“Go to your room and think about what you’ve done!”
You’ve heard parents say this to their kids before. The child has something bad and the parents want to teach them a lesson.
In reality, the child will probably go to their room and pout. But if they were to reflect on their experience, they would probably think about the connection between their behavior and the consequences. When they do A, B happens. If they were to do C, B probably wouldn’t happen.
Whether you are a child who has been scolded for disobeying their parents or a person learning a new skill, this reflection process is key to experiential learning. In this video, I will explain experiential learning, the processes in which we use experiential learning, and how this helps us grow and develop throughout our lives.
What is Experiential Learning?
It’s pretty easy to guess the definition of experiential learning. It’s learning through experience. But to understand how this happens, we have to understand how reflection plays a role in this process.
We are meaning-making creatures. When something happens to us, particularly something negative, our brain wants to make sense of it. Yes, we got an F on a test – but why? Our invention didn’t work – but why?
After we experience something, we have the opportunity to learn from that experience through reflection. Sometimes, this reflection is done consciously. We ask ourselves, “What actions led to me missing the basket?” or “What contributed to my success in budgeting this year?” But this reflection does not have to be conscious or purposeful for experiential learning to happen.
Experiential learning begins early in life. The first stage of cognitive development, as theorized by Jean Piaget, is the sensorimotor stage. It lasts from birth to age two. During this stage, babies begin to realize that actions have consequences, even if they don’t have language to articulate it. They learn how to walk after falling over and over again, trying new things until they hold themselves up long enough to walk across the room.
David Kolb’s Learning Model
Jean Piaget’s work greatly influenced the psychologist who proposed the idea of experiential learning. His name is David Kolb.
According to Kolb, there are two steps in the experiential learning model.
Both of these steps are separated into two different processes that people use to grasp and transform their experiences.
Let’s start with the grasping portion of the experience. People may grasp, or take in their experience through:
- Concrete experience
- Abstract conceptualization
Hmm. If you’ve ever taken a Meyers-Briggs test, these concepts might sound familiar. The third letter in the Meyers-Briggs type is either F, for feeling, or T, for thinking. Feeling is similar to the idea of concrete experience. Thinking is similar to the idea of abstract conceptualization. We tend to do one or the other when we take in the world around us.
Once we have grasped the experience, we transform it through one of two methods:
- Reflective Observation
- Active Experimentation
This dichotomy also pairs up nicely with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, although the connection is not as obvious as the one between say, concrete experience and feeling.
People who sit back and reflect are more likely to be introverts. They figure things out as an observer, a watcher. Active experimenters are more likely to be extroverts. They transform their experience by doing.
Myers-Briggs types all have their own “titles.” ENTJs, for example, are “The Commanders.” INFP is “The Empath.”
Kolb has his own titles based on how people tend to grasp and transform their experiences.
People who use concrete experiences and active experimentation are “The Accommodators.”
People who use concrete experiences and reflective observation are “The Divergers.”
People who use abstract conceptualization and active experimentation are “The Convergers.”
Finally, people who use abstract conceptualization and reflective observation are “The Assimilators.”
Of course, this is not an end-all, be-all theory to how people learn. Kolb’s theory of experiential learning does have limitations. It doesn’t address how group work and collaboration affect reflection, nor does it address ways that we learn without reflection.
Experiential Learning Examples
Experiential learning does happen in the classroom, although not as a traditional lecture. Our experience lies in the way that we absorb, process, and study information. How do your experiences studying affect your grades? How does your attention and participation in class affect the way that you remember the information later?
Experiential learning is more likely to happen as we build skills. Learning to pitch a fastball requires experiential learning. Interacting appropriately in a business meeting requires experiential learning. Whether you are actively experimenting or watching others in action, experiential learning is crucial to developing (and building) everyday skills.
Playing or Making Music
Music is a great example of experiential learning. Did you know that playing an instrument uses more of your brain than any other activity? You are seeing the notes on the page, playing those notes with your hands and feet, and you are experiential learning in real time. As soon as you hear a note that is out of tune, your brain makes meaning of the experience and you adjust your breath, the instrument, or whatever is causing the note to sound sour.
Retention of Learning Pyramid
Another form of experiential learning is teaching others. Talk about a hands-on experience with material. Teaching others a skill or information is arguably one of the best ways to learn and retain the material.
This idea goes back decades, when David Kolb was still a child. In 1946, educator Edgar Dale created a “Cone of Experience.” The cone displays a variety of different educational methods from the most concrete to the most abstract experiences. At the top of the cone is “verbal symbols” and at the bottom is “direct, purposeful experiences.”
The Cone of Experience has undergone quite a makeover since 1946, and this makeover made it a famous model in the world of education. Nowadays, the Cone of Experience is called the Learning Pyramid. The pyramid shows how much information we retain by hearing it through a lecture, teaching it to others, etc.
At the bottom of the pyramid is teaching others. When we teach others, we engage in experiential learning that not only applies to our experience, but also to the experience of others. We have to transform our experience so that we can transform the student’s experience.
The more consciously you grasp and transform your experience, the more you will learn. If you are hoping to build on your current skills or learn something new, it’s time to get out there and do it!