Teaching theories explained: Experiential learning

Teaching theories explained: Experiential learning


Centuries’ worth of educational theory has created a modern pedagogic realm filled with an abundance of knowledge, which educators still use as tools in the classroom, as they have throughout history.

One of the teaching theories that has survived the test of time and is still being utilised in classrooms today – and also forms a part of the way we teach at Sparrow Foundation School – is the method of experiential learning.

Although the concept of learning through experience has its roots as far back as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in 350BC – in which the philosopher wrote, “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them” – it was the educational theorist David A. Kolb who developed the modern theory of experiential learning in the early 1970s, drawing from the work of other theorists, John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget.

As far as this theory is concerned, the name is rather self-explanatory. Experiential learning incorporates a continuous process of experience, reflection, conceptualisation and experimentation as a way of mastering expertise.

Put simply, experiential learning requires experience and reflection as a necessary part of the learning process, in order to facilitate a process of informal learning.

How it works

According to the 70 20 10 model, 70% of the knowledge we possess results from experiences that we have. Experiential learning takes this way of gathering knowledge to heart, and David Kolb made it a part of his theory, saying, “knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it”.

Kolb theorised that the cyclical process of experiential learning starts with the concrete experience that will lead to the establishment of knowledge. When we, for instance, try a new cake recipe, we learn the process of baking through the hands-on experience of baking a cake.

The next part of the experiential learning process is the reflective observation that follows the experience. This is when we mull over the experience, analysing it, considering alternatives and weighing up the experience as a whole. To use the baking analogy again, this is when we consider the things that went well and wrong during the baking process. Did the cake burn? Did it rise well while baking?

Abstract conceptualisation follows this process. During this part of the learning process, we plan for the next time we will undertake the same exercise. We now have to decide how – if at all – we will we will do things differently in the future. Will the cake rise better if we set the oven temperature a little lower or a little higher? Should we turn down the temperature in order to stop the cake from burning the next time we bake it?

Finally, active experimentation takes place. Now, we can put our theories and changes to the test to see if things turn out differently.

Experiential learning is a useful learning technique, which allows learners to gather knowledge by getting their hands dirty (sometimes literally!). Because education does not only take place in the classroom, experiential learning provides a different, efficient and fun opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills.

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