What is experiential learning?

Experiential Learning was once called ‘Learning by Doing’, becoming well-known from the work of David Kolb in 1984 and his Experiential Learning Cycle Theory.

What is experiential learning?

Early ideas of Experiential Learning.

Since Kolb made early attempts to explain what is meant by experiential learning, through a four-stage cycle of ‘concrete experience’, ‘reflective observation’, ‘abstract conceptualisation’ and ‘active experimentation’ there has been an acceleration of its application within many disciplines.  The early approach, where the definition addressed groups solving single problems in an organisational setting, has broadened and has developed into one involving work with children in classrooms, care, therapeutic settings, active learning in Higher and Further Education and other forms of Commercial Development Training course.

Experiential Learning Diagram 2,

Current Thinking

This development has been informed through new ideas from many disciplines such as education, neuroscience, outdoor education, development training, social work and philosophy and, not least, by a more informed and critical reflection upon experience.  The idea of a fixed sequence influencing all members of a group in concert has now been largely superseded and the idea of individuals having fixed learning styles is no longer current either.

However, Experiential Learning has now moved on to consider the whole process of experience, starting with Sensation and Perception through Cognition and all the outcomes of Action, Reflection, Abstraction, Theorisation and beyond. Overlayed over this model, which should not necessarily be seen as sequential, is the need to balance the difference between evolutionary with cultural imperatives.

Experiential learning diagram,

Examination of the development of the brain shows how discrimination, memory, and narrative are all important parts of the experiential process and that they all influence what we call experience. Specific experience of dissonance, risk, narrative, transformation of meaning across cognitive domains, dialogue, critique and the attribution of positive and negative value, are seen as being central to modern practice of experiential learning.

At the individual level, how these affect a person’s experience is significant, particularly when such components are combined within a designed learning experience. The influence of social constructs upon how life is experienced, is examined particularly in relation to individual’s autonomy and authenticity.  Societal, and particularly cross-cultural, issues are important in that they allow critique of accepted norms within groups. Bushcraft, for example, is one particular manifestation of experiential learning where these issues are addressed, both through an individual’s experience of the wild but also through consideration of unfamiliar, often subsistent, cultures.

It is the understanding and management of the basic components of experience, individual and societal, which allow the design of experiential learning.

Older theories relating to Learning Style and Personality Inventories have largely been superseded as a result of their generalisations based on self-perceptions and the lack of correlation between self-perception and performance. This critique has also applied to many simplified models, many of which model what we would like to be true rather than considering the randomness and diversity of people. The meaning of experiences within the specific context for the specific people is now the focus of experiential learning processes.

The focus of experiential learning now considers the experience of the individual in their own setting as an agency-increasing process, as well as a process for increasing the agency and effectiveness of groups, as in the past.  In so far as improved personal agency is an outcome, the notion of the ‘individual’ is challenged as is that of ‘nature’.  The problems of dualistic thinking are central to many experiential contexts and the dualism of Man and Nature is increasingly challenged, particularly as the primacy of one over the other is clearly has serious implications.  Philosophical ideas of self, mind and consciousness are sometimes explored.

In practical terms, common components of experiential learning might be autobiographies, journeys, problem-solving, story, adventure, designed dissonances, challenge, translocating meanings between cognitive domains or media and almost always a considerable amount of reflection.

The specific methodologies of experiential learning vary between contexts and providers who have different emphases and traditions.  It is probably true to say that many of the outcomes of experiential learning have been highly positive, but in fact the understanding of the processes has been less than comprehensive.

In general terms Experiential Learning is often seen as involvement with real situations that require working in unfamiliar groups in unaccustomed settings on a unusual problem. Whilst this is a common format, it is not the only strategy.  More pithily, experiential learning is learning by using more of your brain more effectively. We know it works but showing how and why is more difficult.

Why Outdoor and Experiential Learning is so important.

One aim of experiential learning is to promote agency, either personal or organisational, hence the examination of narratives and stereotypes. The effects of memory and learned narrative can sometimes be a brake on this. Similarly, the political or organisational narratives, whilst serving their origins, can actually be destructive to the process of improving learning or performance of the individual.

Current social and political thinking tends to stress the ideas of safety, stability and sufficiency (the three S’s) whereas our brains are more suited to environments that are dynamic, deficient and to some degree dangerous (the three D’s). To experience these conditions in mainstream education is hard.  To say that you were intentionally building in risk would suffer the wrath of those that say we should do as much as we can to keep children safe. Clearly, the balance between the ‘S’ and the ‘D’ is the contentious issue.

Outdoor education or Bushcraft can involve situations that are dynamic, deficient (or limited in terms of resources) and the possibility of danger. All these can be prepared for, and it is exactly this and responding to circumstances in the moment that the outdoors provides. With increasing fundamental change looming as a result of climate change, such learning might be a good idea.

The awe and wonder of the outdoors is just as powerful. The link between knowledge – understanding – appreciation – valuing – responding is perhaps more obvious in outdoor settings. The opportunities for experience awe and wonder are more restricted in most other settings.

What the course does.

The Outdoor and Experiential Learning Course aims to make people aware of the processes, applications and philosophies of experiential learning and how they apply to themselves and others.

By identifying and reassessing the influences upon them and by understanding some of the key constituents, such as dissonance, narrative, risk, domain transformation and abstraction in their past and current practice they become more skilled in the application of these components in their own professional and personal settings. 

Outdoor and Experiential Learning therefore has applications beyond settings that have been compartmentalised in the past, in, for example commerce and development training, and thus the application and opportunities in this type of experiential learning are much wider.  Experiential learning has obvious relevance to the arts through the consideration of perception, cognition, abstraction and transformation across media.  Likewise, the application of experiential learning to therapy also considers narratives, scripts, memory and reflection, this being congruent with many current theoretical approaches.

Experiential and Outdoor Learning, therefore has evolved from models and generalisations that have specific aims, and has started to identify the components that enable a more conscious, person-centred approach that increases their agency in a much wider range of settings and types of application. Such an awareness also allows designers of experiential learning to taylor their work more effectively.