Certificate in Education Assignment 2 Teaching and Learning Theory and Process
Nick Sherriff

Focus 2: Experiential Learning – how and why you plan experiential activities.

The value of experiential learning, given by many, can be traced back to that famous dictum of Confucius around 450 BC,

“Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

This piece of work will examine the wider idea of experiential learning (Kolb 1984, Greenway 1990) drawing upon criticisms and developments from a wide variety of social/educational commentators such as Rogers (1986), Petty (1998) and Curzon (1976). Particular importance will be given to students on the National Diploma in Public Services at Wiltshire College. Due to the limited scope of this piece of work and in order to get started focus will be given to how and why experiential ‘learning’ activities are planned within the subject confines of Leadership, Teamwork and general Outdoor Activities picking out the more important themes.
Why place such an emphasis on ‘experiential learning?’ A good question but for many commentators this [experience] is fundamental to learning itself. For instance, Rogers (1986) posits that, “Many modern writers suggest that at the heart of all learning is the search for meaning in experience.” Mezirow (1981) concurs stressing, “Learning is creating meanings, finding the keys, making sense of experience – a process which is natural to all adults as breathing.”

However this should be seen as a relatively modern idea having its origins in the psychological shift from ‘reductionism’ (Watson, Thorndike, Skinner) to a ‘non-reductionist’ approach thus, the complexity of the individual is acknowledge. In terms of education the focus has been placed back onto the learner and taken away from what may have been considered a teacher centred approach.  It is also prudent to understand that learning is contrastingly different dependant upon whether a Pedagogical or Andragogical model is observed. As Knowles suggests adults prefer to learn in a different way from that of children. (1970 cited in Reece and Walker. 1992.) Furthermore both Knowles and Mezirow (1981) offer the idea that adult learners prefer an element of ‘self direction’ thus drawing on their wealth of experiences. (Cited in Reece and Walker. 1992.) Students at a college level have gained many experiences that could/should be utilised but it is also recognised that many students will be on the threshold of such an andragogical approach (i.e. having only recently left the school pedagogical system) therefore, instantaneous success could be passed-over in favour of perhaps more of a transformational process.

Kolb added further weight to the notion of a transformational process when he posited the idea of an ‘experiential learning cycle’ which he defined as,
‘The process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.’

Thus students will by definition transform the experience of education in order to create knowledge for themselves. It therefore seems plausible that this could in turn be passed on to how college students and lecturers should be tackling learning within the classroom. 

Kolb’s definition of experiential learning does appear to allude to the notion that, an experience in itself does not necessarily preclude learning per ce rather something must happen to such an experience in order to facilitate learning. Petty added credence to this notion suggesting,

‘Experience in itself does not guarantee learning [rather] In order to learn from our experience we must reflect on our experiences…’

Many others like Mezirow (1981) and Rogers further posit that not only is ‘reflection’ crucial but in fact it is ‘critical reflection’ (1986) that must act upon the experience thus facilitating learning. Perhaps this is akin to the manner in which sports (soccer) are often taught (Beashel and Taylor. 1996) whereby the mantra of ‘practice makes permanent but correct practice makes perfect’ is widely used. Experience and practice could be seen as similar. Here the ‘experience’ is substituted for ‘practice’ and ‘critical reflection’ for ‘correct.’ Thus, ‘experience makes permanent but critical reflection of an experience makes perfect [facilitates learning].’ Whilst practice is affected by correction from the coach or player so to experience is affected by critical reflection from the teacher or student. As Kolb suggests the ‘experience’ is ‘transformed.’ To such an end it is not therefore enough for the teacher to merely provide; or for the student to just participate in; an experience moreover, they both; according too many; must reflect on their experience in order for learning to take place. Linking this notion to the more practical and outdoor elements of a National Diploma in Public Services Greenway concurs adding, ‘… young people [should] have a taste of learning through adventurous experience, and do not simply experience adventure (1990).

This does seem rather similar to Kolb’s notion of a cycle suggesting that experiential learning is cyclical i.e. having had an experience and then critically reflecting upon it students are now capable of revisiting a similar experience with greater understanding of how to deal with it, which could take the form of a lesson based concept to a practical task. Although, having acknowledged the value of ‘reflection’ (sometimes referred to as ‘reviewing’) far too often it fails to happen moreover it is superseded by the familiar dictums of,

"Things are going really well. Let's not spoil it by stopping for a review just now."
"Things aren't going too well. Let's wait until they're a bit happier before we stop for review."
"We've run out of time to do a proper review. Let's start with a review next time."

(Greenway. 1990:p44)

Next time there are new priorities, or the experience has 'gone cold' and no-one is interested in going over what happened last time. This is often a problem with the timetable that seldom allows for both a quality reviewing process and the experience itself. In this case creative use of the timetable must be employed as this essay will attempt to show later on.

Having justified the inclusion and therefore value of ‘experiential learning’ as a learning strategy which; for this essay will encompass the reflective process; this piece of work will now examine ‘how’ such learning is accomplished within the National Diploma in Public Services (NDPS).

Firstly it is necessary to understand that experiences are extremely difficult to modularise, although that is not say that some elements are not, therefore many units are combined/integrated at least in part.  It is easy to see how Orienteering is the pre-cursor to Expedition skills at least in terms of map reading ability and how Climbing, Canoeing, Mountain Biking all have similar equipment care and maintenance issues, similar environmental issues and similar relationships to the Adventurous Activity Licence Authority. This is illustrated within many aspects of NDPS but perhaps more unconventionally with Leadership and Teamwork.  Both of these units complement each other which makes them very difficult to isolate but naturally simple to combine and thus create a joint experience. (It is generally accepted that the outdoor activities by their very nature are experiences in themselves and the NDPS is no different taking students canoeing at the South Cerney Water Park, Climbing at the Bristol Indoor Climbing wall/Cheddar Gorge and Expeditions to the hills of the Mendips, Quantocks and Dartmoor National Park.

Studying leadership actually requires the involvement of other people/teams i.e. someone to lead. Students are given scenarios and tasks to complete ranging from indoor paper-based activities to outdoor practical tasks. Leaders are nominated, briefed and the whole group is monitored during the activity. Rules/scenarios are laid down and constraints given often time-based which helps to facilitate pressure and realism. The monitoring provides the lecturer and sometimes students with information on whether to intercede or not but as mentioned earlier this strategy is incomplete without reflection/review. This is both facilitated retrospectively and occasionally using the soccer coaching style of ‘whole part whole’ where situations are started undirected, stopped for input or teaching then continued or started again. These Leadership/Teamwork activities are given names to aid reflection/review such as ‘Jungle escape’ and ‘The Germans’ allowing students a frame of reference to attach their learning to.

The specific activity referred to as ‘The Germans’ takes place in the sports hall but weather dependent can take place outside on a grassed area. Much equipment is involved most of it found in any conventional sports hall like benches, vault boxes, cones, crash mats, medicine balls, ropes. A few pieces of equipment were especially made such as the ‘Spider’ which, comprises a wooden frame (2mx1.5m) and is interlaced with bungee cord thus facilitating a penetrable obstacle (with difficulty) and a tape was created with sounds of random gunfire, German phrases, dogs barking and sirens adding to the realism. The layout of such equipment is linear providing an A to B kind of route. The scenario requires the students to take on the role of a military special forces unit whose task it is to break in to the enemies base steal their weapon, returning it to their base where they have to re-assemble it an fire it back upon the enemy (If they can remember how it is reassembled?).

A leader is then chosen who is taken to the site and briefed before returning to the group. The task then begins with the teacher monitoring the planning process where hopefully tasks are given to individuals. At this point you can see the opportunity to look at both the styles of leadership used as well as Belbin’s team roles. Once the activity is underway the teacher takes very much a back seat unless major problems are incurred favouring the recording and monitoring role (This tends to create more for the reflection process).

Having completed the tasked or it is stopped partway through the session then turns to review/reflection. Quinsland and Ginkel suggests that the review is

“…an activity that is used to encourage individuals to reflect, describe, analyse and communicate what they recently experienced.”

At this point it is very necessary to structure the session as experience shows students have input, often too much all at once and occasionally undirected input. During this part the session follows the format similar to that of Greenway (1990) Experience, Express, Examine and Explore.

Students are asked ‘what happened’ and encouraged to relive the task. This may take the form of congratulations or as Greenway suggests the gathering of evidence depending on how successful the task was. At this stage students are encouraged to tell their own version of events and in this case the leader and the groups’ individuals perspectives. All of this information should be clarified and recorded, which is achieved by the students producing their own lists and versions on one large whiteboard for the Leadership/Teamwork activities or in note books in the minibus returning from an offsite activity. Climbing and Canoeing were best for this as students tended to be talking about their experiences anyway – ‘I did this today’ or ‘I climbed this.’

Having created an agreed version of events, the facts if you will, the review turns to more soft skills. Next the students are required to express their feelings during particular stages of the event. In terms of leadership the experience of an authoritarian style maybe quite disconcerting compared to a more laissez-faire moment that could appear frustrating. Team work often shows the breaking of the established group norms or the isolating of particular individuals. This is the most difficult part of the reflection process probably because of the need for personal expression which some may feel uncomfortable with at first. Although students who overcome particular feelings are often openly positive but students who are still experiencing negatives feelings are more insular with their feelings.

Now students are encouraged to think what is often referred to as ‘out of the box.’ Taking a step back and looking holistically as well as compartmentally at the events. Such an analytical approach requires the close examination of the previous elements of the review. Questions are posed to the group who answer by moving forward if they agree or taking a step backwards if they disagree. At the end of the questioning students are encouraged to discus the findings/differences. Students should be encouraged to consider other opinions and ideas or how their perceptions affect others.

Students can then posit solutions or developments in which to improve or achieve a greater chance of task success. Here students can sometimes have the opportunity for repetition. At this point students often wish to repeat what they have done in order to improve on their initial attempt. This can also facilitate rehearsal for difficult activities (simulation or action replays). Taking the leadership task specifically students often make a mess of one part of the task which I am able to re-setup following our discussions during the review thus facilitating the further development of one aspect before attempting the whole thing similar to the behaviourist model of chaining.

“The connecting of two or more previously learned stimulus-response connections” (Gagne. 1970).

During the Climbing a competitive edge was observed not only with others but on a personal level with students commenting on what (grade of climb) they would like to achieve next week.

Having encountered a plethora of experiential learning ideas it is clear that the topic has merit. The realisations that students are individuals and that learning is student rather than teacher centred thus personal experiences affect learning are valuable insights, although I can now see why many commentators refer to this learning strategy as andragogical. All learners have experiences from which to draw but how are these experiences managed, ordered and crucially made sense of? Especially for the novice learner perhaps such learning for the pedagogical student is best avoided or at least closely managed. Staying in this area young post 16 college students are on what I referred to as a threshold, neither pure pedagogy nor andragogy. How are students weaned off one onto another? I suspect it is more of an evolutionary/transformational process but such is the detail of other elements of this type of learning that this transition seems deliberately vague. However the more mature or andragogical student has or should have a wealth of experiences from which to draw ideas, comparisons and solutions notwithstanding the more mature process of experiencing itself.

Many authors agree that experience in isolation does not equal learning rather the experience must be analysed and not just reflected upon either, such reflections it seems require that reflection to be critical. This reflection is sometimes referred to as review but both require that critical input to be from the teacher and the student, the balance of which is predetermined by the level of the learner within a pedagogical or andragogical sphere. This element of experiential learning although, as I have demonstrated is obviously vital for learning to take place, does appear to be the first to be discarded. The plethora of excuses resounds all too easily for many but why? It is odd for no other reason than without this reflection learning cannot take place.

As to the cyclical nature of the process which personally is unquestionable there are some issues as to the apparently oversimplified and rational nature of the process. It just seems too easy that if it were should then be reflected in all of education/society. A contradiction appears between the acknowledgement of individual complexity and the reductionist nature of the cycle. The reflection or review process is not cyclical but could be seen as systematic.

The implementation of such learning into the programme requires integration and we are not completely there yet, parts of the programme are but until a shift in the allocation of rooms and a more flexible timetable are witnessed then some areas can feel disjointed at times or at least not as much fun as others (the integrated bits). Resourcing has a role here, a bare classroom will test the best of practioners although too much will swamp the experience possibly missing the learning. The NDPS has a wealth of ‘hands on’ students that appear to thrive on this learning strategy which may not be the case for other subjects. This is a relatively new topic area and as such needs time to bed in properly, some elements I am sure will be improved or developed even dropped all together as time goes on however, if we apply the theory of experiential learning including the review process to our own efforts success will not be far away.


Beashel, P and Taylor, J. (1996) Advanced Studies in Physical Education and Sport. Surrey; Nelson.
Curzon, L, B. (1976) Teaching in Further Education 5th Ed – An Outline of Principles and Practice. London; Cassell Education.
Greenaway, R. (1990), More Than Activities, Save the Children Fund.
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning – Experience as a source of learning and development. England; Prentice Hall.
Petty, G. (1998) Teaching Today. Cheltenham; Stanley Thornes Limited.
Nadler, R and Luckner, J. (1990) Processing the Experience, Theory and Practice Northern Illinois University.
Reece, I and Walker, S. (1992) Teaching, Training and Learning 4th Ed– A practical guide. Sunderland; Business Education Publishers Limited.
Rogers, A. (1986) Teaching Adults 2nd Ed. Philadelphia; OU Press.
Quinsland, L, K and  Van Ginkel, A (1984), How to Process Experience. The Journal of Experiential Education, 7 (2), p8-13.