How do we learn? For Confucious, the explanation was simple: I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. The simplicity and relevance of Confucious’ words still resonate in learning environments around the world, particularly in the context of education for the under 16s. The process of ‘learning through doing’ is well-acknowledged as an optimal learning strategy mainly because the learner is engaged in concrete activities. This means using tangible objects as part of moving, tasting, holding, weighing, sorting, designing, feeling, building, creating, and so much more. This ‘learning through doing’ creates a real experience and this serves as a springboard for vocabulary development, collaboration, self-reflection, social justice, and builds on our knowledge of the world around us. If we can talk to others about our thoughts and ideas, we develop those all-important socio-emotional skills that are key to our success at school and in life in general.
Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget argued that children develop abstract reasoning skills as part of their last stage of development, known as the formal operational stage. This stage occurs between the ages of 11 and 16 years. For young students, unless they are academically advanced, regularly working with abstract activities is incredibly challenging and therefore, not developmentally appropriate. This means that if learning is only mental, conceptual understandings can be lost, leaving only surface-level learning. This type of ‘learning’ is that which is easily forgotten and does not engage with critical thinking processes, does not pose opportunities for creative applications, and is certainly not transferable. This is the type of learning that we traditionally consider ‘rote learning’, or learning from a textbook/worksheet. Sometimes, admittedly, you just have to learn your times tables, or a spelling pattern, but this kind of ‘remembering activity’ should not be the sum total of your educational experience in any school discipline.
Experiential learning is a key component in everything we do because we know that this is critical if we want our students to really inquire about the world around them. From the two diagrams below, you can see how the experiential learning cycle starts with a concrete learning experience.´
“Experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking.” Kolb (1994)
Some may wonder why students might be cooking in a Math lesson, or how building using wooden blocks helps to understand story settings, or why making a physical book using sewing techniques explains a writing process, or that wearing a heart rate monitor in PSPE lessons helps to inform a Science lesson? Maybe students go out into the field to experience a skill for themselves, observe an expert, or learn content knowledge first-hand? These concrete experiences with continuous reflection provide the springboard for application and active experimentation.
First-hand experiences are examples of how teachers engineer the learning so that through reflection, observation and discussion, students build their conceptual understandings, using the skills and knowledge of a variety of disciplines. The real understanding occurs when students apply and transfer their learning to an original and personal design, providing justification and reasoning for doing so.