Experiential Learning Basics

As we plumb the depths and boundaries of the 21st Century, we’re discovering that those individuals who are thriving in this new century are distinguished by four pivotal characteristics:

        * Their ability to handle day-to-day responsibilities.
        * Their ability to master new tasks.
        * Their ability to create innovative solutions to complex challenges.
       * Their ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

While it’s never phrased quite this way, here at TLO we think this means that successful adults are characterized by their ability to make use of fully realized, high quality experiential learning skills; i.e., people who know how design, launch, and implement their own learning.

To fully understand what we’re suggesting, and why, you at least need a notional framework that helps you put some conceptual “meat on the bones” of the idea of experiential learning. Below, we offer three propositions that begin to describe and illustrate such a model.


The best way for us to introduce you to experiential learning is to offer three of TLO’s basic premises. We’ve developed these three from the original research David Kolb published in 1984  (i.e., Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development). We've synthesized his discoveries and insights into propositions that describe the learning steps required to change any of your existing behavioral skills. And to develop new, more effective ones.

 Proposition 1: Learning Involves Feelings, Attitudes, & Beliefs

Typically, people tend to think of learning as activity that’s aimed at helping them acquire facts and figures about a specific subject. To learn is to acquire new information. Actually, real learning, learning that improves and strengthens your ability to relate to others and navigate the worlds you’re living and working in, is more complex than simply grasping assorted facts and figures and other relevant pieces of information.

Without question, new information is an important part of learning. But, by itself, acquiring new facts and figures will never help you create the behavioral changes and/or intellectual growth you’re after. To develop new work and life capabilities, it seems we must engage our perceptions, emotions, and attitudes. Real, sustainable learning requires a form of exploration that every step of the way rests on and requires an awareness of our moment-to-moment feelings, perceptions, beliefs, and values.

Proposition 2: Real Learning Changes Your Brain, Mind, and Body 

No adult is a blank slate. None of us -- not me, not you, not anyone --  comes fresh and new to the learning of anything. Because we’re adults, we’re forced to come to our learning efforts carrying inside our brains, minds, and bodies a vast network of pre-programmed knowledge structures. Everything you know and everything you can do is hardwired into your brain, mind, and body as complex, tightly woven sets of feelings, attitudes, and behavioral patterns (See Figure 1). One way of imagining this is to picture these knowledge structures as integrated triangles of feelings, images, and neural patterns that, when woven together, enable and prompt you to produce the skilled behavioral routines you use to navigate you way through your life.


Proposition 3: Effective Learning is a Sequential, Cyclical Process.

To actually change your brain’s hardwired existing knowledge structures, you need four distinct competencies: The ability to act; the ability to observe, reflect on, and evaluate your experiences; the ability to reconceptualize, recontextualize, and reframe these experiences; and the ability to experiment with new behavior when needed. 

 You need these four competencies because fully-realized, high-quality learning is a sequential, cyclical, and repetitive four-step process. In action, it unfolds like this: 

  • First, you have life experiences that you become conscious of. 
  • Second, your awareness of these experiences provides you with memories and images that you observe and reflect on. 
  • Third, from these reflections, you pull together significant aspects of your experiences into rudimentary theories; from these you deduce new implications for action. 
  • Fourth, these hypotheses then serve as guides for your experimenting, which, in turn, takes you back to your immersion in new experiences.

Pictured, your experiential learning cycle looks like this...

                                  Figure 2                Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle   

                                  Figure 2
              Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle  

Here at TLO, the bottom line is this: If you're seriously interested in developing the fully realized, high quality experiential learning skills you'll need in this increasingly complex world, you will have to learn about your strengths and weaknesses as a learner. Then, you'll have to learn how to use this knowledge to develop your own personal experiential learning skills.

When you know how to organize your own learning efforts, your day-to-day experiences become a laboratory that you can use to consciously test and explore new ways of seeing, thinking and feeling. You can simultaneously examine, explore, and compare multiple ideas. Learning no longer is a special activity reserved for the classroom. It becomes an integral and explicit part of your work and your life.

Neuroplasticity's Possibilities

Lara Boyd’s TEDx talk, seen here on the left, is an invitation to adventure. It’s a doorway into what could – for those brave enough – turn our experiential learning processes into phantasmagorical journeys, undertakings akin to Dorothy’s adventures in Oz or Alice’s experiences in Wonderland. Why? Because, in fourteen short minutes, Dr. Boyd manages to present a persuasive case for the proposition that much of what we’ve all thought we knew about our brains, about how we learn, and consequently about who we each are, turns out not to be true. In each of these three areas, Dr. Boyd says, what we know about these issues is changing at a “breathtaking pace.”
Take the brain. For more than two centuries the best scientists have assumed that, after childhood, our brains were fully formed and really did not, could not change. It turns out nothing could be further from the truth.
Or, take learning. Since Socrates, the best educators have always assumed that learning is all about the acquisition of new facts and figures. Learning involves the absorption of new knowledge. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.
Finally, take our identity, our sense of who we are. Since forever, the best philosophers, scientists, and educators have all assumed that our identities are singular, atomistic, solitary.  Like our brains, our personal identity after adolescence is stable and unchangeable. As Popeye so famously says, I yam what I yam. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.
Dr. Boyd’s paradigm-busting insights come from her investigations into our brains’ neurophysiology, if you will, from the functioning of our nervous systems. It’s this work that's shown her how and why the structure and function of our brains aren’t fixed, why real learning isn’t actually about the absorption of “new knowledge,” and how, like our brains, our identities are not fixed and unchangeable. Popeye’s mantra shouldn’t be I yam what I yam. Rather, given the new insights and ideas Lara's neuroplasticity research is bringing us, Popeye ought to be saying,  I yam what I yam wanting to be.
At this point, you're probably asking yourself, “Well, what do you want me to do with all this?” Three possibilities come to mind:

  • Our first suggestion would be for you to listen to Dr. Boyd’s talk. More than once, in fact. The adventurous, paradigm-busting meaning of Dr. Boyd’s talk creeps up on you, a little bit at a time. Let the implications of this talk sneak up on you.
  • Our second suggestion would see you spending time talking with a good friend, trying to make some personal sense out of Dr. Boyd’s idea that, in the very near future, all effective adult learning programs will be immersing you in three separate, very explicit neurobiological activities:
    • Changing the nature of the chemical signals that are moving between the neurons in your brain.
    • Catalyzing new neuronal connections found in your short-term memory's key neurological networks.
    • Reorganizing the structure and function of chemical and electrical activity going on in specific regions of your brain.
  • Our third suggestion? If any of this interests you, contact us. We’re putting together a small group of like-minded thought partners who want to begin exploring what and how this new science of neuroplasticity can help us. Let us know what you’re thinking. 

Developing a Learning Partnership

Sell your cleverness, buy bewilderment.

The 13th Century Persian scholar, Rumi, wrote the short poem you see just above. It’s one of his more mystical exhortations. Type this sentence into Google, and you’ll immediately discover the rich, rewarding world of interpretations and perspectives that Rumi's entreaty evokes. 

Here, in this blog on developing a learning partnership, we’re sharing Rumi’s advice with you as a way for you to frame and expand the insights that Etienne Wenger is offering in the YouTube video I’ve posted. Dr. Wenger is one of the world’s foremost authorities on learning partnerships, especially professional communities of practice. And here, with Brantlee Underhill, he’s showing us how a learning partnership can be a real boon for any learning efforts, given how important it is to have both a "place for engagement" and a clearly defined "learning community" during any learning adventure.

In this context, Dr. Wenger is well worth listening to because, in a few short minutes, he highlights three or four of the more important issues involved in the development of a learning partnership. I’ve add Rumi’s admonition at the beginning of this post as a frame that rounds out, deepens, and enriches the sense and feel of Wenger's insights.

For me, Rumi’s phrase, “Sell your cleverness,” suggests that authentic learning is something that can never be completely realized through the simple acquisition of new information. Rather, authentic learning flourishes in the real world only when we relax our concern with facts and figures and allow ourselves to "Buy the bewilderment" that’s always part of every authentic learning experience. To truly learn anything, we need to be willing to struggle with the new realities that confound us until, out of this struggle, we find a way to fashion new ways of perceiving what we’ve been struggling with. This is the kind of emotional breadth and depth that contemplating Rumi’s short poem adds to the story Dr. Wenger is telling when, in the video above, he suggests that effective learning happens for us when, in the presence of others whom we trust, we are courageous enough to “bring our questions and our challenges” open heartedly into a community of practice that we’ve learned to trust. A “community of practice that, here at TLO, we're calling a "learning partnership." There’s much more we can say about all this.