Head - Teacher Education Research, Prayoga, Bengaluru
Genesis of Experiential Learning
Experiential learning is connected to an experience. It is about experiencing the process of learning mindfully, consciously, and critically. It is creating knowledge, building skills, and imbibing values through the lens of reflection. It is about adapting, being flexible, and being a lifelong learner. It is based on the clear principles enunciated in social psychology and cognitive psychology. It is also about personal development. But what are the theoretical foundations of experiential learning?
The focus on experience and connecting it to learning can be attributed to Aristotle, around 350 BC. "for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them". In recent times the earliest proponent of experiential learning was John Dewey. He said, ‘there is an intimate and necessary relationship between the process of experience and education.’ (Dewey, 1938, pp 19, 20). His thought process questioned the traditional educational process of rote and lecture method, learning from textbooks and teachers, the focus on a drill with an exalted position for the teacher as the expert and the knowledge provider. He emphasized that everyone’s experience is unique and thus the learning also needs to be different.
Jean Piaget, probably considered the most influential of all modern psychologists, believed that children curate their experiences and interactions in schemas. The experience and the interaction are actively constructed, mindfully engaging in it. He called it ‘actively constructing knowledge. Then with a new experience or event, a child either assimilates it into the schema or accommodates the learning or the understanding by either revising the existing schema or by changing the schema itself. He describes that intelligence is shaped by experience and is a product of an individual’s interaction with his/her environment.
Another contributor to this path-breaking thought of experiential learning is Carl Rogers. He worked mostly with adult learners. For him, experiential learning was the application of the learnt knowledge in real life. He qualified it further stating that it is only possible when the learning is initiated by the learner. The learner is personally motivated and enthused to learn and can visualize its positive effects. The learner has to experience change and personal growth.
Kurt Lewin is known for his seminal work on group dynamics and action research he opined that it was important for a learner to reflect on the concrete experience immediately which may cause tension and conflict with a detachment to foster authentic learning.
Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich also contributed to the experiential theory development in the 1970s. They stated that it was important for individuals to develop a critical consciousness which enabled them to actively explore their personal experiences to develop a viewpoint and opinion.
Brain research has also added a new dimension to the different forms of learning. It reveals that both the hemispheres of the brain are equally involved during either a concrete experience or an experience involving abstract reasoning. Thus, both these kinds of learning have to be treated at the same level. One is not superior to the other.
Experiential Learning – David Kolb
David Kolb is probably best known for the learning inventory and his model of experiential learning. The theory was proposed in 1984. He stated that “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38). He speaks of the four stages of learning and represents it cyclically. He reiterates that the learner has to go through the four stages to complete the process of learning. The learner can enter the cycle at any stage. He elaborates further that learning is personalized through the immediate experience. Learning is a process and not just resulting in an outcome. Learning is cyclical. The theory integrates holistically, experience, perception, cognition, and behavior.
The immediate experience (concrete experience) becomes the basis for observation and reflection. The data collected in this stage is further analyzed and thought about the pros and cons to lead to a modification in the behavior. This is the reflective observation stage. It is important to communicate the understanding gained for any behavior change. The new learning from the immediate experience becomes a guideline for all the other experiences. The formation of new ideas, opinions, viewpoints, and new ways of being are referred to as abstract conceptualization. The nebulous new learning is shaped into a tentative proposition to guide further behavior or change in the way an individual has been learning, thinking, and doing things. Once the individual has a firm grasp of the new learning, the time is ripe for activating the new learning through trialing it out and experimenting with it. This stage builds new conceptual frameworks and a permanent change in the behavior or skills. Hence it is called active experimentation. The stage is filled with risk, doubt, and failure but the learner has to overcome the same with confidence and trust in the process of learning.
Another exciting component of the cycle is the two opposing poles which are the perception and the processing aspects of learning. The vertical axis represents the perception continuum (how we think) and the horizontal axis represents the processing continuum (how we feel). The perception continuum also refers to how we approach a task, while the processing continuum is about our emotions or how we bring meaning to anything. Based on these two, four different learning styles were described.
Kolb’s cycle has been criticized as any learning theory would be. It is considered to be too simplistic. The learning styles truly do make a difference to the learning potential of an individual. No one learning style is permanent with an individual. The theory has not taken into account the social and cultural context of individuals.
Yet there is a great deal that can be borrowed and implemented in our classrooms. A teacher can make an effort to allow the learner to experience activity at his/her level, and make conclusions rather than imposing a single meaning to an activity. The teacher can review the observations and reflections of learners to personalize the learning experience. The teacher can also make an effort to have a mix of concrete experiences to engage the learners but understand that the inferences made could necessarily be abstract. It is thus important to probe these to convert them into generalizations to create new knowledge. Thus, David Kolb sets the tone for teachers to be facilitators placing the onus on learning on the learner. The ongoing tussle between perception and processing has to be capitalized upon to engage, inspire and motivate the learner, challenge them to make sense of what they are doing, and learn consciously. This unique ability to learn will help individuals to adapt to a constantly changing world and be flexible.
Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. (2009). Experiential learning theory: a dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education, and development. In S. J. Armstrong, & C. V. Fukami -The SAGE handbook of management learning, education, and development (pp. 42-68). SAGE Publications Ltd,
Eight Important Things to Know About the Experiential Learning Cycle: Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. A. 2018, Australian Educational Leader, 40 (3):8-14.