Update #2: July 10

Top 10 Questions, Critiques, and Commentaries on Experiential Learning

“Some feel about experiential education the way Hemingway felt about making love:

Don’t talk about it, you’ll only ruin the experience”

(Nold, cited in Warren et al., 1995, p. 113)

I have discovered through many recent conversations that people are both passionate about – and profoundly confounded by – the concept of “experiential learning.” My observation is that this is often because those who do it (teach it, facilitate it, enjoy it, support it)recognize that in the doing of experiential learning, there exists a mélange of practical wisdom, intuitive knowing, understanding beyond the confines of words, and sometimes even a touch of transcendence. Perhaps the source of frustration in defining, talking and writing about it, then, originates in the perspective that the whole point of experiential education is to – if only briefly – escape the nasty confines of the academy and breathe a little life into concepts and ideas. Universalizing definitions can therefore impose a false sense of epistemological control, thereby feeding the illusion that all things can and must be categorized – even those educational phenomena that are intentionally designed to be beyond words (or at least in an unconventional relationship with them). Perhaps terminology fails us here because experience was never meant to be reduced to a definition.

…And yet…How can we have a meaningful conversation about a concept if we don’t define our boundaries and generate some common language?

And so begins the journey down the fascinating, frustrating, and yet seductive rabbit hole of experiential learning. Below are some highlights of my conversations with various UBC staff, faculty, and students over the past three months. Many of you will probably hear yourselves in these quotes (which, by the way, I have left unattributed to the speaker[s]). In most cases, I have heard a slightly variable version of similar commentary from multiple people. (*Spoiler Alert: I am not about to respond to or answer any of these questions/critiques in this post. If I focus my career as an academic on one of these questions or commentaries [which is probable], I may be able to provide a substantive contribution in about 12 years):

Top 10 Questions, Critiques, and Commentaries on Experiential Learning

1 “What IS experiential learning and what is it not? If it includes everything, then it means nothing. How can we have a meaningful conversation about experiential learning without creating and standing by a definition?”
2 “How can we have a meaningful definition of experiential learning when it looks so different across the disciplines and contexts?”
3 “Imagination is an experience. So can’t you engage in experiential learning just through daydreaming or storytelling?”
4 “The field of experiential learning gives the impression that Dewey and Kolb were somehow the first or brightest people to consider how experience affects learning. Is it because they’re the smartest or the most knowledgeable about experiential learning? Doubtful. What’s more likely is that as White, Western scholars, their voices were privileged over and above others.’ There are plenty of educative experiences that refuse to be ‘Kolbified’”
5 “The whole premise of experiential learning is flawed because it somehow assumes a segregation between ‘the classroom’ and ‘the world’/’the community’/’the environment.’”
6 “How can you separate experience from learning?! Every form of learning is an experience, including lectures, reading, and writing. Even falling down the stairs is an experience you learn from.”
7 “If experiential learning is truly the high impact practice that research says it is, then we are leaving some students behind if we don’t support all interested students to participate – especially those who can’t afford it”
8 “What makes something experiential in a given discipline is whether and how it prepares students for following the career path of that discipline. Experiential learning for a philosophy student might involve thinking and discussing ideas, whereas experiential learning for an engineering student may involve building an automobile. It all depends on the discipline’s culture and professional trajectory”
9 “But how can you possibly do experiential learning with a class of 150 students?”
10 “Everyone thinks they’re an expert in experiential learning is because there’s something about it that feels intuitive. People know what experience is, and they know what learning is, so they assume they know what experiential learning is.”

*A quick post-script to say thank you to those of you who have taken the time to chat with me and broaden my thinking about this project. We can only strengthen our support of experiential learning if we understand how people think about it and are challenged by it. Please feel free to leave comments here or contact me directly at kari.grain@ubc.ca.

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