There are many ways to learn, but learning by experience? That’s the backbone of our lives.
When we were growing up, my parents decided it was best if we didn’t have television, regular access to computers, or interaction with most electronics. They weren’t very prominent when I was a kid anyway, but for example we had a screen and a VHS player on which we watched old Shirley Temple movies on Friday nights. We listened to Rhinoceros Tap and Johnny Cash on tape, and sometimes we played solitaire on the laptop.
What do you do when there’s no TV and you live on a farm with your three other siblings? Why, you get into trouble, of course! And our parents encouraged it! They wanted us to live our fullest lives and learn as much as we could along the way. What happens when you jump off the swing? You could land nicely, or you could land… not so nicely.
The school we attended at the time promoted experiential and adventure-based learning, as well. They did not have a gym for physical education, but instead took us on full-day adventures to teach us cool things and to give us exercise. We did themes for three to six weeks at a time, and the whole school would go out and do things based around that theme. We would go to the tumbling gym and learn about tumbling, gymnastics, and flips, and how to work on our strength and balance. We would go hiking, learning about the flora and the fauna in the wilds around us instead of in a book. We went skiing together, ice skating and roller blading. On especially nasty days in the winter, we loved taking the shovels and shoveling the parking lot during recess (which was a great way to get out energy AND benefit the school. I see what they did there). Overall, that school encouraged going out, seeking adventures and growing from those experiences.
We were homeschooled for a time as well, while we traveled all over the west coast. During this time, my parents promoted experiential learning in different ways. We, of course, still did our Reading, (w)Riting, and ‘Rithmetic, but we also took advantage of the changing scenery around us. Our favorite pastimes were museums and the local places of interest, whether that be a national park, a wildlife preservation, or a historical location. We traveled along the Lewis and Clarke trail for a while, and stopped at every tourist location. We read their books and their history, lived what they lived. We panned for gold in California, we studied the red woods and their magnificence. We stood at the base of Mount Saint Helens and felt the earthquakes, then spoke to museum curators about how seismographs worked. We continued to sing along to Rhinoceros Tap while on the road, and devoured books that we had to purchase at almost every stop. It was a blessing to live this way, and I wish I had known that when it was happening. At this point in our lives and on the Base, everything was fun, everything was new and shiny, and everything was seen through the eyes of a child.
Universities promotes experiential learning of a different sort (hopefully). They talk of internships, service, research, study abroad, and the like. This part of schooling is highly encouraged, although I don’t know if the significance is really understood by participants of this. The professors speak of “preparation for your career,” “good for your resume,” and “the real world.” While these are all mostly correct, those experiential learning experiences contain much more than that.
Let’s take a look at what exactly makes up experiential learning. The picture below outlines the Pfeiffer and Jones 5 Stage Model of experiential learning.
We first begin with the experience, which is the action of the activity. We could be, say, doing a human knot as a group of residents of the Base. We grab hands across the circle, creating a knot, and then have to methodically begin unwinding ourselves to untie our arms. The second step, we talk about it. We do this after most experiences; sharing our thoughts and the good stories of the activity. Thirdly, we methodically and deliberately process our happenings. What was hard? What was easy? Why did/didn’t you enjoy it? These answers can be built upon, forming a deeper conversation, following the flow of the answers. “It was hard because I have a problem with personal space,” and “why do you think that is?” Fourthly, we generalize the answers. We take the “so what?” and connect the experiences to our everyday lives. The knot could resemble that we at the Base are a circle of cohabitants, we must work together, or the Base doesn’t run properly. Fifth in the cycle is application. This is the “now what?” The application part of the cycle can be placed into our situations independently and together. How do you apply these lessons to life as a student, an adventurer, a resident of the Base? How can you learn or help others learn from this experience? And so on.
This model is a circle because we never stop experiencing. We continue to grow in this manner, from happening to happening, and we subconsciously work through this cycle as we do things. It’s quite wonderful and wondrous. And it works.
The deliberate use of this model is amazing. It benefits the facilitators, the participants, and those around them. It’s in my mission, and how I’ve chosen to live. Of course, I can’t be deliberate in all of my experiences; it’s mentally and physically exhausting. I can, however, do my best. That’s all I can do.