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What is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is a powerful way to help people identify changes required to their skills, attitudes and behaviours, then implement those changes for better performance.

We’ve put together this resource to provide a comprehensive introduction to experiential learning. Here’s what you’ll find inside:

Whether you’re completely new to experiential learning or you’re just looking to brush up on bits of the theory, this resource has the information you need.

We’ll start with a definition.

What is experiential learning?

Experiential learning (EL) is, quite simply, learning by doing. 

We have all learned to walk or talk, not by being shown or told, but by practising and refining our technique. Consequently, trainers and facilitators can implement this method in all sorts of situations with people from all walks of life. 

In EL, there are no barriers due to age, education, experience, ability, background or culture.

Within the field of Talent Development, experiential learning can best be defined as:

“developing personal understanding, knowledge, skills and attitudes through the analysis of, and reflection on, activity”.

In this definition ‘Activity’ can include anything from an individual explaining an idea or completing a simple task to highly complex group interactions involving a wide range of mental attributes and behaviours. 

What experiential learning is not

One of the quickest ways to highlight the ways in which experiential learning differs from other methodologies is to take a look at what it is not:

  • EL is not the writing of new information onto the blank slate of your mind.
  • Nor is it the act of memorising an immutable bank of knowledge.
  • EL is not a passive process that happens to a learner; rather it is an active process that engages them and invites participation.

What are the principles of experiential learning?

Experiential learning stands in contrast to prominent theories of learning which underpin most traditional educational methods, like behaviouralism and implicit learning. These theories have their own ideas on the goal of learning, the best way to learn, measures of success, and the nature of what can be learned.

EL brings a different theoretical perspective, as we will see in the following principles. 

Focus on the learning process rather than outcomes

Behavioural conceptualisations of learning suggest you can measure effectiveness of learning by the number of facts or habits a person has learned in response to stimulus questions or conditions. These elements of thought – or ideas – are fixed, and the goal is acquiring more of them.

EL suggests that ideas are not fixed; rather, they form and re-form through experience. Experience intervenes and because this is unique each time, so too are the resulting ideas. 

In EL, the measure of success therefore moves beyond acquisition of facts, and instead becomes lasting behavioural change, the development of skills and behaviours to respond to different situations, and an ability to apply this knowledge.

Learning is therefore an emergent process with the learner at the centre of the process: learning is based on where the participant is, their relationship with what has happened previously, and where they want to be in the future. 

It’s easy to see the appeal when compared to other theoretical approaches which define a rigid outcome and focus on making the learner reach it.

The process of learning is grounded in experience

Implementing, testing, evaluating and refining ideas exclusively with reference to familiar experiences does not present an opportunity for learning, because experience must violate expectation to hold value.

As a result, education involves refining and modifying old ideas as well as implanting new ones, and experience is the vehicle through which this process can take place.

The response to new ideas depends on those currently held, and the responsibility of teachers, instructors, facilitators – whichever word you prefer – is to sculpt the experience and the surrounding discussion in a way that maximises its value.

Learning is a transactional process

With the transaction taking place between the environment and the learner. 

The resulting experience and knowledge is applicable in wider contexts, due to the fact that the knowledge is the result of testing and refining theories, rather than learning by rote. 

Hence in situations with different conditions but where some commonalities exist, current knowledge can contribute to the basis for continued learning.

What’s required for experiential learning to take place?

So, how do you structure an experience in a way that makes experiential learning possible?

First let’s take a look at the abilities a learner needs to be able to engage with an experiential learning task:

  • Concrete experience 
  • Reflective observation 
  • Abstract conceptualisation 
  • Active experimentation 

At the risk of burying you in jargon we’ll introduce each one, and contextualise each within our training activities:

Concrete experience (CE)

Concrete experience abilities are those which allow a learner to engage openly and without bias in experiences. Without these, their interpretation risks being limited and skewed by bias.

The first time somebody participates in an activity with one of our kits, they’re gaining a concrete experience.

Reflective observation (RO)

Reflecting on an activity and its outcomes is a vital part of learning, and a learner needs to be able to reflect from multiple perspectives.

Someone working through the first half of an individual review sheet to crystallise their understanding of an activity is engaging in reflective observation.

Abstract conceptualisation (AC)

These abilities allow learners to integrate their observations and reflections into new theories, which act as the basis for the next set of abilities.

Group discussion and completion of the second half of the individual review sheet allows a participant to form abstract conceptualisations about an activity.

Active experimentation (AE)

Through AE, learners test the theories arrived at through the previous abilities. With these four abilities working in tandem, learners develop their understanding and enshrine their realisations and knowledge.

Repeating the activity based on the insights gained in the previous steps forms the active experimentation stage.

Considering the abilities above, it may be tricky to conceptualise a situation where each can work in tandem. After all, aren’t reflection and experimentation fairly different?

However, balancing these things is a crucial part of the process

Experiential learning is made possible in situations in which each of these abilities is given the space to function. New experiences are presented with which learners can engage, then facilitation allows for observations to be discussed and new conceptualisations to be formed. The cycle is then repeated, giving learners an opportunity to test their new theories and build their understanding. 

Depending on the nature of an experience, the area of knowledge that contains it, and various other factors, the relationship between these abilities will be different.

Experiential learning: the theory

In this section we’ll look a little more closely at the theoretical underpinnings and context of ELT, starting with three prominent educational psychologists whose ideas inspired those of David Kolb: the man acknowledged as the father of experiential learning.

Kurt Lewin: 1890-1947

Lewin conceived learning as a four-stage cycle in which experience leads to observations and reflections, which lead to the formation of abstract concepts and generalisations that are then tested in new situations. As the cycle repeats, knowledge is refined and improved.

Lewin defined experiences as real and textured, and highlighted their role as publicly shared reference points from which shared involvement can arise. The social learning and problem solving made possible by this arrangement leads to continuous and goal-oriented feedback where consequences are evaluated.

Ineffectiveness to learn in this situation can be traced back to poor or absent feedback from educators and other participants, preventing the cycle from repeating properly.

Ineffectiveness can be caused by things like emphasising decision and action at the expense of gathering information, or becoming bogged down by data collection and analysis.

John Dewey: 1859-1952

Dewey conceived learning in a similar way to Lewin, with the important distinction that he saw it as a journey from impulsive to purposeful experience rather than a cycle:

The image is a little complicated at first glance so let’s break it down.

Each stage of the journey still consists of four stages: impulse, observation, knowledge, and judgement.

However instead of just repeating endlessly, each step progresses as the judgement and knowledge is contextualised and used to refine future impulses. The actions arising from these impulses then become more sophisticated at each step, until they become purposeful.

Jean Piaget: 1896-1980

Piaget’s ideas followed on from Lewin and Dewey’s, in that he conceived experience, conceptualisation, reflection, and action as the basis for adult thought.

He believed that as we grow, we view the world in an abstract way and can construct our own meaning and knowledge as a result. This differs from children who have a concrete phenomenological interpretation.

Thus learning requires interaction between an individual and their environment. Concepts and schemas are assimilated from and accommodate to experiences, and if either of these things becomes dominant, learning is interrupted:

  • Too much accommodation and we imitate things and sculpt ourselves to our environment rather than learning from it.
  • Too much assimilation and we end up imposing ourselves with no regard for environmental realities.

As adults we are able to manipulate the balance of these two factors to make efficient learning more possible. In experiential learning this is achieved by tailoring the nature of the activity and providing suitable facilitation.

The experiential learning cycle

David Kolb drew inspiration from these ideas and distilled them down into the Experiential Learning Cycle, represented by the diagram below: 

Here you can see the four stages conceptualised by Lewin, and which Kolb holds at the core of any successful experiential experience.

While an effective experience depends on many factors, including suitable design and effective facilitation, these steps sit at the heart. 

The MTa Learning Arena 

Building upon the theoretical groundwork laid by Lewin, Dewey, Piaget, Kolb and others, we have developed the MTa Learning Arena methodology.

Rather than spotlighting the activity at the expense of learning and implementation, the Learning Arena emphasises the following progression: activity > learning > implementation > learning > implementation. 

As you can see, the MTa Learning Arena sits at the heart of steps 3, 4, and 5: those which correspond to the reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation stage of the experiential learning process. It’s here that, with effective facilitation, participants refine and develop their ideas, ready to advise and inform new behaviours.

Testing these within the cyclical model allows ongoing refinement, leading to lasting behavioural change.

Then, given the Talent Development focus, the final outcome of the Learning Arena methodology is improved workplace performance. Here, the newly developed ideas and behaviours arrived at in the Learning Arena translate to tangible improvements in the workplace, demonstrating real and ongoing value for employers. 

We’ve used this methodology to deliver benefits for organisations across the board, from multinational corporations to training consultancies, and from military bodies, prisons, schools, and more. 

What makes experiential learning special?

To summarise everything we’ve seen so far, here’s what makes this learning style so special:

Experiential learning is an active process which engages the learner, not a passive process that happens to the learner.

In ‘experiential learning’ the experience provides the platform for learning, whilst the careful analysis and reflection of the experience develops the learning. Individuals are encouraged to work things out for themselves, they are guided to and through their learning rather than being taught.

The learning individuals develop is appropriate for them: it is implicit in the approach that there are no ‘right ways of thinking’, ‘set rules, or ‘perfect behaviours’ that anyone has to learn and apply.

The commitment developed by the learner to make best use of their learning: they are central to the learning process, it is their learning.

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