Experiential learning

What I appreciated most about this week’s readings and videos was the opportunity to learn more about the theoretical underpinnings of instructional methods and strategies that I have used for years as an adult educator and trainer. According to the five perspectives on experiential learning outlined in Merriam, Caffarella,and Baumgartner (2007), much of my practice has drawn on the constructivist and situative perspectives (p. 160). In the constructivist approach, “people have concrete experiences; they reflect on them and construct new knowledge as a result of these reflections (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 160).” In the situative approach, learning happens not in the learner’s head but in the situation itself, for example in communities of practice (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 160).

As an instructional designer, teacher, and facilitator, I have learned that eliciting learners’ experiences and helping them to reflect, build on, and learn from them leads to effective learning – the constructivist approach. One recent example from a training that I designed for village health workers (VHWs) in Africa and Haiti: before VHWs learned the details of weighing and measuring babies, detecting cases of severe malnutrition in children, and referring children to the clinic, they discussed their experiences with nutrition and malnutrition in the communities where they worked, their thoughts on its causes, and how they might approach families based on previous experiences. The facilitator’s role here was to “…encourage learners to discuss and reflect on concrete experiences in an open and trusting environment (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 169).”

I have also participated in a few communities of practice over the years, particularly when I was working as an adult ESOL and literacy instructor and program director. As the director of a team of teachers in a labor/management workplace education program, I created our own community of practice. We shared best practices, challenges, and materials in structured sessions during our team meetings. This is how we built some of our best work. In this practice we followed Kolb’s reflective cycle, described in this week’s video “The 3 minute Kolb.” We had concrete experiences (trying out particular strategies in the classroom), then we engaged in reflective observation during structured sharing sessions, then we engaged in abstract conceptualization about the strategies or methods, and finally we did “active experimentation” where we went back to the classroom to revise or try new methods. This was “reflection on action,” where practitioners “…consciously return to the experiences that we have had, reevaluate these experiences, decide what we could do differently, and then try out whatever we decided to do differently (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 175).”

Early in my career I was very influenced by Paulo Freire’s work, and it was helpful to learn in this week’s reading that his pedagogy falls in the “critical culltural perspective” within experiential learning (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 168), where learners critically examine problems and identify collective actions to address those problems and promote social change.As an ESOL and literacy teacher, I regularly tried to build problem-posing into my instruction, particularly when I worked at a labor/management education program. I appreciated reading about Mezirow this week as well. While I have studied and deliberately followed Friere’s pedagogy at times. I had not known about Mezirow until enrolling in the ID Program. I can see his influence in my teaching and instructional design, particularly in his emphasis on critical reflection: “…just having the experience is not enough. The learner must critically self-examine the assumptions and beliefs that have structured how the experience has been interpreted (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 134).” I have tried to build such critical examination into my work, particularly by asking “why” something is the way it is – digging down to causes and assumptions about the way things work (Freire promotes critical reflection as well, not just at the individual but the societal/systems level.)

I also appreciated the critiques of transformative learning. In particular: “Both Freire and Mezirow  have been criticized for romanticizing the social change process. Both educators start with the oppressed or the person trapped within a culturally induced dependency role, and both require these victims to liberate themselves, albeit with the help of the dialogic or transformative educator (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 154).” I have reflected on this myself over the years, even noting years ago that in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he sees learners somewhat as “blank slates” who have never before examined their reality critically and must be helped to do so. I also appreciated the question raised by Merriam et al. (2007), “…what right do adult educators have to tamper with the worldview (mental set, perspective, paradigm, or state of consciousness) of the learner?”  And “What is the educator’s responsibility for the action component of praxis? (p. 154).” I found that it made most sense to engage learners in problem-posing and identifying concrete action for change when I worked as an educator within organizations that had as their mandate social change and organizing. Educators working in settings without that type of “backing” must tread carefully. We must also be aware that learners may 1) have a more developed critical analysis that the instructor; and 2) may have no desire to engage in either personal or collective action leading to social (or personal) change.

I found the article “Impact of Experiential Learning on Cognitive Outcome in Technology and Engineering Teacher Preparation” a useful example of research on the effectiveness of experimental learning, in particular the research finding that learners benefited from organized experiential learning, and that “…no independent active or experiential approach is singularly superior, and in fact the approach could be significantly enhanced by instructional styles and learner receptiveness to teacher personality (Ernst, 2013, p. 39).” It is always interesting to see how the ideal comes real and is measured in some concrete way!

Experiential learning

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