Experiential learning is an active process in which a learner develops information, values, and skills through diligent application of theory or experience.
Simply put, it is learning by doing.
Experiential learning is not a new concept. Somewhere around 450 BC, Confucius said, “Tell me, and I will forget, show me, and I may remember; involve me, and I will understand.”
In the western world, the understanding of experiential learning resulted from hundreds of years of philosophical debates on how people learn. Some of history’s greatest thinkers battled over whether knowledge was gained by reason or through the senses. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, in the late 1700s, first asserted that reasoning and experience complement each other and promote the building of knowledge.
The theoretical foundation for experiential learning was laid by a cumulation of thinkers, including John Dewey, Kurt Hahn, Jean Piaget, and Kurt Lewin.
In 1984, David A Kolb first published Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Kolb developed a four-stage learning cycle consisting of Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation (Kolb, 1988). In this model, learning is constant and ever-evolving. All learning is a cumulation of the interactions between the internal world and the external world.
Take into consideration how a person becomes a great chef. The chef will first participate in the experience stage when they begin to cook their dish. Then they will enter the reflection stage as they see the product on their experience. Throughout the meal’s creation, the chef is tasting how his experience is shaping the flavor and texture of his dish. The chef moves to the next stage and thinks abstractly about how changing something will impact the plate. Then the chef acts, adjusting the pan’s heat, adding more wine or stock, or adding a binding agent to thicken the sauce. What sets a great chef apart from a good chef is a chef who actively enters the learning cycle every time they walk into the kitchen.
Since Kolb, educators, psychologists, and other experts in their field have added to the body of work. A simpler way to express the stages of experiential learning is experience, reflect, and act. It is our role as educators to help learners through each of these stages.
Experiential learning produces exceptional learning outcomes, increases knowledge, develops skills, clarifies values, and develops learners’ capacity to contribute to their communities. Although experiential learning is extremely valuable, the adoption of this method of education is slow. According to a study published in 2017 in the Journal of E-Learning and Knowledge Society, of 295 surveys returned, lecture was the most popular form of delivering education (Wurdinger & Allison, 2017). Even more, the faculty responded that they only use experiential approaches to learning less than 25% of the time in their courses (Wurdinger & Allison, 2017).
So that begs the question. Why haven’t we fully embraced experiential learning? An article from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, “Many Professors Want to Change Their Teaching but Don’t. One University Found Out Why.” investigates the slow transition from lecture as the predominant method for delivering education. Challenges included time constraints, tenure-promotion guidelines in institutions that prioritize research over teaching, fixed seats in classrooms, students not prepared for class, and students who resist active learning (McMurtrie, 2019).
Despite these various challenges and barriers, the data showed that the most significant reason was the department’s culture (McMurtrie, 2019). To move towards experiential learning, it takes a culture change. If schools are motivated to move in this direction, all stakeholders will need to invest in a culture that promotes education innovation.
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Kolb, D. A. (1988). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
McMurtrie, B. (2019, March 21). Many Professors Want to Change Their Teaching but Don’t. One University Found Out Why. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from https://www.chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/2019-03-21?cid=wcontentlist_hp_latest
Wurdinger, S. & Allison, P. (2017). Faculty Perceptions and Use of Experiential Learning In Higher Education. Journal of E-Learning and Knowledge Society. 13. 27-38. 10.20368/1971-8829/1309.