How to Learn from Experience–What Are the Implications of Experiential Learning
“Experience is the adult learner's living textbook.”— Eduard C. Lindeman
The Way We Learn
Does the way we learn have more impact on society than what we learn? Does our preferred learning style say anything about how we relate to each other and the demands of social life?
My impression is that the answer to both questions is “yes”, though perhaps not an unqualified “yes.”
When I think back to my years at school, which in the main I hated, I remember mostly being frustrated and irritated by teachers who assumed that they knew what was best for me, that they knew how and what I should learn. The things I learned during those years that have stayed with me, that still make an impact on my day-to-day life, I learned not from teachers, but from my friends and their families, from my interactions with them and the members of my own family. I remember more about teachers than what they taught me.
Only as an adult, rather fleetingly at university, then more and more clearly as I was exposed to working life, did I become sure that I knew how I preferred learning, and that I could make choices about what to learn, and that it was my right to make such decisions.
One of the first experiences of real learning in a classroom that I can remember happened in my first year at Stellenbosch University. It happened in the first year philosophy course that I took. And only from one of the lecturers involved in that course, Dr (later Professor) Johan Degenaar.
Dr. Degenaar came into the lecture room (he took us for only one period a week) on the first Friday morning of the semester and asked us to write down our own definition of the “soul”. I was astounded. Here was the “teacher” asking us what we thought – it was an almost literally mind-blowing experience. He was not telling us what he thought, in the expectation that we should all think the same, but he was asking us how we saw something. Amazing!
The discussion which followed this was interesting, especially in the light of the fact that Stellenbosch was an explicitly “Christian” university, and so the expectation was that we students should all accept an explicitly “Christian” understanding of the soul. For a lecturer to open this up for discussion was radical.
Almost 50 years after that experience I still remember it, and something about what I wrote in response to Degenaar's question. Of the other lecturers who “taught” me during that year, I remember that they “taught” me the history of Greek philosophy, but I remember little of that history and absolutely nothing of those lecturers. And most of what I remember about Greek philosophy is what I have subsequently read, for my own interest.
I took further courses with Dr. Degenaar in subsequent years and they were all in the discussion format. There was little “lecturing” at us, but far more involvement of us all in a process of mutual discovery in which we learned a lot about each other and the important issues of the day. The excitement of discovery stays with me.
It took another nearly 20 years for me to get a deeper understanding of what had happened in that lecture hall, to be able to put a theoretical framework around the experience. It happened that in 1980 I met and worked with another doctor, this time of medicine, who helped me learn a great deal about the process of learning and the implications for individuals and society of that process.
The person who introduced me to the theory of experiential learning was Dr. Peter Cusins, at the time a director of the Centre for Continuing Medical Education (CME) at the medical school of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Peter employed me as an administrator at the Centre but very soon began to involve me in the educational side as well. He had studied Adult Education at Manchester University and was deeply committed to experiential education.
So What Is “Experiential Education”?
No doubt many people believe in the saying that experience is the best teacher. It is a popular saying and yet, like many popular sayings, is only partially true. Certainly, we can learn from our experiences, but only if we do something with the experiences. Just experiencing them is just additive–we are simply having more and more experiences.
Experiential education or, as I prefer to call it, experiential learning, has its basis in a particular understanding of what learning is and how it happens. Peter developed a definition of learning: “Learning is a more or less permanent change in behaviour or knowledge that comes about through disciplined reflection on experience.”
Analysing this definition will start to show how radical it really is. The first thing to notice is that learning leads to change. The implication is that if there is no change, learning has not happened. We do not learn for the sake of learning, but for the sake of changing. If nothing changes as a result of our learning, what have we learnt for?
The second important factor is that the learning happens not because of what a “teacher” or “lecturer” says, but because of what the learner does. The way we express this in theoretical terms is that in the traditional, teacher-centred model of learning, the construct precedes the experience, while in experiential learning, the experience precedes the construct. The construct is developed out of the experience.
Thirdly, then, the development of the construct happens through the process of a “disciplined reflection” on the experience.
Relationships and Learning
All of this implies that the traditional teacher-learner relationship is radically altered. Traditionally learners have been seen as “empty vessels” waiting to be “filled” with learning given them by the teacher. The teacher is seen as the source of knowledge while the learner is seen as lacking that knowledge. The characteristic of that relationship is one of dependence. The learner is dependent on the teacher for all his or her knowledge. The learner's experience and knowledge is discounted and usually ignored as irrelevant to what the teacher wants to teach.
In an experiential learning situation the learner is responsible for his or her learning and so has a less dependent relationship with the “teacher”, usually called a “facilitator” in this situation. This is a crucial point in terms of the effect of the “how” of learning on the individual and, ultimately, on society.
The traditional way of teaching encourages dependence, encourages the learner to rely on the teacher for what to think and how to think. Compliance is rewarded and so independent and original thinking is not developed.
In experiential learning the learner is encouraged to think for himself/herself, not to repeat the thought patterns of the teacher. This means that the teacher (facilitator) - learner relationship is very different. It is a more equal, open relationship with the facilitator standing metaphorically beside the learner providing support and constructive feedback rather than criticism or rewards.
In this way, in a sense, the relationship itself becomes the vehicle for learning, and the facilitator's skill set has to include a high level of communication skills (especially in giving feedback) as well as a high level of ego-strength.
What About the “Disciplined Reflection”?
The reflection is disciplined if it follows certain processes towards a specific goal of learning, in other words to some practical use of the learning. These processes form a model of experiential learning.
There is a number of different models of experiential learning. David Kolb especially introduced the cyclic concept into the theory of adult education. His model was basically a four-stage one from the experience to the critical reflection, to abstraction and then finally to an experimental application. This is a very concise view of how learning takes place.
My personal preference is for the model developed especially for training situations by J. William Pfeiffer and John E. Jones, founders of the University Associates (UA) organisation in San Diego, CA. Pfeiffer and Jones produced over some 30 years a series of volumes of collected structured experiences and an Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators which were highly influential in the adult education and training field because of the practicality and experiential soundness of the materials contained in these volumes.
The Pfeiffer and Jones model proposes a five-stage process comprising experiencing, publishing, processing, generalising and applying. As explained on the UA website, “Experiential learning occurs when a person engages in some activity, looks back at the activity critically, abstracts some useful insight from the analysis, and puts the result to work through a change in behavior.”
The Experiential Learning Cycle
The model (see illustration) shows the following stages:
- Stage 1: Experiencing: The experience is where data is generated. This can be an exercise in the context of a learning group or a “live” real-life experience. The point is that data are generated which form the basis on which the learning will be built.
- Stage 2, Publishing: In this stage, the participants in a learning group will share their personal data, their perceptions of what happened and their responses to that data. The question in this stage is “What happened?”
- Stage 3, Processing: This is the pivotal stage in the cycle. In it, the participants identify and discuss commonalities in their perceptions. Here participants look for common themes that might emerge, they might analyse trends observed in the Publishing stage, and begin some process of interpersonal feedback. It is important that this stage be fully worked through before the group proceeds to the next stage.
- Stage 4, Generalising: In this stage, the question that is asked is, “So what?” It is in this stage that participants will start to look at everyday life and try to relate the experience to problems or situations in their lives. This is the really practical stage, where generalisations arising from the experience are made in preparation for the next stage.
- Stage 5, Applying: This is the time in the cycle when plans are developed for applying the learnings identified in the previous stage to real life situations. It is at this stage that participants answer the question, “Now what?” A common, though not the only, outcome at this stage is a table of actions answering the question, “Who will do what by when?”
One of the first implications of experiential learning is that it is primarily to do with meaning and not “subject” or “facts.” So it is highly personalised learning and the outcomes will likely include a change or changes in behaviour that are personally chosen, not imposed or demanded from outside the person.
Experiential learning tends, both in its process and its outcomes, to be anti-authoritarian. Individuals are encouraged to make their own connections, their own theories, about the way things are.
That is another characteristic: the learning in this model will tend to be focus on “the way things are”, rather than “the way things should be.” It is a learning rooted in the individual's perceptions and feelings, not in the “received” reality.
Experiential learning is not “about” things outside of the individuals involved. It is learning that creates reality out of the common, shared experience.
All of this means that individuals involved in such learning tend to develop their creativity, their independence of thought and their relationship skills. These are very valuable and useful aptitudes in a world of rapid, discontinuous change. These are aptitudes which support a high coping ability.