Formal education and experiential learning are two different approaches to learning. They are two distinct methodologies that produce different results. They’re both concerned with learning; but, while they evidence certain commonalities, the differences between them are more significant than their similarities. These differences shine through when you examine their nature, purpose, history, and methodology.


Education is concerned with the transmission of knowledge from one individual to another. It’s the process through which a knowledgeable individual – usually a credentialed teacher – is formally charged with transmitting a community’s accumulated knowledge to other individuals who possess less knowledge and legitimacy.

Experiential learning is the processes individuals use to explore their own unique life experiences, both at work and at home. In this context, experiential learning has five main characteristics

  • It’s a continuous exploratory process grounded in experience

  • It’s best conceived as a process, rather than an outcome.

  • It’s an expansive process focused on adaptation to the world.

  • It involves transactions between people and their environment.

  • It a process that’s focused on creating new knowledge specific to the individual.

Experiential learning of this sort sees an individual moving through four discrete steps: (a) having a concrete experience followed by (b) observing and reflecting on that experience, which leads to (c) forming abstract concepts and broad generalizations about the nature of their experience, which are then (d) used to test hypotheses about how, in future situations, to act more effectively. 


Education is a societal process that has three main purposes:

  1. To socialize people about their community’s knowledge, cultural norms, and received wisdom;

  2. To certify the fact that an individual has mastered either the societal or the professional curriculum that’s deemed necessary to become either a functioning member of their community or a person who’s qualified to practice a given profession or trade; and

  3. To help individuals develop their own personal talents, especially the cognitive and emotional skills they need to build the career and life they aspire to.

Experiential learning is a personal meaning-making process that uses each person’s own lived experience as the focus for learning. It has four essential purposes:

  1. To strengthen the skills we already have, especially those that produce less-than-optimal personal or professional results.

  2. To develop the new skills required to respond effectively to the 21st Century's new entrepreneurial and leadership challenges.

  3. To reframe basic assumptions and presumptions we currently hold about our lives and the world we live in that all too rapidly become outdated.

  4. To provide the knowledge and skills needed to effectively pursue our own lifelong learning journeys.


Education, as we know it today, had its origins in Europe’s medieval universities. In the thirteenth century, European universities revamped their academic programs in ways that saw young men from wealthy families enroll in carefully designed courses of study that emphasized the study of Latin, rhetoric, and logic. After four years, this course of study was completed, and formally marked by the awarding of a “baccalaureate.” This baccalaureate degree, in truth, was nothing more than a preliminary step toward a “mastership (later called a masters degree), which involved three more years studying arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. This “mastership” was not designed as something that was useful or practical; it was designed to encourage the development of intellectual and moral excellence, what today we know as a liberal arts education.

Experiential learning, on the other hand, has its origins in ancient Greece. Around 350 BCE, Aristotle wrote, "for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” As a formal approach, experiential learning first found its footing in Western Europe’s guild system, which was an association of craftsmen formed for mutual aid and protection. The guild system, and its concept of experiential learning, flourished in Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries. It apprenticed young men to a master baker, stonemason, or builder, letting them work under their master to learn his trade. This approach to experiential learning has slowly evolved and expanded across the centuries until, in the 1970s, David Kolb promulgated what is now the modern theory of experiential learning.


Education today is a societal processes that transmits its knowledge, norms, and wisdom through predetermined courses that, these days, are very much more diverse that those just described as characteristic of medieval universities. In today’s societies, knowledge is organized into predefined curricula, certification processes, and graduation rituals. Regardless of what the course of study is, it’s always delivered through a formally organized set of teacher/student rolls and interaction patterns. Essentially, in today’s educational system, teachers teach and students study.

Experiential learning, by way of contrast, is a personal meaning-making process built on the foundations of an individual's own personal experiences. Experiential learning can and most often does take place without a teacher or a formal curriculum. Experiential learning is an organic process that unfolds naturally. An effective experiential learning effort generally requires certain elements; for example, it requires an individual who, for whatever reason, is open to examining his or her own lived experiences, especially those that were challenging, discouraging, or laced with anxiety. Beyond this, in order to learn from these kinds of experience, a person must have four distinct abilities:

  • The willingness to be actively involved in the examination of their own experiences;

  • The ability to both remember their life experiences in some detail and reflect back on these experiences;

  • The ability to use analytical skills to conceptualize the experiences they want to learn from; and

  • The decision-making and problem-solving skills necessary to translate new insights into new perspectives and skills.


Education is the process through which a society transmits its knowledge, cultural norms, and skills from one generation to the next. Education is the process a society uses to credential and certify certain individuals as competent to perform key jobs and represent themselves as members of a given profession. Education is also the process set up by society to support people's personal efforts to further their own careers and realize their most authentic selves.

Experiential learning is the process that self-motivated individuals use to help them (a) better understand their own beliefs and values, (b) examine precepts and presuppositions they hold that might not be serving them well, (c) reframe outdated modes of thinking, (d) improve existing skillsets that are no longer functional, and (e) develop new skillsets more appropriate to the complexities and challenges they currently face. 

Traditional education is something people get at specific points in their life from institutions that have pre-defined and proscribed the subjects that their students must master. In contrast, experiential learning most often is an tacit process that adults use to respond to their life’s most significant experiences. On occasion, experiential learning can become a conscious effort, one that's personally designed, organized, and implemented by the individuals themselves. Either way, experiential learning is always the back-end foundation for a lifelong learning journey; it's something an individual is always doing, from birth until their death. At TLO, we believe that choosing to make both your front-end educational efforts and your back-end experiential learning efforts both explicit and conscious is the best way to assure success, however you are choosing to define it.

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