Why Use Experiential Education as a Model for Teaching and Learning?

The ideas of teaching information and/or teaching for understanding

If one reviews the literature and research on thinking and learning it becomes apparent that if the focus is upon having the learner be actively engaged in the process of understanding in depth what is being learned (e.g. how to understand the concept of "niche" in ecological systems), experiential education is the way to go. If, instead the focus in on information transfer, (e.g. where the bathroom is located), probably the best way is to just tell the person directly.

There are a number of educational truisms related to the rationale for experiential education, for example "Give a person a fish and they can have a meal, teach the person to catch fish and they can eat fish for a lifetime." There are also sayings attributed to various cultures related to experiential learning such as:

I hear, and I forget
I see, and I remember
I do, and I understand.
      —Ancient Chinese proverb

The rationale for the use of experiential education comes down to the purpose for the teaching/learning experience.

If your goal is to teach information (information transfer), telling the person, or having them read the information works well. Sometimes watching a video about what is to be learned works well too, (as suggested by the proverb above). There is a great deal of information about learning modalities that suggest a combination of telling and demonstration work well for information transfer. If practice is added, it reinforces the learning.

If, on the other hand, your goal is to have the person understand the concept at a level that they can generalize and apply the understanding to new situations, or combine the understanding with other concepts they have learned, experiential education is probably the best way to develop that level of mastery.

Experiential education…an overview of what it is and how it works

Experiential education provides the pedagogy for the types of education often labeled "project-based" or "experience-based" and attributed to educational programs such as the 4-H Youth Development Program, and the Waldorff and Montessori educational programs. Experiential education is the basis for learning many trades, and the process of going from "apprentice" to "journeyman" involves the development of skills and understanding in a hands-on, heads-on way. In a similar way, the scientific endeavor is a good model for experiential education for at the frontiers of science "the answers are not in the back of the book." At their essence, science is inventing knowledge and understanding, and experiential education is building knowledge and understanding.

As a process, experiential education is constructivist…whereby the learning builds understanding through a process of inquiry and reflection. This understanding is often described as the person's "mental model" of how something works. For example we all have mental models of how the heart "works" to pump our blood. Our mental model of the heart may be na´ve when compared to an experienced cardiologist…but, nevertheless, it is our model. This model can be constructed as an individual, alone, or as a learner guided by another, or by a group of individuals working together to make meaning from their inquiry. The process can evolve from our individual mental model and inquiries about something (construction), that can then be enhanced by our additional experiences and reflection (re-construction), and further modified by our interactions with others who are also engaged in inquiring about the same topic (re-co-construction). This evolving and scaffolding of learning through continuity and interaction are at the heart of the experiential education model. We are constantly involved in assessing how are mental models fit our experience of how the world works, interacting with experiences and other people's models…and, wherever possible, building better understandings of ourselves and our world.

The pedagogy behind the experiential education model

The root of this model can be found in very early descriptions of educational settings; certainly descriptions of teaching by Socrates utilized similar inquiry-based practices. The modern foundation of pedagogy used in the experiential education process is the "learning cycle" developed by Robert Karplus (1973) and modified by others (Lawson, Cavallo, David Kolb (1984), Pfeiffer and Jones (1985).

For purposes of this discussion, you may want the flexibility of thinking of our use of the word "concept" as being interchangeable with mental model, understanding, and/or personal theory.

The learning cycle model, as an educational practice begins with the learner(s) encountering a discrepant or surprising event. Two examples based on density and displacement follow. In the first example "ice cubes" are placed in two glasses half full of what appears to be water, the cubes placed in one glass float, similar cubes placed in the other glass sink. Why? Were they not ice cubes? Was it not water? Was it magic?

In the second example items are placed in a bowl of water, some float, some sink, why? The "why" becomes the exploration phase, the first phase of the cycle based on observation. The second part of the cycle is theory-building phase called the concept development phase when the learner (or learners) construct a theory (or theories) of why some things floated and others sank. The theory can be based on the observation of what sank and what floated, or based on prior knowledge. Theories including explanations or generalizations are proposed and predictions are made about whether additional items to be placed in the water will sink or float. In the third part of the cycle, the concept application phase, the predictions are tested and concept(s) applied and evidence is gathered to determine which theory or theories (if any) were found to be accurate. Did the concept/theory need to be modified? Discarded? Additional experiments may be conducted, and the concept further refined. New questions and experiments may be generated and conducted. Perhaps things that have sunk can be made to float (e.g. a ball of clay is made into a "boat" and floats) or maybe things that are floating are made to sink. This time for additional investigation (sometimes called "messing about") can lead to personal inquiries that make the understandings more robust, and help link the new understanding to earlier learning. Other times, the

Foundations of Experiential Learning

Theory and research-based literature that provide the underpinnings of experiential education

The basis of all experiential learning is that experience matters. Many educators believe that without an experience, there can be no true learning or real understanding of a concept or situation. However, experience alone does not necessarily lead to or mean that learning will take place. To accomplish this, there needs to be a sequence of three discrete components: 1) A "concrete experience" (Enfield, 2001, Kolb, 1984), where the leaner is involved in an exploration, actually doing or performing an activity of some kind; 2) a contemplation phase, which is usually referred to in the literature as a reflection stage (Enfield, 2001; Kolb, 1984; Pfeiffer & Jones, 1981), whereby the learner shares reactions and observations publicly and processes the experience by discussing and analyzing; and 3) the "application" or "conceptualization" phase that helps the learner deepen and broaden their understanding of the concept or situation by cementing their experience through generalizations and applications (Carlson & Maxa, 1998).

As one might gather from the stages or phases of experiential learning above, another key point of the process is that it is cyclical, referred to as a "recurring cycle" by Kolb (1984). As a result of the reflection and application phases, new concepts, hypotheses, or impressions based on the experience or situation are constantly being modified. As John Dewey discussed so cogently in Experience and Education (1938), previous experiences affect current experiences, which naturally influence future experiences. The learning that takes place on one day will evolve as time progresses.

Note: There are many different experiential learning models that use cycles with varying numbers of stages (three, four, five, or six). However, the number of stages (all of which are common) does not matter; what is important is that the phases of experiencing (doing), reflection and applying are present. It is also important to note that the stages of reflection and application are what make experiential learning different and more powerful than the models commonly referred to as "learn-by-doing" or "hands-on-learning" (Proudman, 1995).

Carlson, S., & Maxa, S. (1998). Pedagogy applied to nonformal education. The Center. St. Paul: Center for Youth Development, University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Enfield, R. P. (2001). Connections between 4-H and John Dewey's Philosophy of Education. FOCUS. Davis: 4-H Center for Youth Development, University of California, Winter.

Pfeiffer, J. W., & Jones, J. E. (1981). Reference guide to handbooks and annuals (revised). San Diego: University Associates Publishers.

Ponzio, R., & Stanley, S. (1997). Experiential learning in 4-H. 4-H Handbook for Program Staff. Davis: 4-H Youth Development Program, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Proudman, B. (1995). Experiential education as emotionally engaged learning. In K. Warren, M. Sakofs, & J. S. Hunt, Jr. (Eds.) The theory of experiential education. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co.