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Experiential Learning Theory

» Experiential Learning Overview

» The Nature of Experiential Learning

» Characteristics of an Effective Experiential Learning programme

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The foundation of the AsiaWorks training approach is experiential learning. AsiaWorks believes that for certain areas of human learning and behaviour change, experiential learning is the powerful, effective and impactful approach to learning. This document presents the theory, philosophy and background of experiential learning for interested readers.

Experiential Learning Overview
Experiential learning is a process, which directly acknowledges, welcomes, values and uses the existing knowledge and competence of those being taught. Its use is particularly appropriate where the subject matter under consideration touches on people's deeply held beliefs and attitudes, involves emotionally charged or value-laden material, or is just plain difficult in human terms!

To better understand experiential learning, it is useful to contrast it with the more traditional approach to learning. Didactic teaching, where a person presents information to others in lecture or lesson format, which results in learning occurring solely at an intellectual level. It has been described as being based on the 'mug and jug' theory of learning (Roger 1983; Hobbs 1986). Put simply, the recipient of the lecture is like an empty mug waiting to receive information poured into it from the source of knowledge, the jug. This method of teaching involves a passive form of learning where students are not required to examine their own feelings, thoughts and understandings in response to the subject material. They are able to remain personally unaware either of the intensity or the effect of their own emotional response to the subject material on themselves or on other people.

Experiential training aims for a very different degree of learning from that which is based on 'didactic' teaching methods. The different quality and nature of experiential learning lies in its involving as many different aspects of the participant's capacities as he or she is prepared to invest in the learning process. Learning occurs at intellectual, emotional and behavioural levels in an integrated manner, resulting in real attitude and behavioural change as influential early learning is effectively re-evaluated.

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The Nature of Experiential Learning
Experiential learning is both exciting and challenging. It includes a range of different processes such as individual or team problem solving initiatives, physical challenges, games, simulation exercises, structured processes, sharing sessions, guided visualisations, and structured interactions. In all these events, students are actively engaged in the learning process and are able to generate meaningful, relevant insights from their experience.

The Nature of Experiential Learning has been defined as having four main characteristics:

  1. the learner is aware of the processes which are taking place, and which are enabling learning to occur;
  2. the learner is involved in a reflective experience that enables the person to relate current learning to past, present and future;
  3. the experience and content is personally significant: what is being learned and how it is being learned hold a special importance for that person;
  4. there is an involvement of the whole self - body, thoughts, feelings and actions, not just of the mind. In other words, the learner is fully engaged as a whole person.

These principles result in the following propositions:

  1. Experiential learning is concerned with the experience of individuals, not just with their participation. Participants are asked to consider and utilise their own experience as the basis for self-understanding and assessment of their own needs, resources and objectives.
  2. The individual participant is regarded as an active, rather than a passive, participant in the process of defining and putting into practice educational agendas and methodologies.
  3. Through this learning process, power (locus of control) is shifted away from the teacher and in the direction of the learner. Another way to put this would be to say that in traditional learning the nature of the teacher-student relationship is usually asymmetrical; the former has more power than the latter. In experiential learning, this asymmetry is reduced. Learners are planning, carrying out and evaluating their own learning. The 'expert' and the learner engage in a process which is concerned, not with the former transferring facts into the latter, but rather with facilitating an active process of learning in the student.
  4. The participant becomes responsible for his or her own learning. The expert is a resource and a provider of structure, but learning is seen as taking place when the learner is trying actively to assimilate external knowledge into his or her own internal frame of reference.

Kolb (1984) describes a four-stage, cyclical process of effective experiential learning, which embodies these dimensions (see Figure 1). Kolb perceives experience in the present as the basis for reflective observation. Out of this emerges a conceptual analysis that can then be tested in an active fashion. This testing generates a new experience, and so the cycle begins again. The model allows for the possibility of preferred learning styles. Some people, for example, prefer to reflect, whilst others prefer to act. The implication is that the effective learner is able to employ a range of learning styles, while the effective organisation embodies the whole range of skills within its workforce and allows for the deployment of these skills at appropriate points in the organisation's work.

Experiential learning places particular emphasis on reflection by providing a model and structure through which experience can be reflected upon and by providing an opportunity for participants to engage in the reflection/learning process together in a spirit and climate of mutual support.

Figure 1. Cyclical process of experiential learning (Kolb 1984)

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Characteristics of an Effective Experiential Learning programme
An experiential learning programme is characterised by activity, variety and direction. More specifically, six qualities set it apart from other programme designs.

  • Moderate level of content. Experiential learning programmes have a lean curriculum. They concentrate on the critical learning areas - those elements that provide the essential basis on which to build later. When the content level is kept moderate, the trainer has time to design activities that introduce, present, apply and reflect upon what is being learned.
  • Balance between affective, behavioural and cognitive learning. Experiential learning involves a three-pronged approach: fostering attitudes, developing and practising skills, and promoting understanding of concepts and models behind the subject. Some training programmes tend to focus on one of these areas to the exclusion of the others but the experiential trainer wants participants to not only know about something but also to be able to do it. Furthermore, the trainer wants them to look at themselves in relationship to what is being taught and consider how it works for the participants.
  • Opportunities for group participation. Group participation has advantages in any experiential learning programme. Involving the group moves training from the passive to the active stage. Group activity engages participants in the learning process and makes them working partners with the trainer. Lecturing is held to a minimum as highly participatory methods such as games, role-playing, simulated exercises and case discussions are featured.
  • Utilisation of participants' expertise. Each participant in an experiential learning programme brings relevant experiences to the classroom. Some of these experiences will be directly applicable; others may involve analogies from previous jobs or situations. In either case, much of the learning in a training programme comes from one's peers. You can build into your design many opportunities for participants to learn from each other.
  • Real-life problem solving. Experiential learning emphasizes the real world. Opportunities are set up for participants to utilise course content to address and help solve actual problems that they are currently experiencing. Application is not just something that happens after training; it is a major focus during training. Participants learn best when they get to work on their own material, cases and examples. This gives the information immediacy and enables participants to assess its utility on the spot.
  • Allowance for re-entry planning. At the conclusion of any training programme, participants will naturally ask, "Now what?" The success of an experiential learning programme is measured by how that question is answered - that is, how what has been learned in the course is transferred to the job or back home. An active training design ends with consideration of the next steps that participants will take and the obstacles that they will face as they implement new ideas and skills.

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In Summary
The environment of an experiential learning programme is unique and special. It is dynamic, engaging, energetic, fun and rewarding. At the same time it can provide an intense, deep and profound learning experience for its participants. AsiaWorks believes that learning can and should be an enjoyable process. Experiential learning has proven itself to be a powerful, successful learning tool that is personally fulfilling, meaningful and fun.

References:
This document was compiled and written using information from the following sources:

  1. Hobbs, T. (1986) 'The Rogers interview', Changes: Journal of the Psychology and Psychotherapy Association
  2. Hobbs, T. (1992) Experiential Training: Practical Guidelines, London and New York, Routledge.
  3. Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  4. Rogers, C. R. (1983) Freedom to Learn for the '80s, Columbus, Ohio: Merrill.
  5. Silberman, M. (1990) Active Training: A Handbook of Techniques, Designs, Case Examples and Tips, New York, Lexington Books.

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