Experiential Learning in the Classroom

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle adapted by Simply Psychology

Elements of experiential learning theory (ELT) and of other constructivist learning theories were popular in the early years of my teaching (2003 onwards). The reading that dominated my initial teacher training was from and about Piaget, Freire and Vygotsky and Dale’s Cone of Learning often dominated early Continuous Professional Development sessions in school. Experiential learning was a focus in my subject of geography where it was felt that there was much scope for learning through concrete experience. This essay will explore this notion that secondary school geography can be best approached through Kolb’s model of ELT.

Kolb’s ELT derives from the constructivist theory of learning; although the term ‘theory’ as applied here may be a misnomer; described by Fox as a “guiding myth”, lacking testable psychological theories (2001). This theory, or myth, of learning stems from the work of Piaget who suggested a move away from the behaviourist school of learning theories of the early 20th century in favour of viewing learning as an internal process (Open University, 2019a). In the constructivist view, individuals build knowledge through assimilating new information into their existing schema or by changing this schema to accommodate new, conflicting, information. As everyone’s schema is unique to them, based on their own prior experiences, knowledge is never simply passed from one person to another intact; it is always reconstructed by the learner.  

This notion reaches its logical conclusion with radical constructivism as put forward by Glasersfeld (1993) which suggests that there can be no such thing as empirically true knowledge. What we already know, and experience, will always shape our understanding and perception of truth. Whilst the form of constructivism put forth by Piaget and his followers is often accepted uncritically (Fox, 2001 p. 23), Glasersfeld’s radical view is challenged by Fox as “an individual or social form of solipsism” (p. 29) however as Glasersfeld himself points out that he intended his work to be a model, not a description of the real world (1993).

Experiential learning developed out of these constructivist ideas alongside thinking from Dewey’s experimental method and the humanistic ideals of thinkers such as Hahn (Seaman, 2008). This was brought together by Kolb to create a model for experiential learning that he termed the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC). This model suggested that learning would take place through a cycle of concrete experiences, followed by a chance to reflect on this experience, linking it to abstract concepts and then actively experimenting to see how it might be applied (Kolb, 1984). This is a cognitive approach to learning which has the assumption that “learning happens through cognitive reflection, experience can be considered like a bounded object, and an individual ‘learner’ can be separated from his or her experience to process knowledge from that experience” (Fenwick, 2001, pp. 7 – 8).

Experiential learning was developed in the 1960s and 1970s in adult education as a way of allowing institutions to assess and award credit to people based on prior experience or for vocation-based training (Seaman, 2008). Kolb introduced an ideological purpose to experiential learning, arguing that it would allow adults to reconnect with practical experience and to reach their full potential as “citizens, family members and human beings” (Kolb, 1984, p. 4). We can see here that the pedagogy of ELC is intrinsically tied to a view on the purpose of education that seems aligned to a capabilities approach (Open University, 2019c).

Kolb’s work, and subsequent writing, suggests that ELC was designed primarily as a pedagogy for adult education (Kolb, 1984; McCarthy, 2016; Healey & Jenkins, 2007) but it has had an influence in the learning environment I am most familiar with, the English secondary school. The influence of experiential learning can be seen in the once widespread use of the learning pyramid in Initial Teacher Training and Continuing Professional Development This pyramid states that pupils only remember 5% of what they hear in a lecture but 80% of what they teach others, with various other methods appearing at regular intervals between the two. The figures that appear are attributed to the National Training Laboratories in Maine, USA, but they report they do not have the data to support them (Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020 p. 297). The pyramid is a corruption of Edgar Dale’s cone of experience (1954) in which he gave a taxonomy of how far different media moved from direct, authentic, experience. It would appear that over time, educators who believed in the ideology of experiential learning took this taxonomy to mean that pupils would learn more from these authentic experiences and so the theory entered secondary schools; however it entered in a way that left it divorced from its true theoretical underpinnings and I would argue this has had consequences for its application in this setting (Enser, 2019).

Healy and Jenkins (2007) argue that their ideas on ELC and its application in Geography Higher Education are equally applicable for learning about geography at K-12 level (p. 186). However, it should be noted that their application of ELC takes a very loose definition of the concrete experience stage suggesting that “It is important to emphasize that though the theory stresses the importance of learning from experience … it is just as relevant to the planning of a lecture or seminar” (p. 190. my emphasis). This view is apparent in their first example of its application where students in the concrete experience stage are asked to individually read excerpts of three or four novels. They term this a substitute concrete experience. The cycle then takes them to reflection whereby they consider key questions about their reading, abstract conceptualisation where the teacher lectures them on the theories that relate to their reading and finally the active experimentation stage where the students read about the applications of what they have heard and are placed in groups to create a presentation about one of these applications.

Whilst it is possible to see ELC in this way, it may fall into the criticism that Fox makes of constructivist theories of learning more generally, that “it turns out to have relatively little to say which is distinctive and not already implied by common sense, broadly empiricist, accounts of learning” (2001, p. 25). The pedagogy outlined by Healy and Jenkins above would not look unfamiliar in any classroom taking a broadly cognitive approach to learning in which pupils are challenged to think about what they have read and heard and apply it to new scenarios. It would, for example, fit just as easily into the cognitive model for learning outlined by Rosenshine (2012) as it does to Kolb’s ELC. What Healy and Jenkins seem to have done, in order to make ELC apply to the geography classroom, is remove the concrete experience that gives it a defining characteristic.

The problem with relying on true concrete experience in the geography classroom is that often we want to take pupils beyond what they can physically experience for themselves. Our national curriculum (DfE, 2011) asks that they learn about places such as Russia and a region of Africa and to learn about their physical environments and human characteristics. Whilst elements of experience can be introduced here, listening to the authentic voices of those who live there, handling artefacts from the region or engaging in virtual visits, these will always be, in Healy and Jenkins term, substitute concrete experiences. Where ELC is likely to be more applicable to secondary geography is in the use of field work.

Field work is used in geography to achieve several aims, identified by Lambert and Reiss (2016) as being conceptual, cognitive, procedural and social, all of which are achieved through pupils having the opportunity to experience the work that geographers do to make knowledge (Widdowson, 2017). It is in field work that we can see pupils having the opportunity to work through the ELC perhaps starting with abstract conceptualisation (learning the underpinning theories they will be investigating), moving on to active experimentation (planning the fieldwork and how they could test the theories), concrete experience (collecting the data) and finally reflective observation (considering what the data tells them in light of what they already know from the abstract conceptualisation). This should, in Kolb’s terms, support them to grasp the ideas being introduced through linking concrete examples to abstract concepts as well as transforming their understanding through the cognitive work of reflection and planning active experimentation (Kolb, 1984).

However, this approach to field work and outdoor education more generally is not without its critics. Seaman argues that the ELC’s stepwise model “inadequately explain the holistic learning processes that are central to learning from experience” (2008, p. 3). He goes on to argue that reflection may be unnecessary to learning from experience, suggesting that “people learn in experience, not from or after it.” (p. 11). This could be seen as referring to the tacit, or impressionistic, knowledge that people may gain from experience that, without reflection, they may find it hard to articulate (Moon & Leach, 2008). This acts as a reminder to geography teachers that pupils may benefit simply from being given the opportunities to experience different places and events without necessarily having to use them to do geography. Conversely, reflection comes under attack from Boud et al, not because it is unnecessary, but because it is not sufficient for learning as an individual process, and requires “support, encouragement, and intervention from others” (Boud et al, 1985 p. 36). This suggests a role for experiential learning in secondary geography but perhaps removed from its more radical constructivist underpinnings.

In my view, the theory or, to borrow Fox’s term, guiding myth that pupils learn from experience has been widely accepted in secondary school education, and more particularly in secondary school geography education. However, this has often been based on a misapplication of ideas such as Dale’s Cone of Experience as discussed above. This has meant that whilst the notion that learning from experience is preferable has been adopted, the actual practices have not been. Instead we see more of the substitute experiences as used by Healey and Jenkins. Kolb’s ELC certainly does have a place in geography education as a useful guiding principle when designing fieldwork to enhance learning of substantive concepts rather than for purely tacit knowledge. However, learning, as defined by Illeris as a process leading to “permanent capacity change” (2018 p.1), is a very broad term. It seems likely that different theories of learning will apply to different pedagogies adopted in the search for creating these different types of capacity change. Experiential learning theory will be useful when learning centres on concrete experience but will be less applicable when attempting to move pupils beyond the experiences available to them.

This was written for my MEd in Education (Learning and Teaching) from the Open University.

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