EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING REVISITED
Margaret Fisher Brillinger
Department of Adult Education/CP/CD, OISE/UT
This paper explores distinctions between traditional classroom learning through
the transmission of information and experiential learning. It suggests
implications for the workplace and continuing professional
Cet article examine la distinction entre l'apprentissage traditionnel en
transmittant de linformation et l'apprentissage appris par les expériences
personnelles. Cet article suggère des implications pour le centre de travail et
pour I'avancement professionnel.
The student is explaining how she led the training session at her workplace. She delivered
a lecture for 45 minutes, complete with attractive and detailed overheads, and then
decided to "throw in something experiential. The "something experiential" was an activity
that was meant to energize the group. As I listen to the string of disconnected activities, /
note her confusion over some of the terms she is explaining. / think of other students who
have difficulty grasping the complexity of experiential learning as opposed to traditional
classroom teaching. I conclude that she needs help in clarifying concepts about learning
and teaching. My dilemma is how to facilitate her learning in a way that is congruent
with the very principles she is trying to understand. To deliver a lecture on experiential
learning is to fall into the trap of using a traditional approach to impose a model onto a
student for her to react to and assimilate. / revisit Freire, Lewin, Kolb, Mezirow, Hunt,
and Bateson for guidance in sharpening my own thinking in order to help my student.
I have caught myself in another go-around of the Lewin-Kolb experiential learning cycle. As I reflected on what I was observing, I came to some conclusions which pointed to new teaching behaviours. I invite you to join me as I revisit some of the differences between traditional classroom approaches and learning from our own experience. Much of continuing professional education and staff training is based on a transmission mode of learning. Organizations sponsor workshops and seminars where an expert lectures or a trainer follows a predetermined curriculum. "Doing something experiential" is no more than a technique to involve participants in reacting to the presentations. Paulo Freire refers to this kind of learning as a "banking" approach to education whereby the teacher adds deposits of information to the empty minds of the learners. "The scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits .... In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing" (Freire, 1993, p. 53).
The belief that theory is somehow out there in the hands of the experts is one which I repeatedly witness among graduate students. They search for the latest book, the
best theory, the hottest catchword as they perceive "theory" as something mysterious and
authoritative apart from themselves. Even after reading many books they still do not
recognize the very phenomenon they have read about when it happens within and around
themselves. The theories seem to be abstract, meaningless words disjointed from their life.
By starting with theory they mistakenly believe that education has to do with acquiring
other people's ideas and then reacting to them. A lively debate often ensues over whether
experience or theory is more important as students demand more or less of one or the
other in their courses.
In a typical traditional classroom, the teacher talks and then invites questions and
discussion. This attempt to make the classroom more interactional should not be confused
with experiential learning. The lecture (or demonstration or video or whatever the medium
for transmitting information) can certainly be enhanced by some activity to assist learners
in analysing the material which has been transmitted so that they integrate the information
into their already existing mind map. Questions, reflective activities, and small group
discussions can help learners with this integration. Kolb reminds us that "knowledge does
not exist solely in books, mathematical formulas, or philosophical systems- it requires
active learners to interact with, interpret, and elaborate these symbols" (Kolb, 1984, p.
121). Delivering someone else's theory or information to the learners -- with or without
activities to assist them in integrating the material -- is a transmission mode of learning.
To take experiential learning seriously, however, demands more than simply adding some
interactive components into the design of a workshop. Instead of starting with external
theories and knowledge, experiential learning does an about-face by starting with the
learner. Kolb warned that "without guiding theory and principles, experiential learning can
well become another educational fad -- just new techniques for the educator's bag of
tricks. Experiential learning theory offers something more substantial and enduring. It
offers the foundation for an approach to education and learning as a lifelong process that
is soundly based" (Kolb, 1984, p. 38). It requires a fundamentally different belief about
how people learn from their own experiences as opposed to how they learn by being
In traditional classrooms the direction of knowledge flow and creation is from the outside in. While acknowledging some value in what he calls "outside-in" learning, Hunt advocates an "inside-out psychology, rooted in your own experience, (which] is totally opposite to the traditional outside-in approach which leaves human affairs to the experts" (Hunt, 1987, p. 2). He has found that 'practitioners' experienced knowledge is the cornerstone of any theoretical account of practice -- practice to theory" (p. 54).
He argues that professionals need to trust and validate this learning which is rooted in
their own practice.
Kolb talks about the key role that experience plays in learning. This differentiates
experiential learning theory from rationalist and other cognitive theories of learning
that tend to give primary emphasis to acquisition, manipulation, and recall of abstract
symbols " (Kolb, 1984, p. 20). In experiential learning, "learning is the process
whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience" (p. 38).
Mezirow states that "reflective learning involves the confirmation, addition, or
transformation of ways of interpreting experience. Transformational learning results in
new or transformed meaning schemes or, when reflection focuses on premises,
transformed meaning perspectives" (Mezirow, 1991, p. 117). He also acknowledges that
"not all adult education involves reflective learning; however, fostering reflective and
transformative learning should be the cardinal goal of adult education" (p. II 7).
Freire advocates what he calls a "problem-posing education" where the learner engages in
a process of examining a situation and creating answers from the material at hand.
"Problem-posing theory and practice take the people's historicity as their starting point ....
The unfinished character of human beings and the transformational character of reality
necessitate that education be an ongoing activity" (Freire, 1993,
Bateson (1994) uses the metaphor of improvisation. As we engage in an experience, we
meet some novelty that requires us to improvise, to use whatever we already know and to
modify it in light of the new situation. Much learning in the workplace and in Ile generally
is improvisation, learning by the seat of our pants. We don't have time to attend a
workshop or read a book. We might not even be able to ask an "expert".
These situations demand a whole different approach to how we adapt. It is "just-in- time"
learning as new problems arise on the job that require us to create something that draws
on past knowledge but goes beyond it.
Each of these authors is advocating a revolutionary, 1 80-degree turn in education. Instead
of starting with external knowledge coming from a subject matter expert (lecturer, author,
etc.), each values people's lived experience as the basis for making meaning that guides
subsequent action. The person is involved in the job and learns through action-reflection.
Dewey, Lewin, Kolb, and others have mapped the orderly cycle which the learner engages
in- experience, reflection, conceptualization, and experimentation.
Experience. Something happens on the job that catches the person's attention. There is
some problem or crisis, something out of the ordinary demanding an explanation or
At the weekly managers' meeting I offered a solution to the problem we were discussing
but no one paid attention to what I said. About haff an hour later when P. made a similar
suggestion, people latched on to it and decided to try it.
Reflection. We are preoccupied about what went on. Like a loose thread that we keep
pulling at, we find ourselves going over the episode in our minds, noting aspects of it. This
ruminating often happens during times when we are engaged in mindless
physical activities such as walking, gardening, or commuting.
I felt slighted and unheard in the meeting. I had been excited about my point and
delivered it with considerable oomph. But there was silence after I spoke; no one picked
upon what l said. Then someone else made a different point. l might just as well have
never spoken, for all that anyone paid attention to my point.
Generalizing. The ruminating over details gradually broadens the view as we begin to
identify patterns. What has happened this time is similar to and different from other
situations. A framework for understanding the dynamics begins to emerge as we develop a
way of making sense of the incident and fit it into other happenings.
I recall other group discussions where I presented an idea and was taken aback that people
either disregarded what / said or argued with me. Then later they came around to my point
of view It seems that I don't present my ideas very well and somehow create defensiveness
rather than acceptance by my style. I also don't allow others the time / have had to think
about my new idea. I'm surprised when they don't immediately see its merits.
Applying. Once a principle or pattern begins to form, we recognize ways of using the emerging concepts in other situations.
At the next meeting I will present my idea more carefully and will use active listening
rather than arguments when I sense defensiveness. I 'll choose words and tone of voice
that express my enthusiasm but will watch not to bowl people over or sound conclusive. /
may recommend time out to think about the idea before voting on it.
By learning from our own experience, we move around the learning cycle as we start with
an experience, reflect on it, draw out concepts, and then apply them. The application in
turn becomes a new experience to reflect upon, make sense of, and use. What seems like a
simple four-point cycle in fact conveys very complex phenomena which flow sequentially
one from the other. Kolb (1984) explores in great detail these dialectical processes.
Thus far in this paper we have reflected on some experiences in order to sharpen
concepts related to experiential learning. Now we come to the point in the learning cycle
where we ask, "So what?" What are implications for learners and educators?
Most formal training programs in organizations are designed according to a transmission model where learners react to information and knowledge conveyed from a subject matter expert. Such an approach is useful only when participants do not have any background in the subject. In contrast, when learners bring experience and knowledge to the educational event, a workshop or course design based on the experiential learning cycle helps people make their own meanings grounded in their own experience.
Moreover we need to recognize and validate the great amount of experiential learning
there is directly on the job, much of which may be outside the formal classroom setting.
People develop through trial and error, through action-reflection, through informal
discussion with colleagues in the coffee room and in the halls, and through their own
observations. Those who are aware of how this learning occurs keep open to events in the
moment and look for insights hidden in daily activities. The steps of the experiential
learning cycle -- experiencing, reflecting, conceptualizing, and applying -- are learnable
skills. Educators can design questions, activities, and resources to support people in this
natural cycle of learning based in their own experiences. Bulletin boards or memos with
reflective pieces, reflection questions incorporated into planning meetings, a meditation
room, refraining of "mistakes" into 'learning opportunities", scheduled time out for
reflection, and coffee break discussions that encourage the exchange of experiments and
ideas are examples of strategies which convey an expectation that learning will unfold
naturally throughout the day as people go about their work and take note of happenings.
In summary, organizations and professions have knowledge and information which they
need to pass on to workers and members. Therefore there will continue to be a place for
transmission from subject matter expert to uninitiated novice. The effective adult educator,
as well as transmitting information, assists learners in digesting and working with the
Furthermore other, often more significant, learning occurs when happenings catch the
attention, are reflected upon, and are analyzed for underlying principles to help
explain the happening. These principles or explanations become living theories
which guide people in future situations. Workers who learn experientially by improvising
new possibilities as they go continue to develop on the job. Organizations can help
workers recognize both kinds of learning and develop the skills of learning both from
external sources of knowledge and from their own lived experience.
Bateson, M. C. (1994). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. NY: Harper Collins
Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. NY: Continuum.
Hunt, D. (1987). Beginning with ourselves., In practice, theory, and human affairs.
Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning.- Experience as the source of learning and
development .Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
McCarthy, B. (1996). About learning. Barrington, IL: Excel.
Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning SF: Jossey-Bass.