What is experiential learning? How experience is 'the fourth teacher'

Posted on 25th Apr 2017 in Experiential learning, John Catt Publications

Malcolm Pritchard, Head of School at the ISF Academy in Hong Kong and author of Empowering Learning: The Importance of Being Experiential, says learning through experience should never be taken for granted...

Formalized systems of education around the world start with a remarkably similar premise: playful, inquisitive, imaginative and energetic infants are enrolled in schools with the expectation that confident, resilient, responsible, and knowledgeably mature citizens of the world will emerge at graduation, ready to take their place in society, equipped to make their own mark. We trust on the magical alchemy of learning to effect this transformation. The almost universal phenomenon of anxiety over national educational standards, however, generates an enormous appetite for reform, both of schools and schooling. We are deeply concerned about being ‘left behind’. We harbor grave fears that our schools are ineffective in producing literate, contributing, and responsible citizens. We sense that teachers and the way we teach might be to blame for this unhappy state of affairs.

Each human life has been touched, often profoundly, by a teacher. When we think of life’s teachers, our parents act as our first teacher and those who care for us during our school years are our second; some believe that our surroundings, our lived environment, serves as our third teacher. What if there were a fourth teacher? A teacher who is always with us in the classroom of life, from our first breath to our final moments, always provokes us with new questions, stimulates us with new sensory input? Experience, the universal human connection between our inner mind and our outer worlds, is a tireless, individualized, and relentlessly omnipresent source of guidance. In many ways, we can say that experience is that fourth teacher.

What do we know of this fourth teacher? Judging from the modest profile of experience in the vast volume of literature about learning, it would appear that we are not well acquainted with experience as a teacher. We may try to ‘learn from experience’ – learning by doing – in a largely passive and random manner. The voice of experience as a discrete, respected, and essential element of a complete education, however, is often muted, if not silent, in schools. We see experience reflected indirectly in education through the mirror of ‘prior learning’, or assumed skills, attitudes, and knowledge. We may see experience at a distance, exploring mysterious forests, scaling precipitous peaks, or navigating treacherous seas. In the world of respectable, formal education, however, experience is an elusive figure, a brief respite, a colorful cameo.

How do we reconcile this apparent gap between experience, as the universal human link between the inner mind and the perceived world around us, and education, as the formalized developmental process of becoming fully human? If experience is a shared human phenomenon, we might be forgiven for wondering why it does not take a more central role in schools.

One potential impediment to embracing experiential learning in the mainstream curriculum is the way we evaluate learning. Contemporary education is characterized by a data-driven focus on accountability for the time and resources expended on the undertaking. Accountability, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, as it tends to quantify things that are seen as materially important. Examinations, tests, assessments, and evaluations of learning are an important part of this accountability mechanism, which rests comfortably on the reasonable assumption that we can count anything that is essential. If it is important, it can be measured; education thus tends to focus on observing and enhancing outcomes that are unambiguous and measurable; the more easily measured, the more efficient the accountability mechanism. We are left with a niggling doubt, however. What if some essential things, such as experience, imagination, innovation, and creativity, are virtually uncountable and unteachable? We are then faced with the awkward challenge of moving beyond sole reliance on a measurement mindset to embrace something different entirely – an experiential ethos.

Experience, like other rich intangibles of human life, such as creativity, or even happiness, defies easy quantification. We cannot easily count or measure experience as learning. We cannot compare one learner’s experience with another’s. We cannot rank experiences. Yet, the impact of experience is felt by every member of humankind, directly, instinctively, and personally. We may be emboldened by some experiences, and develop caution as a result of others. Our most memorable and formative personal experiences may be relived at will, and may continue to delight and inspire for a lifetime. We hone skills through experientially focused learning, we make sense of the world through sensory experience, and carefully reviewed past experience prepares us for the challenges that lie ahead.

The first principle of learning experientially is that it is an adaptive survival response triggered when we encounter something unexpected or novel in a setting or environment that is memorable or significant. Where we learn experientially is important; it is inherently context dependent. The specific qualities of the setting create the possibility of the experience taking place. Because it involves a novel encounter, experiential learning, of necessity, entails risk for the learner. While we can anticipate and manage risk in a new situation, we cannot foreknow with utter certainty how a learner will act or react when facing the unfamiliar. All experiential learning is essentially social; experiences are sensed and understood in a social context. Experiential learning is highly memorable for the learner. Memories of personal experiences are stored as autobiographical episodes, where the learner can mentally replay an event repeatedly. Finally, experiential learning is only made operational in a cognitive sense when we reflect on what has taken place. The moment by moment flow of sensory data experienced by the human mind only becomes learning when it is subjected to intentional and thoughtful reflection.

Designing effective and memorable programs of experiential learning requires thought, creativity, and some understanding of the principles outlined above. An experiential learning activity must connect with past and future experiences; it must be personally relevant to learners and generate interaction and negotiation between learners; it should also test the limits of each learner in a supported and intentional manner.

Experiential learning is not a substitute for mainstream approaches to teaching and learning. It does not replace our endeavors to construct knowledge from other forms of learning. Rather, it offers an autobiographical scaffold in which to construct a highly personalized and memorable narrative of our learning journey. Knowledge, when connected to experience, is impactful, challenging, and memorable: the lessons learned from our fourth teacher, experience, resonate for a lifetime.

Empowering Learning: The Importance of Being Experiential is available now from John Catt.