The Theory of Experiential Learning

The Theory of Experiential Learning

For a long time, a great number of educators have devoted themselves to improving teaching methods in order to encourage students to learn actively. However, the teacher-centered education system impedes the ability of educators to achieve this goal (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010). According to Wurdinger et al (2010), students who lack the freedom to express their ideas are bored by listening to teachers all the time. In contrast, students are happy when they are able to actively engage in their learning. The theory of experiential learning emerged in order to address the negative effects of teacher-centered education and passive students learning. Experiential learning theory also aims to help students deal with flexible life situations by equipping them with a range of abilities, rather than concentrating solely on the learning of academic knowledge (McClure, Cook and Thompson, 1977).

This essay will firstly explain Experiential Learning Theory (ELT); it will then provide several applications of ELT; and finally, it will indicate the significant contributions which ELT makes to the teaching and learning process.

Obviously, it is advisable to understand what experiential learning is before adopting it. Yet, there is no consensus on the definition of the theory. In fact, there are several definitions which need to be discussed and compared to capture an overall and deeper understanding of the theory.

To begin with, it is necessary to refer the work of educational theorist David Kolb. Kolb is the chairman of Experience Based Learning Systems as well as the founder of the famous circle of experiential learning. His circle includes four parts, “Concrete Experience, Reflection, Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation” (Kolb, 1984:36). Concrete experience means the experience which has been obtained by learners. In this stage, learners are required to experience or do things in order to gain direct and practical experience. The next step, Reflection, refers to learners’ observation of or thinking about the connection between the current problem or situation and their prior concrete experience. The third step, Conceptualization, is the logical ordering of thoughts or observations achieved in the second step. Experimentation, the final stage, requires learners to be active in testing whether their prior thoughts were logical or not; that is to say, to identify whether or not they can solve problems based on reflection on their prior experience and their logical thinking.

It is essential to compare and connect those four steps in order to get a better and deeper understanding of the theory. Firstly, the more learners experience in the first stage, the more they can think and observe in the following step. A strong ability in doing things is required here. Secondly, learners are expected to be creative in the second stage, because what they are doing is thinking about the solutions based on their experience as many as possible. A strong ability in imaging and questioning and reasoning is required here. Then, in the third stage, learners are gathering all the solutions and their thoughts together systematically and logically. In this stage, the strong ability to bring together abstract concepts and to be objective is required. Finally, the behavior of testing in the fourth step in turn creates a new experience for learners. With the reference to the order of the four components in his circle, Kolb (1984) suggests that the starting point is usually the first step; but in fact any of the stages in the circle could be the starting point. In summary, according to Kolb (1984: 41), "Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it."

Meanwhile, Wurdinger (2005), initially talks about two definitions respectively from the Association for Experiential Education (AEE) and the National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE), which are similar to Kolb’s definition. One, as defined by AEE, shows that EL is a learning course that enables knowledge, abilities and skills to be obtained through direct experience. NSEE defines EL in term of people who consciously transform their daily experience into valuable knowledge in a special learning process. Then, by combining these two general definitions, Wudinger (2005) draws the conclusion that experiential learning is a kind of active learning approach which enables people to learn on the basis of reflecting on prior experiences. Wudinger’s understanding of EL, therefore, is very close to Kolb’s understanding of EL.

To a large extent, all of these definitions emphasize the same elements in EL: our experience, our intention or goals, the active observation system, and the testing action (Wurdinger and Carlson, 2010). According to Wurdinger (2005), another way of illustrating the elements of EL, is firstly to think about the different factors relating to a problem; secondly, make a plan; thirdly, find solutions to the problem by connecting the plan with experience; and finally, search for a better solution by comparing different results and testing them by engaging in some action.To simplify the definition, experiential learning is a cyclical process which is based on the learners' reflection on experience in order to acquire knowledge and understanding.

ELT is, however, most easily understood when it is applied in real life. According to Stephen Brookfield (1983), people use the term EL in two different ways. In regard to students, the theory is adopted in formal education to describe the acquisition of knowledge and abilities through immediate experience and settings in schools and classrooms. At the lever of the individual, EL may be used to cope with problems in daily life through a person’s reflection on prior life experience. These two usages of ELT can be easily illustrated.

Firstly, instances of usages of ELT in education systems, especially in higher education are: co-operative education, field courses and internships (Millenbah, Campa, & Winterstein, 2004). Co-operative education is a kind of educational approach which combines learning from the classroom with learning from work experience related to students study majors and their future careers. To achieve this goal, universities or colleges work hand in hand with business companies, welfare organizations, volunteer institutions and governmental departments. The rule within co-operative education is that students obtain credits or grades towards their degrees. This kind of education strategy is often adopted by engineering, business, arts and nursing schools. For example, in the second year of early childhood teaching at Melbourne University, students have the opportunity of working in primary schools and kindergartens two days a week.

The purpose of co-operative education is to help students gain more practical experience through providing opportunities for them to apply theoretical knowledge in practical settings, so students can adapt quickly to a new job after they graduate. This kind of experience enables students to engage in a new situation, to think about their new environments, to recall their prior knowledge and experience, to observe how it woks, to cope with new conflicts, to find more solutions and then to take more actions to gain more experience for their new situations. Significantly, this is a vivid instance of the Kolb’s circle of ELT.

With reference to the application of ELT in individual cases, the following Chinese proverb could explain the practical value of the theory clearly and vividly.

"Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I may remember.
Involve me, and I will understand"
(Proverb, Hsun Tzu BC238).

This proverb emphasizes the stages of active reflection and practical experience involved in Kolb’s circle of EL. The following three imaginative and contrasting short stories will also help us to understand the theory. These stories relate how some children learn to use a fire extinguisher.

In the first story, the fireman teaches the children how to use the extinguisher merely by telling them what to do. As a result, the children are very confused and complain that they cannot remember what to do. This short story is a description of "Tell me, and I will forget.” In the second story, the fireman shows the children how to use the fire extinguisher, and in response, the children are a little confused, wondering whether they should pull out the pin to make the extinguisher work. This short story is an example of “Show me, and I may remember” In the third story, each child is given an extinguisher on which to practise. Instead of only saying or showing, the fireman actively involves the children, saying:” All right, follow me please. Firstly, to use a fire extinguisher, you have to….Right, and then you focus on…Ok, and sweep the lever back and forth until the fire is completely out. Ok? Great, yes, you’ve got it” By actually working with an extinguisher while following the instructions of the fireman, the children understand how to use the extinguisher. This third story is an example of “involve me and I will understand.”

When observing those three different stories, it could be clearly realized that these learners finally succeed because they engage in the experience themselves. When participating in this practical exercise, the children are recalling prior instructions, ordering them logically and adopting and testing their thoughts in a practical way. The benefits of experiential learning theory can easily be seen from these stories.

However, the benefit of EL is based on much more than the proverbs and the imaginative stories. A great number of educators believe that without an experience, concepts or situations cannot be truly learnt and really understood (Kolb, 1984). However, not all experience has the same educational value and experience alone does not definitely lead to learning. Without applying prior knowledge into the stage of reflection, experiences could be misleading (Dewey, 1938). It is in the process of experiential learning that knowledge ceases to be theoretical and transforms itself into practical abilities (Goldstein, 2001). With the help of ELT, learning becomes a lifelong process and the purposes of learning become very clear. When applying experiential learning, activities become interesting and learning environments become flexible.

Another contribution of EL is that it brings benefits to students’ independent and critical learning capacities by offering practical methods for adults to teach children (McClure et al, 1977). Meanwhile, the behavior of self-assessment in the process of testing encourages learners to think differently and confidently because it gives learners a sense of achievement as well as the motivation to do things (Evans, 1994). Although it challenges teacher-centered education structures (Reynolds and Vince, 2007), EL provides learners with an approach to obtain a better and deeper understanding of who they are, what they are doing and why they do it in an activities (Reynolds et al, 2007).Thus, there is a necessity for educators to create a kind of environment in which experiences are reflected on by students so learning can be active and useful (Dewey, 1938).

In summary, Experiential Learning Theory highlights the central role that experience plays in the active reflection learning process and underlines the importance of transforming theoretical knowledge into practical experience. ELT can be applied in educational institutions as well as in individual lives, so it can be beneficial not only to students and teachers in educational institutions, but also to society at large. Learning from experience is the most fundamental way to learn things and it is available to everyone (Beard &Wilson, 2002). Active experience learning has been promoted dramatically in recent years (Skinner, 2010). The significant benefits of EL make it worthy of adoption by an increasing number of individuals and learning communities in the future.


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