Learning by Doing: The Case for Incorporating Experiential Learning into our Nation’s Education Curricula
Experiential learning is a model that was first introduced by David A. Kolb in the early 1970s as means to encourage individual and social change, career development, and executive and professional education. It is learning through reflection on doing and is often contrasted with didactic learning. In academic environments, a didactic style of teaching is used too often without reinforcing the information that’s being taught with tangible practice. The current state of the education system does not focus on the learning process of the individual student and relies heavily on the mere transfer of information without encouraging critical or reflective thinking by the student. By adopting this process, the education system is failing to teach students how to critically think and become effective problem solvers who will actively contribute new ideas towards the advancement of society as a whole. Although experiential learning is not the exclusive answer to our nation’s education woes, it is one solution which, in conjunction with the current didactic style of teaching, could prove to close the gap between knowledge transfer, development, and application in many aspects of society.
Despite academic settings by in large adopting a didactic style of teaching, there are examples of schools, businesses, and other organizations that are testing and adapting the theory of experiential learning to their environments to transform the way that their students and employees learn, work together, and interact with each other as well as the general public. At the root of these organizations’ missions is a commitment to developing critical thinkers who will be able to apply their knowledge to real experiences. Aristotle once said, "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them." These organizations appreciate that there is a continuous and cyclical process undertaken in the brain that involves the absorption of sensory inputs to produce a reaction, whether it is inward and contemplative (a thought), or an outward action (speaking or moving). Based on this biology of the brain, models such as the Scientific Method, Seriously Loopy Science, and Plan Do Study Act (PDSA) have been developed as a framework to explain how knowledge is developed, enacted, and enhanced. David A. Kolb created his model of Experiential Learning Theory out of four elements: concrete experience, observation and reflection, the formation of abstract concepts, and testing in new situations. Similar to this model, the PDSA, Scientific Method, and Seriously Loopy Science processes all suppose a cyclical process that begins with an observation or experience. However, in the scientific method, the process terminates with the conclusion of whether the original hypothesis is true or false instead of feeding new observations back through the process again to refine and develop them further.
Similar to how the Scientific Method truncates the most valuable and reflective part of this learning process, many educational environments do not teach students how to assess or apply what they are taught to actual situations. However, in the Henry Ford Learning Institute (HFLI, grades 6-12), there is room for both creativity and application of material as well as a traditional, academic, style of teaching. The goal was to establish a framework for developing curricula that meets traditional academic standards and also makes room for lessons in the valuable skills of the design thinker, such as creativity, adaptability, empathy, and synthesis. The collaborative effort began by asking: How could a public-school education foster innovation explicitly? How much should it adhere to the existing paradigm (or move away from it)? How could the system empower students? With the help of creativity design firm, IDEO, the school created a new structure that organizes each quarter around a particular design challenge (such as learning to multiply), and aligns the academic content covered with the design challenge to provide relevant knowledge. This relevant knowledge is often learned during "Stop, Drop, and Design" days, during which students work on a group project. Students work in teams based on their grade level, building process-based skills (communication, prototyping, empathy, collaboration, etc.) as they solve real-world problems that are placed before them. Over the course of their school experience, the challenges grow increasingly complex and the students are asked to apply their knowledge from all of their coursework towards a specific design topic that includes aspects of each discipline. Administrators and teachers believe that by using team-based design as the basis for learning, students will develop the ability to think critically, empowering them to become effective leaders who are more likely to succeed in their careers and contribute to society.
Similar to the HFLI, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) employs a hybrid model of inquiry-based design and rigorous statistical examination in the Plan Do Study Act (PDSA) cycle. It is directly in line with the model of Seriously Loopy Science.
"Knowledge," in the sense of empirically based understanding, is summaries of past observations with expectations for future observations, a starting point rather than a final word. Knowledge is always subject to revision, either based on new observations or on new stories or both. And always has an element of uncertainty to it. Acknowledging uncertainty in existing knowledge gives everybody the ability to play a role in creating new knowledge… [the] objective is not to acquire knowledge but to acquire the means to create it? To "discover how to participate in the transformation of the world"?
At IHI, the PDSA cycle is used to develop new knowledge to improve a specific problem in health care, but it is often applied to other industries, such as technology and production. Its goal is to continuously develop, test, and assess new knowledge by harnessing the strengths of individuals as creative thinkers and problem solvers to address a collectively identified problem. Throughout the process of identifying the topics to be addressed, developing ideas to test, and assessing the results of the test based on data, there are facilitators who guide the group when necessary, which encourages individuals to think as a team, as they would in their actual hospital practice. The most valuable step in this learning cycle is the individual’s reflection of their experience in order to develop abstractions and then to move forward and test them to further expand their knowledge. Each individual reflects upon their experience and then comes back together with their team, the same way that the students at the HFLI did during their "Stop, Drop, and Design" days. Cycles of individual exploration are coupled with semi-structured group interaction in order to exchange and develop new ideas and observations to test as well as to propel collective knowledge further than if individuals were acting on their own. Although the students at the HFLI and the health care providers that are part of IHI’s collaborative are different in just about every way imaginable, they do share in their excitement of developing new knowledge to solve a specific question or problem that they’ve observed. More students—children and adults—should be empowered to consciously share in these experiences. After all, everyone has an experience, a sensory input, and everyone’s brain does something with that experience. The challenge is enabling students of all ages to be more aware of these sensory experiences and reflect upon the responses that they elicit in order to transform their experience, thereby creating new knowledge.
Like the students at HFLI and IHI, the motivations and goals of students and teachers must be aligned in order to transform the education system in the United States.
Humans are motivated to develop competence and to solve problems…Social opportunities also affect motivation. Feeling that one is contributing something to others appears to be especially motivating…Learners of all ages are motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others—especially their local community.
Curricula in educational environments should be able to use the intrinsic structure of the brain to test adaptations of the learning cycle to help people learn more effectively and to develop new ideas and knowledge more quickly. Whether adaptations and observations are tested in a school, office, or hospital, there are ways to intentionally design assignments that integrate experience and memory through reflections. Just like the students at HFLI, students should be encouraged to develop their own abstract ideas, observations, and explanations, even if that means structuring time for them to do so. Additionally, active demonstration; observation of testing; and awareness of the learning cycle, including how ideas are developed and are assessed, will build engaged, empowered, and creative thinkers who are able to apply their knowledge in the real world. After all, all learning is experiential, is it not? Conscious or not, it is human nature to observe and experience the world around us and to create reactions appropriate for each action. The structure of the brain does not change when someone enters a school or a work environment. Reflection is continually happening with each experience, ideas are developed about what each experience means, and actions will follow these ideas. It is in our best interest as a society to take advantage of our collective creativity and inherent structure of the brain to advance and refine knowledge. Naysayers and radical thinkers alike must be engaged in this process in order for success and transformation to be achieved. If we fail to incorporate a more experiential style of learning into the current system, idea generation and creation of new knowledge will be stifled; we run the risk of remaining trapped in a cyclical process that fails to actively test or reflect upon our observations, thereby truncating new ideas from being developed.
“A Design-Thinking Approach to Public School for Henry Ford Leaning Institute.” http://www.ideo.com/work/item/a-design-thinking-approach-to-public-school.
“Brain, Education, and Inquiry- Fall, 2010: Session 2.” http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/brained10/2.
Bynum, W.F. and Porter, R. (eds) (2005) Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations. Oxford University Press. 21:9.
“David a. Kolb on Experiential Learning.” http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-explrn.htm.
“Experiential Learning.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiential_learning.
J.D. Bransford, A.L Brown, and R.R. Cocking (Eds.) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000.
R. J. Sternberg and L. F. Zhang (Eds.) “Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions.” Perspectives on Cognitive, Learning, and Thinking Styles. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.
Rutherford P, Phillips J, Coughlan P, Lee B, Moen R, Peck C, Taylor J. Transforming Care at the Bedside How-to Guide: Engaging Front-Line Staff in Innovation and Quality Improvement. Cambridge, MA: Institute for Healthcare Improvement; 2008. Available at: http://www.IHI.org.
Zull, James. The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2002.
 “Experiential Learning.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiential_learning.
 Bynum, W.F. and Porter, R. (eds) (2005) Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations. Oxford University Press. 21:9.
 “David a. Kolb on Experiential Learning.” http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-explrn.htm.
 “A Design-Thinking Approach to Public School for Henry Ford Leaning Institute.” http://www.ideo.com/work/item/a-design-thinking-approach-to-public-school.
 “Brain, Education, and Inquiry- Fall, 2010: Session 2.” http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/brained10/2.
 Zull, James. The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2002.
 Rutherford P, Phillips J, Coughlan P, Lee B, Moen R, Peck C, Taylor J. Transforming Care at the Bedside How-to Guide: Engaging Front-Line Staff in Innovation and Quality Improvement. Cambridge, MA: Institute for Healthcare Improvement; 2008. Available at: http://www.IHI.org.
 R. J. Sternberg and L. F. Zhang (Eds.) “Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions.” Perspectives on Cognitive, Learning, and Thinking Styles. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.
 J.D. Bransford, A.L Brown, and R.R. Cocking (Eds.) How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000. P.60.
 Zull, James. The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2002.