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What is Experiential Learning?

Many people, including teachers and professional educators, have a poor understanding of what experiential learning is.

This article aims to explain what is experiential learning in a quick, simple and non-technical manner.

 

What Is Experiential Learning?

 

Experiential-based learning is the process of learning through experience, and is more specifically defined as ‘learning through reflection on doing.’

It is also described as a ‘pedagogical process by which educators engage students through a cycle of direct experience, reflection, analysis and experimentation.’

Experiential learning is distinct from rote or didactic learning, in which the learner plays a comparatively passive role. Experiential-based learning invites the student to be actively engaged in their learning, and therefore, can be personalised where appropriate.

This ‘experiential’ methodology is ideally suited to the development of key 21st Century skills such as the ‘4 x Cs’ of Collaboration, Critical Thinking, Communication and Creativity because these skills can be practised through a series of carefully sequenced experiences (refer Partnership for 21st Century Education for more information.)

Importantly, experiential learning is a way of doing – it is not something that one does. That is to say, the act of ‘doing’ does not, in and of itself, create learning. It is critical for the teacher to facilitate the learning process to ensure their students do more than just have a fun time.

This process, also known as a debrief, review or reflection, is an opportunity for your students to think about what has been learned. Read the example below to reinforce this universal truth.

That is, without some form of process of reflection, there is no experiential learning. Societally, the concept of experiential learning is often confused or conflated with ‘hands-on learning’ or ‘learning by doing’ – and while both are legitimate forms of teaching, they are not the same as experiential learning.

The key difference is the lack of reflection. Indeed, it can be argued that there is no such thing as learning by doing – you only learn through a process of reflecting on what you have done.

In short, when thinking what is experiential learning, consider it as a way of doing rather than the act of doing.

Here’s a short 4-minute video produced by the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) that provides a wonderful, coal-face description of what experiential learning looks like, sounds like and feels like:

A Common Example

 

The process of a young person learning to ride a bicycle provides a wonderful example of experiential learning in action.

It is often understood that when someone learns to ride a bike – the process of balancing and turning the pedals for long periods – that they were assisted by the process of ‘learning by doing.’ But this, is in fact, not true. They did not learn by doing – they learned by ‘not doing.’

Every time the young person fell over or stumbled, or lost balance, etc, was an opportunity to reflect on what happened, and what not to do next time. This process of reflection, repeated over and over, gradually helped the young person to refine their riding skills until they finally ‘got it.’ Logically, if the rider never paused to reflect, they would continue to do the same thing repeatedly expecting a different result (and that is the definition of insanity.)

As Albert Einstein says…

“The only source of knowledge is experience. Everything else is information.”

 

Key Elements of Experiential Learning

 

By definition, experiential or adventure-based learning has six qualities:

  • Significant – has meaning and relevance;
  • Challenging – involves new experiences which encourage people to step outside their Comfort zones and think creatively;
  • Supportive – emphasises teamwork to develop key interpersonal skills such as trust and healthy risk-taking;
  • Satisfying – builds on successes to create greater successes;
  • Surprising – invites discovery of the unknown, where one can engage in experiences that are both unique and relevant; and
  • Fun – capitalises on the inherent joy of learning while laughing.