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What is Experiential Learning of Science?

Dr. Venkata Krishna Bayineni, Senior Researcher, Department of Biology, Prayoga, Bengaluru. -


Over the years, science education has been searching for new ways of teaching and learning to make a shift from the traditional board & paper processes in order to develop the student’s competencies needed for their success. The experiential learning approach is one of the methods that meets this criterion. Real-world experiential learning can be truly transformative for the youth of the 21st century where children spend much of their education cooped up in small boxes called classrooms. As famously said by Albert Einstein, "Knowledge is experience, everything else is just information".

Children must be capable of much more than just being able to count, read and write in a rapidly evolving and unpredictable modern world, powered by technology and globalization. Children need realistic learning experiences that are authentically set in real-life environments that are built to intentionally imitate how the world currently operates outside the classroom boundaries. With science focusing more on innovation, it comes as no surprise that its pedagogy is also evolving. In this decade, there was a radical shift in the approach towards learning and teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) concepts through practical, hands-on and experiential approach.

What ‘experiential learning’ means?

In simple words, experiential learning is referred to as learning through direct experience or learning by doing. It is an approach in teaching which offers the learners the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge through first hand experiences, reflect upon those experiences to develop new skills, new attitudes, new ways of thinking and allowing them to develop a better understanding of the concepts at hand. Experiential learning is considered to be an effective way of approaching education. Because, this can influence the development of the metacognitive and implementation skills of learners, by applying knowledge to specific situations and allowing learners the opportunity to self-learn. It's a learning style that has been extensively researched for decades, and one that has been shown to be beneficial for students of all ages. The main steps of experiential learning include: experiencing, observing, analyzing, and experimenting [1].

Experiential learning starts at a young age. According to Jean Piaget, the first stage of cognitive development is the sensorimotor stage. It lasts from birth to two years old. At this stage, even if the baby has no verbal actions, the baby begins to realize the consequences of the actions. They learn how to walk after falling over and over again and try new things until they stand up long enough to walk through the room [2]. Aristotle’s wisdom that “For the things we have to learn before we do them, we learn by doing them”.

The examples of experiential learning activities include field research, class room activities, off-site school trips, project-based learning, field activities, experiments, simulations, field trips, learning projects, outdoor education, group work in and out of the classroom, open ended discussion activities and open-ended questioning guidance. Research has proven that students of all ages learn better during initiatives that involve applying concepts in practice, in order to solve real world problems, actively make decisions, and then reflect on the outcomes or consequences of their learning actions and decisions. When planning experiential learning activities, the teacher becomes more of a facilitator. The facilitator introduces problems or challenges, and then allows the flexibility of the students (with guidance) to find ways to solve the problems. As it is actually taking place, the facilitator will then observe and direct learning. This suggests that as part of the learning process, questions and misunderstandings can be resolved immediately rather than corrected at a later point after the project/s has been completed, making it a much more successful problem-solving process.

Experiential Learning of science

In teaching science, organizing experiential activity is to provide students with opportunities to observe and experiment; to apply knowledge; to solve theoretical and practical problems; to discover and explore science, through which they can continue to improve their skills. Via experiential learning, the aim of teaching science is to link students to the realistic situations. As a result, students identify practical problems and have decision-making skills to solve the problem.

Theory of Experiential Learning

The concept of experiential learning was popularised by education theorist David A. Kolb, who, along with Roger Fry, developed the experiential learning theory [3]. It is based on four key elements which operate during the learning process in a continuous cycle and they are: concrete experience (i) followed by observation and reflection (ii) followed by forming abstract concepts (iii) followed by testing in new situations (iv). It's a model that shows up again and again in the literature. They claim that the learning cycle can begin at any one of these four points.

Experiential learning is not a new idea: Lessons from the gurukul system

Experiential Learning derives its essence from Gurukul's ancient Indian tradition and its very significant feature is the role of the Master (Guru). In essence, a Gurukul was a place of learning where students (Shishya) learned under the supervision of an expert (Guru) by performing different tasks. Naturally, in such an environment, students learn more because the tasks they conduct are instrumental in their learning process. The students also learn to closely observe and analyse things around them with the expert 's help. They learn from their errors and are driven at every juncture by the expert. In the overall personality development of the student, this whole process plays an important role. And in this value system, the Guru occupies a central stage and serves as its facilitator [4].

Experiential learning is not a new construct for science teachers, especially those who involve their students in research and problem-based learning. This is the type of education that enables learners to ask questions such as: "Why should I learn this?" “How is this experience relevant to me and my fellow people?” and “How is this experience going to contribute to my growth and that of others?”.

Experiential learning: The future of education bridging the gap between theory and practice

Experiential learning gives learners the skills and experience they need for real-world success. More often, employees seem to lack problem-solving skills and don’t seem to be able to apply what they’ve learnt in training to the workplace. Experiential learning may lead to higher domain specific creativity and practical use of knowledge in the current situation. Our traditional teaching system has been more of a theoretical than practical. In a traditional learning environment, textbooks and lectures are used in a classroom to teach students, the concepts that they don’t know how to relate. They are expected to apply these concepts on the job once out of the classroom. Whereas the experiential learning system bridges this gap between theory and practice. So, there are a many difference between conventional and experiential learning. A few of them are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Traditional Learning Vs. Experiential Learning Methodologies

Experiential learning of science in Indian scenario

The science education system should emphasize the practical understanding of the principles of science with reference to modern technological advances. What our India needs now is Scientific Humanism i.e. a concept which involves a progress in technology in relation to our cultural, economic, social spiritual, ethical and human values. This should be the aim of our school and higher science education [5].

“The enormous potential for India to become a leading knowledge power in the coming years can be realized only if our younger generation has opportunities for all round good education and training, especially in Science & Technology. Unfortunately, however, the present state of higher education in the country is rather poor. In order to make it more relevant, to the changing needs of society, and thus to propel India to a position of leading knowledge power, we need massive investments as well as well-planned radical changes in our higher education system” (Joint Science Education panel,2008) [6].

Why is it being recommended for school-level in the NEP, 2020?

The decision taken by the government to overhaul the entire system of education is a welcome step. The NEP 2020 was approved on July 29, it is set to reconfigure the 10+2 years schooling system in India with a new 5+3+3+4 years system. These phases are strictly curricular and pedagogical in nature, and are intended to optimise learning. In view of the students' developmental and learning needs, the reconfiguration of stages is more acceptable than the previous division. It is focused on the ground reality of the education scenario of the country, which places more importance on student’s creativity and innovation as well as personality development rather than requiring them to score high and memorise the content without acquiring a basic understanding of concepts. The main thrust behind all phases of this curricular and pedagogical restructuring is to step away from the conventional form of learning to 'experiential learning'. It is commendable that the policy talks about introducing ‘play/activity-based learning’ in the foundational (pre-school-grade 2) and preparatory (grades 3-6) stages, and ‘experiential learning’ in the middle stage (grades 6-8) in order to make learning joyful and engaging for children. NEP2020 talks of specialised faculty, meaning subject-specific teachers for studying abstract concepts in sciences, mathematics, social sciences, in this phase of schooling (middle stage).

For conceptual understanding, NEP suggests a hands-on experiential learning approach, often enabling learners to explore topics for holistic understanding across disciplines (interdisciplinary approach). The introduction of experiential and interdisciplinary learning methods would ensure that students will have a more meaningful, holistic and coherent learning experience. This approach can certainly develop scientific spirit among students, create space for providing concrete experiences to children and make learning enjoyable and interactive. It will also make them enjoy the process of learning by building a proactive interest in them. Also, the narrowing of curricula to the respective core knowledge and practical applications across grades would create space for teachers to incorporate experiential learning, innovative thinking and critical thinking skills activities [7].

About Prayoga

Prayoga is a not-for-profit organization focused on improving school-level education through sustained research. Prayoga’s vision is to bring about a transformation in society by enhancing the utility and quality of learning at the school level. Prayoga is involved in extensive work on experiential learning of Science as part of a project termed Kriya.

Kriya is a social initiative and a science education research project. Prayoga intends to study various aspects of experiential learning of school-level Science and more importantly the impact of experiential learning on various aspects of students’ learning. As part of the social initiative, Prayoga will engage with selected schools aiming for a transformation of schools. Prayoga supports the school both in operations and academics. The project empowers the Science teachers with training and content related to experiential and active learning. Prayoga intends to extend support to schools catering to the economically-weaker sections of society, and those deprived of access to good learning resources - at near zero cost.

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