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Revisiting a definition of Experiential Learning in a world of restricted delivery

Revisiting a definition of Experiential Learning in a world of restricted delivery

It’s clear that the past couple of years have been a massive challenge to anybody tasked with delivering learning to either adults or young people. To those of us who have a belief in, and commitment to, experiential learning, this challenge has been both interesting and somewhat divisive. There are practitioners who have become even more convinced that their chosen methodologies are the way forward, whilst others have struggled to keep an experience-based methodology viable. At RSVP Design we’ve focused on building a new platform and tools to facilitate virtual and hybrid delivery, but we’ve constantly needed to reference these developments back to a central requirement - “Do these new learning tools conform to some key attributes of experiential learning?” It’s been a ‘back-to-basics’ exercise for us, and one that’s been immensely valuable in developing our own understanding of ‘experiential learning’.

It’s useful for example to compare our understanding of the term ‘experiential learning’ compared to Google Alert – the automated weekly alerts we set up to Monitor the web for interesting new content about experiential learning. About 90% of the weekly alerts are articles about US University student learning experiences.

The bedrock of our understanding of experiential learning is the work of American academic David A. Kolb and its application around learning and change within the workplace.

Kolb published his Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) model in 1984, building on the previous research and thinking of other great theorists including John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget. The ELT is usually represented as a cycle in four stages—concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. The first two stages of the cycle involve immersion in an experience, the second two focus on transforming that experience into knowledge. Kolb argued that effective learning is only seen as the learner goes through the cycle in its entirety, but that they can enter the cycle at any of its stages.

If we accept that the effectiveness of experiential learning is dependent on the completion of all stages of the ELT cycle it is incumbent on us as designers to provide not only the concrete experience, but a facilitator’s manual and other content that supports the delivery of the remaining three stages too. Kolb’s entire theory is based on this idea of converting experience into knowledge and we need to scaffold this process of conversion.

We also recognise that learning is a multi-cycle process, with each new experience, the learner is able to integrate new observations with their current understanding. For us as designers this means that we need to offer a progression of learning tools that allow learning from one experience to be further challenged in other settings. This progression is central to Kolb’s theory, as he viewed it as a process by which something must be changed or transformed, and that something must be generated from the experience for it to be defined as learning.

Memorization or recollection of ideas taught does not equal learning, as no value has been added to the learner.

Individuals find meaning through this process by considering the impact of their experiences, and by evaluating how this challenges their current understanding. Ideally, learners are constantly asking questions about their own thought processes and strive to find trends or patterns in their experiences and behaviours to later evaluate and alter.

More recent research into the development and functioning of the brain shows how experiential pedagogy is highly effective in achieving this stimulation of learning processes. Well designed and delivered experiential approaches offer specific experiences that include;

  • dissonance - presenting data that asks learners to revisit what they currently know
  • risk - encouraging learners to act on knowledge and beliefs in situations that have some consequence to them
  • narrative and dialogue - developing connections and threads of knowledge that can be communicated to others
  • transformation of meaning across cognitive domains - applying knowledge gained from one type of situation into another, different situation
  • critique and the attribution of positive and negative value - encouraging considered evaluation of opinions, suggestions, and statements.

All of these are central to modern practice in experiential learning.

From all this thinking and research we have (somewhat simplistically) defined the key requirements of experiential learning as:

  • all 4 stages of Kolb’s Cycle are designed into the learning and executed by the facilitator with equal emphasis.
  • impactful, preferably shared, experiences are at the heart of the learning
  • the central aim of the learning experience is to improve personal, or organisational agency and effectiveness - making people proactively better at doing what they do.

These requirements have been adopted as the measure against which all our tool designs are tested before they are made available commercially. They are equally applicable to our virtual, hybrid and face-to-face tools and we’re more convinced than ever that if anything is represented as Experiential Learning it must deliver against these key requirements - quite simply if it doesn’t meet these criteria, it isn’t experiential learning.

In the second part of this series, coming next month, I’ll explore the challenges that we face if we try to deliver authentic experiential learning ‘in the workflow’, and how this might not be the best way to approach some learning content.

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