The Limits of Experiential Learning

Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch.

But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. 

Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.

Learning from Experience is about learning from life, animating our day to day existence, enhancing our observation of and engagement with the world and the people around us. It benefits us not just through learning and ability to apply it later or elsewhere, but immediately, making us curious of everything, humble in our engagements and connected with the world. 

Experiential Learning, which is an idea that grew out of this ideal, however, works with defined and delineated 'experiences'. Experience, as in our way of existence, is quite different from the experiences of experiential learning, which are designed and controlled exposure with a mandate to learn from. While such engagement may be a departure from learning from texts, the canned experiences are different from the freedom and the possibilities of just being ourselves. It is an idea designed for the world that wants to assess, measure and value learning, and socially control what we learn. 

Project-based Learning takes that one step further, building it on a framework of time- and motion studies, within the paradigm of scientific management. The encapsulated 'projects', with defined outputs, timespans and accountability, sponsored usually by a commercial employer, materialise the grand ambitions of Experiential Learning, by defining the outcome and creating workable methods to assess and measure, but, at the same time, it stands on the alienation from our day-to-day being. Indeed, the value conflicts are usually resolved in the reverse - consider life as a project, learners are told - and the emphasis makes the project, that one fragment of experience, as the real thing at the expense of life before or outside that managed existence.

Arguably, Project-Based Learning is effective in mastering skills, as it focuses our minds on application. It allows us to build our identity in terms of practice, making us work with our hands and creating accountability to broader groups. But, it is hardly everything and the answer to all that education has to do. At its heart is the key problem that the modern businesses are still grappling with - we pay a person for a certain number of hours, but it is the whole person that comes to work! How do we resolve the conflict of roles defined by the structure of the organisation and the belongingness and integrity that we declare we want in everyone. PBL teaches a system, and ways of mastering a system, which may indeed make people professionally successful as they start their career, but not what would make them resilient and engaged, better as people and citizens.

That we now claim that Project-based Learning is the solution to everything is the typical overreach of a fad, that makes it lose its meaning and fall out of favour. The great philosopher of learning from experience, John Dewey, regretted towards the end of his life that he used the word 'experience' as it is easily misunderstood, and the way artificially constructed 'learning experiences' undermined the ideal of learning from being ourselves. This message is now lost in our celebration of the new-found panacea, and cosideration of what Experiential Learning can and can not do would restore some sense in our conversation.


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