Learning from Experience and Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning is the old hot thing. Not only everyone likes the idea - that learning should happen from practical life - it has a great pedigree in education theory. The new formula of competency-based learning, that learning should focus on useful competencies required at work, takes this idea further, and tightly weave all learning around experience, making all else superfluous. However, while this has become the new orthodoxy, one limitation of this conception is how to fit this into a rapidly changing world. When everything changes, and today's competencies may not translate into any future advantage, one would wonder whether experiential learning is enough. Besides, one ought to ask how to approach learning when change happens in our life and work so rapidly.

The answer may lie in learning from experience. I use the term in the classical sense, as used by Dewey, and as opposed to the idea of experiential learning. Dewey himself contrasted his idea of 'experience' with the conventional use of the term later in his life, and pointed out five important differences. It is worth revisiting them in the context of our very real problem whether experience can be a guide to our future action when the realities are ever-changing.

First, Dewey used the term 'experience' as a way of being (living one's life) rather than as an event which produces knowledge, which is how we see experience. So, learning from experience, in this sense, includes looking, feeling, sensing, being - not only knowing! It does not also mean to have to choose experiences which teach something and rejecting others which don't, but rather engaging with the world with an open mind and a spirit of inquiry. The pragmatists' project, which Dewey was advancing, was not to submit to any grand theories (as fashionable then - Marxism etc - or as we do it now, seeing the world through our religious denominations) but to treat experience of life and being as the origin of all knowing. It is the spirit of inquiry and openness in Dewey's project that turns lived life as a source of learning, with emotions confronting experiences and turning them into memorable events and a source of reflection and reference at a future time. In that sense, a sense of engagement with one's world is absolutely essential in this project, rather than looking out first whether there is any learning in it. 

Second, experience is conventionally understood as an inner mental process, subjective and private, whereas Dewey, and for that matter all pragmatists, wouldn't draw a distinction between the objective world and action and the subjective experience. When we treat experience as engagement, experience is a deeply a social process, indistinguishable from action and very much part of it. Experiencing is not just about reflection (and writing reflective pieces for academic credit) but participating and acting, because only by acting one could gain the 'experience', that of living and being.

Third, this follows from the two preceding ideas of experience as a way of being and as indistinguishable from action, that Dewey's conception of experience is not the something that happened in the past. Engagement and action rather than recollection is at the root of this scheme - as 'we live forward' - and experience is about being a sentient and sensitive being, fully engaged in social world and being committed to action and change. 

Fourth, 'experience' in conventional sense is conceptualised as isolated and special events, whereas Dewey would see experience as connected and continuous, as a way of being should be. It is the continuous nature of experience - made possible by the subject, the person, as the central and engaged part of the experience - that allows one to 'be' rather than just to 'learn'. 

Finally, experience in the conventional sense, an event outside our minds, is seen as beyond reasoning, whereas in Dewey's scheme, where experience is not outside one's being, no experience happens without reasoning and engagement. It is the forward-thinking all pervasive reasoning that turns life into a source of learning and knowledge, and human beings into engaged, sentient, alert beings.

This stands in contrast with the conventional uses of 'experiential learning' which projects experience as discreet, specially designated events, which must end with 'what did you learn' discussions. The implicit idea is that such past events, analysed with reasoning as existed in the past, can remain frozen in a person's mind, objectively and disconnected from all emotions and ways of being, as a source of reference for future situations. This, in many ways, imply a different sense of learning - 'a bucket to be filled' - rather than Dewey's project of making engaged individuals - 'a fire to be lit'. And, this difference perhaps become central as we approach, if the claims are to be believed, a discontinuous point in our history, an age of unprecedented globalisation and automation, when we enter a new age of the machines and have to rediscover our 'competencies to live' all over again. 


See Also: Bente Elkjaer, When Learning Goes To Work: A Pragmatist Gaze At Working Life Learning.


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