Experiential Learning

Arguably the most natural and powerful form of learning is through experience, or more precisely through reflection on doing. Also called experiential learning, it’s what prima ballerinas do after their performance at the national opera. But it also happens to boys that are sad because their father got angry when they played football in the living room.

By the age of one, we all had our own painful encounter with experiential learning when we tried to walk, failed, fell and cried like, well a baby… And even though this was an unpleasant and discouraging exercise that lasted for months in the end we all made it. How is that possible?

As soon as we fell and the first shock was over, our brain unconsciously began to make sense out of all of the information available to identify how this embarrassment occurred. It remembers that when we pushed ourselves up, everything was fine: our feet on the floor, our arms in position and our head and shoulders up right. Ready to go!

When our upper leg muscles pulled our left foot 12.3% to the front at an angle of 23 degree, our arms didn’t compliment the movement and the ventricles in the inner ear, responsible for static balance, got confused for a second. When at the same moment the cat ran by, our eyes sent an alarming signal to the hippocampus and we completely lost it… Outch!

Unconsciously this is how our brain analyses the relationship of events within our body or in the environment. It happens all the time as we learn to walk, talk, kiss, function in a fancy office or dance the salsa. Once we understand the connections between what went wrong, we know what we need to change when we try the next time. Then do it again.

Experiential Learning can also be used explicitly to learn a new skill or to become better at what we already love doing. Here is how it works: First get yourself into a situation to experience. After, reflect on what happened. Then try to understand the relationships to form an abstract concept - if I do A, I get B. Last, decide what to do differently next time.

For example if you want to learn how to ride a bicycle, the following might happen: You get onto the bike and start kicking the pedals. As you are afraid of speed, you ride too slowly and you fall to the side. Afterward you remember that you fell at the exact moment when your speed was the slowest Then you form the abstract and slightly dangerous idea: speed equals stability

Lets try that again: This time you ride fast. In fact, so fast that you crash straight into the next fruit stall. Your head hurts and you realize that speeding like that is really dangerous. You create the next abstract thought: speed is danger and danger needs protection You then decide to wear a helmet next time

Experiential learning is also believed to be responsible for the fact that musicians generally fare better at most tests, regardless of what they measure. People that practice an instrument not only engage their brain in motor, visual and auditory areas, but they also learn by reflecting on what they’re doing with a fast feedback loop – a wrong tone on the violin sounds too terrible to remain unnoticed. While playing they therefore not only learn to make music, but also that progress in general comes through practice, reflection, understanding, and repetition.

You can use it with your friends or colleagues when working on a project. Silicon Valley start-ups do it when they tell their developers to get out of the building! After the interaction with real potential customers, the team gets together, analyses the feedback and decides what to do next.

If you are all by yourself learning something where feedback doesn’t come fast and painfully, get going and look for someone who can give you a second opinion along the way - for students that can be a friend or the teacher, for entrepreneurs that’s the mentor and for journalists a blog where readers can comment.

Tell us, what do you think? Is learning through reflecting on doing only good when acquiring new hands-on skills or is it also suitable to study science, math, the humanities or abstract art?