Consider the adage: ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.’ Experts in the field of experiential learning would say, ‘Teach a man, and he knows how to do. Teach a man how to reflect, and knows how to learn.’
Learning doesn’t happen only in the classroom (or conference room). Internships, externships, mentor-mentee relationships — all these are examples of learning by direct experience. We learn by doing, and we learn even more when we reflect on what we’ve just done. Mining an experience for insight and direction makes as much sense as recycling our plastic or even composting vegetable scraps to use in the garden. Experiential learning theory provides a model of what this cycle can look like.
Experiential learning theory (ELT), as described by American educational theorist David Kolb in 1984, is an often overlooked tool in the organizational management toolshed. Dry seminars with a speaker reading off their presentation slides are easily ignored and quickly forgotten, but by adding elements of experiential learning to your training methodology, you can engage adult learners and spark change at your organization.
The experiential learning model describes a cycle that rotates continuously through 4 distinct phases. For ease of understanding, let’s apply the framework to riding a bike.
The phases are:
Now that you know what Experiential Learning Theory is, let’s explore why it’s so well-suited for adult learners.
Adult learners have different educational needs than children. Autonomy is hugely important to these learners — they want to be able to direct their own learning. Experiential learning satisfies this need, as the student ‘teaches’ themselves by reflecting on what they themselves have noticed.
Adults also learn best when they are highly interested in a topic, or when it feels relevant to their lives. Designing experiential learning activities that closely mimic what an employee is likely to experience — or already has experienced — increases the chances that they’ll walk away having learned something.
Adding an experiential learning component to an established training or development activity could be as simple as adding a role-play and asking participants to practice the new skill or concept. There are supply chain and resource management board games available that are another easy way to add direct experience into your development program. Look for ways to break the concept down and have your participants do at least part of a task. However, they shouldn’t spend the entire time practicing.
The most important thing is setting aside sufficient time and space for reflection, because that’s where the magic happens. Ideally, this would be guided by an experienced facilitator. If an experienced facilitator is not available, there is a simple and easy to remember tool for reflection, developed by researchers Micah Jacobson and Mari Ruddy, and it’s called ‘The 5 Questions’.
The facilitator (who could be a member of the group, as long as they did not participate in the direct learning experience) asks the group The 5 Questions, one at a time, allowing sufficient time for interaction from all participants. The facilitator can also ask follow-up questions, restate important points that others have made, or assist the group by providing additional information/context if they are getting stuck on a particular concept.
Experiential education is a theory of curriculum delivery that encourages the educator to give the student direct experience of the knowledge, skill, or attitude targeted by the learning activity. Experiential learning, on the other hand, is focused on what happens for the learner when they receive this direct experience. While experiential learning falls under the broader category of experiential education, the two terms are not interchangeable.