What is experiential learning?

Experiential Learning is essentially learning through (an) experience(s) – we learn this way all through our lives. None of us generally just sit in a classroom or training room and listens to an expert if we want to master most skills, nor do we just research the theory of how to do things from a book, manual or online information source.

Consider these situations:

  • A toddler learns to balance and walk upright through trial and error as they try different techniques – from pushing themselves upright, to holding onto something with their hands as they practice getting their upper body, legs and feet moving forward together!
  • A young person typically learns how to play a new game or sport by experiencing it – whether that’s a new video game, or a specialist technique like taking penalty kicks at football – the activity allows them to perhaps try out different theories that friends or experts suggest, but the real learning (application) and skills development comes when they actually play, and build their skills through practice in a way that suits them.
  • An adult may have sat a theoretical driving test, but is unlikely (we hope!) to be allowed to drive a real car unsupervised until they have had some practice learning in a real car! Indeed, in some countries newly qualified drivers are identified so that other road users understand that they are ‘still learning’ as they drive, and build their skills through practical application.

So why is it that in some walks of life that learning is seen as simply ‘acquiring knowledge’ rather than applying knowledge?

RSVP Design’s interest is in trying to help people apply what they know (or can learn) to become aware of their effect on situations and others; and to change behaviours.

We believe Experiential Learning is a good description of what we do and that trial and error is a useful learning strategy, as is reflection.

Experiential Learning Model and Theory

David A. Kolb on Experiential Learning: David A. Kolb (with Roger Fry) created his famous model out of four elements: concrete experience, observation
and reflection, the formation of abstract concepts and testing in new situations. He represented these in the famous experiential learning circle  that involves (1) concrete experience followed by (2) observation and experience followed by (3) forming abstract concepts followed by (4) testing in new situations (after Kurt Lewin). It is a model that appears time and again.

Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle

At RSVP Design, we use this model as part of our learning design methodology when creating new experiential activities, ensuring that each of the four elements below can be used to create a structured learning experience that is directly aimed at building a particular skill, or changing a particular behaviour.

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Our colleague, and founding Director, Dr. Geoff Cox, has furthered the body of knowledge in this area through his Ph.D. Thesis:

“Towards the development of guidelines for the design of experiential learning environments.”

Download an abstract.

Our Experiential Training Director Ann Alder also provides practical support on building your skills in designing, facilitating and reviewing experiential learning.

Her published book, Pattern Making, Pattern Breaking, provides custom training development support for those interested in facilitating experiential learning alongside RSVP Design products.

Find out more about our Trainer Training expertise and advice below:

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