solutions, a US-based organization sending volunteers to Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.
Website:
www.crossculturalsolutions.org

European Institute for Outdoor Adventure Education and Experiential Learning
Website:
www.eioaee.org

Experiential Education and Adventure-Based Learning, Germany
Contact via their
Homepage

Experiential Training and Development (ETD) Consortium
PO Box 12485
Portland OR 97212
Email:
info@etdconsortium.com
Website:
www.etdconsortium.com

The Festival of Lifelong Learning
University of East London, 2000/1
United Kingdom
Contact the Festival via
Email

Highfields Breakthrough Experiential Learning Program
Contact via their
Homepage

ICEL Network
United Kingdom
Email:
Diana Kelly

Learning from Experience Trust (LET)
Chelmsford, Essex, United Kingdom
Contact via
Email or see their Homepage

The National Association for Outdoor Education—United Kingdom
Contact via their
Homepage

National Organisation for Adult Learning (NIACE)—United Kingdom
Contact via their
Homepage

National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE)
9001 Braddock Road Suite 380
Springfield, VA 22151
Voice 703.933.0017/ 800.528.3492, Fax 703.426.8400
Email
info@nsee.org
Website:
www.nsee.org
(Quarterly newsletter, conference)

Outward Bound International
Contact via
Email or see their Homepage

UK Lifelong Learning — United Kingdom
Contact via their
Homepage

Volunteer's for Peace / VTweb
Contact via
Email or see their Homepage

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If you reference this page in a report or article, the citation should read:

Marcia L. Conner, "Learning from Experience." Ageless Learner, 1997-2007. http://agelesslearner.com/intros/experiential.html

 

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Last Updated:
February 17, 2007