Experiential Learning
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Experiential Learning

A Practical Guide for Training, Coaching and Education

Colin Beard, John P. Wilson

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eBook - ePub

Experiential Learning

A Practical Guide for Training, Coaching and Education

Colin Beard, John P. Wilson

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About This Book

In a fast-paced and innovative world, traditional training methods can no longer be relied on to improve performance, engagement or promote behavioural change. Experience-based learning, in which the experience is central to the learning process, is more affordable, appealing and effective than ever before. Experiential Learning combines in-depth theory with international case studies from companies including KidZania, Shell and the UK National Health Service (NHS) and numerous practical tools for developing and delivering learning experiences in both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. It presents a simple model, the Learning Combination Lock, which enables trainers, coaches, facilitators and educators to select the best strategies for their circumstances to maximize comprehension, knowledge retention and application. Essential reading for anyone designing and delivering learning experiences, it covers areas such as experiential learning activities, indoor and outdoor learning environments, creative learning, working with the senses and emotions to help promote learning, and reviewing and evaluating initiatives.In addition to featuring new international case studies and examples, this updated fourth edition of Experiential Learning contains new material on the mechanisms underpinning learning, mindfulness and wellbeing, experience and language and digital games and the design of multi-sensory experiences. Online supporting resources consist of audio files exploring sensory intelligence.

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Kogan Page


Experiential learning: foundations and fundamentals


Practical answers to some theoretical questions

Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.


In this chapter we consider concepts and theoretical underpinnings to experiential learning by asking five simple practical questions, and we are calling these the Big Questions. The chapter explores some ‘need to know’ topics before we proceed further in the book to consider a range of practical topics that underpin the design, delivery and evaluation of experiential learning. At the end of this chapter we will summarize our thoughts about the core distinguishing features of experiential learning. The five questions are as follows:
  1. Question 1: Experiential education (EE) and experiential learning (EL) – are they virtually the same?
  2. Question 2: Is experiential learning (EL) simply the sum of an experience (E) plus an intention to learn (L)?
  3. Question 3: What are the more popular models currently being used to explain experiential learning?
  4. Question 4: What are the main criticisms of experiential learning?
  5. Question 5: Has the notion of the experience society contributed to our understanding of experiential learning?

Question 1: Experiential education and experiential learning – are they virtually the same?

As we have already noted in Chapter 1, the ability to define any categories is fraught with problems. The quotation below is taken from Fenwick (2000: 5), who commented on a number of conceptions of experiential learning:
The different categories presented here may appear as natural and given, when in fact they are highly constructed. All dimensions of classification derive from some perspective held and imposed by the classifier, thus constructing a world arranged according to the preferred order of things derived from the classifier’s viewpoint. In this assertion, I simply admit the constraints of my own logic. In particular, Western classificatory logic embeds its knowers with the deep assumption that there is such a logic, seeking to know the differences between things, and to separate them accordingly. I cannot presume to hide my own interests in cognition and my own preferences for particular learning theories behind these dimensions as if they are neutrally presented simply as different types. I am also aware that my own desires for conceptual control are reflected in the act of rendering these perspectives as manageable, comparable threads of intellectual thought.
To illustrate the points above, and to answer the question of whether experiential learning and experiential education are virtually the same, first read the following three definitions and then decide which is a definition of experiential learning and which is a definition of experiential education.
  1. A: The combination of processes throughout a lifetime whereby the whole person – body (genetic, physical and biological) and mind (knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, beliefs and senses) – experiences social situations, the perceived content of which is then transformed cognitively, emotively or practically (or through any combination) and integrated into the individual person’s biography, resulting in a continually changing (or more experienced) person.
  2. B: A holistic philosophy, where carefully chosen experiences supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis are structured to require the learner to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for the results, through actively posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, constructing meaning and integrating previously developed knowledge.
  3. C: A sense-making process involving significant experiences that, to varying degrees, act as the source of learning. These experiences actively immerse and reflectively engage the inner world of the learner, as a whole being (including physical-bodily, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually) with their intricate ‘outer world’ of the learning environment (including belonging and acting (conative) in places, spaces, within the social, cultural and political milieu) to create memorable, rich and effective experiences for, and of, learning.
‘A’ is a definition of lifelong learning, taken from Towards a Comprehensive Theory of Human Learning, by Jarvis (2006: 134), and quoted in The International Handbook of Lifelong Learning (2009: 10). ‘B’ is a definition of experiential education, taken from Itin (1999: 93) and it is part of a comprehensive 150-word definition that captures the essence of John Dewey’s (1938) sophisticated thinking on experiential education. ‘C’ is a definition of experiential learning, adapted from The Experiential Learning Toolkit (Beard, 2010). The similarities of the defining parameters of experiential learning, lifelong learning and experiential education are evident; the category boundaries are clearly blurred and rather fuzzy, and so we will further explore the question a little more.
Both experiential learning and experiential education are terms, or categories of learning, that contain the word experiential, and they continue to be used interchangeably, with aspects of their defining parameters ‘mirroring each other’ (Itin, 1999: 91). This is because their historical ‘roots’ have a common heritage: their roots frequently merge and separate, and are so complex that many authors have resorted to the use of metaphors of tree roots, rivers or ropes, so as to unravel and explain the inherent convolutedness. Roberts, in his book Beyond Learning by Doing (2012), utilizes the metaphors of rivers and currents to illustrate the complex social, political, individual, democratic and market influences that have impacted on the evolution of experiential education. In a chapter titled ‘The origins of outdoor and adventure education’ in the book Rethinking Outdoor, Experiential and Informal Education, Jeffs applies the metaphor of ‘a long rope comprising many strands’ to explain outdoor and adventure education. Furthermore, the rope, he says ‘remains unfinished’ (Jeffs, 2018: 1).

The foundations of experiential learning

The deep roots of experiential learning, and experiential education, lie within ancient Eastern and Western philosophies. It is said that the ‘West’s first conceptual notion of experience’ (Roberts, 2012: 17) was derived from ancient Greek philosophical contributions, and that the philosopher Aristotle was the originator or ‘progenitor of the experiential learning cycle’, developed by David Kolb in the 1980s (Stonehouse, Alison and Carr, 2011: 18). In the Eastern world, however, the ancient but well-known Chinese aphorism ‘I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand’ came from Confucian philosophy. This saying laid the early foundations for later interpretations of experiential learning in the West, suggesting that if a learner is simply told, then they forget; if they watch, they might remember; but if they ‘do’ the ‘real’ thing then this is the best way for them to learn. But is it? This Chinese aphorism clearly gave rise to the thinking behind the ‘Tell–Show–Do’ pyramid model of instructional techniques, sometimes known as Dale’s Cone of Experience, developed by Edgar Dale (1969). Some people mistakenly regard this as the fundamental underpinning to experiential learning, ie that experiential forms of learning are to do with doing. But what do we mean by ‘do’, and what is meant by doing the real thing? Aphorisms do not offer detail, and so we might usefully challenge these ideas and their interpretations so that we might better understand experiential forms of learning. This Confucian saying is clearly open to interpretation, more so because it was written in Chinese, and therefore in the language of the ‘Chinese way’. When the saying was translated from Chinese into English it lost some of its original depth of meaning. ‘Doing’ is perhaps better interpreted in English as the whole person immersion in a practice. Let us offer a slightly more exacting translation of the saying for you to ponder on. I want you to imagine a Confucian philosopher saying the following words:
To hear something is better than not to hear it,
To say something is better than just to hear it,
To know something is better than just to say it,
To practise something is better than just to know it…
(reproduced from Beard, 2010)
To practise is to actually experience it: to feel it, to sense it, to understand it and to immerse oneself in doing it, regularly, for oneself. Over time the notion of ‘doing’ things has become dominant within these simple constructs of experiential forms of learning, and this has created problems. The textbook title Beyond Learning by Doing published by Roberts in 2012 reflects this very concern. Eastern sages suggest that difficulties arise when inherent complexity confuses the signposts with the journey, and that we need to understand that the ‘learning doctrine is not the same as practising the wisdom the doctrine is intended to teach’ (Stevenson, 2000: 17).

Boundary disputes

These complex histories underpinning the development of experiential learning and experiential education have created frequent boundary disputes. Some authors adopt Dewey’s sophisticated ideas about education to make contentious claims that experiential learning, unlike experiential education, ‘lacks a philosophy’, and that it is a mere ‘method’ or ‘technique’ (Roberts, 2012: 4). Roberts, in his defence of experiential education, erroneously argues that experiential learning is merely learning by doing. Others suggest that experiential learning is a subfield of experiential education, possibly even ‘redundant’ (Smith and Knapp, 2011). Einstein, however, noted that ‘the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education’.
In this book we present our own philosophy of experiential learning, and our position is that in an evolutionary sense (phylogenetic), and from the human development (ontogenetic) perspective, learning is prior to, and much broader than, the notion of formal, or informal, education. In a similar vein, Kidner notes (2001: 20), when people consider nature as a mere backcloth to the social world of humans, nature is ‘prior to human existence or activity’, and nature ‘is a condition of social life rather than a consequence of it’.

Question 2: Is experiential learning (EL) simply the sum of experience (E) plus learning (L...

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