Education Futures 5: There’s No Substitute for the Right Experience
Many would argue that hands-on, experiential learning is the ideal way to help people acquire new knowledge and skills. It’s certainly how most of us have obtained much of the valuable knowledge we use daily. And, it seems particularly valuable as we look at teaching the skills and literacies required for the modern workforce.
In this podcast, I explore the potential of experiential learning as well as the challenges it can present. I also discuss briefly a new initiative at TEL to provide openly licensed experiential learning curriculum for general education courses.
Education Futures Episode 5: There's No Substitute for the Right Ingredients
Anyone who’s ever tried to learn another language or lived in another culture likely has a funny experience to share. These experiences often feature unfortunate word choices or cultural misidentification. Another common element to such experiences is getting in over your head because you don’t want to admit you didn’t understand something.
Such was the case of an American named Steve who I met while living in Argentina.
Steve’s wife sent him to the bakery one afternoon to buy several items for a small dinner party they were hosting that evening. One of the items on the list was eight dinner rolls.
While standing in line, Steve realized that the women in front of him were ordering everything by weight. Now, he had no idea how much a dinner roll weighed and definitely not using the metric system. So, he began listening carefully to the orders others were making. He noticed that one woman ordered four rolls and it sounded like she had asked for 500 grams. He decided he needed eight rolls and when it was his turn to order, he asked for two kilograms of rolls.
Now, for those of you without calculators handy, a kilogram is the same as 2.2 pounds. That means that Steve ordered 4.4 pounds of rolls.
As the woman taking his order filled his bag to the brim with dinner rolls, he pondered which would be more embarrassing for him — explaining to the woman helping him that he was obviously neither proficient in Spanish nor the metric system, or explaining to his wife that he would rather look like an idiot to her than admit his ignorance to the woman at the bakery.
Not the best of choices, certainly. For the inquiring minds out there, Steve decided to keep his dignity with the people at the bakery and admit to his wife, not for the first time, that he was not quite as competent as he tended to let on.
To be completely fair here, I should probably include a story about one of my own language snafus. This one occurred while I was leading a study abroad program in Brazil. As context, I should explain that, while fluent in Spanish, my Portuguese suffered many gaps. One of these gaps led to this particular funny experience (and by funny, I mean it made us all laugh at my expense).
We were traveling by bus to a coastal rain forest area. We had been on the road for about an hour when one of the students announced that they were having gastrointestinal difficulties and needed to make a stop at the nearest restroom. Dutifully, I made my way to the front of the bus and spoke to the driver. In my best Portuguese, I explained that we needed to stop at the next service station. “One of the students is having a small emergency,” I said, trying to be as polite as possible about the situation.
The driver told me there was a service station about 10 kilometers down the road. We arrived shortly and he asked me if the student needed help. I explained that no help was necessary and told the student to hurry up so that we could get back on the road.
A minute later, I noticed the driver leaving the bus to talk to someone. When he returned, he said, “Everything’s under control. Medical help should be here soon.”
“Medical help?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “You know, a doctor.”
“But why is a doctor coming?”
“Your student is very sick.”
“Very sick?” I said I’m sure with a confused look. “He just needed to use the restroom.”
“But he was shouting and groaning and wouldn’t stop to answer the attendants’ questions,” the driver said. “They were worried. Normally they would do an evaluation before calling for medical help but it really did seem to be an emergency.”
All of a sudden, I realized that somehow, somewhere, we had taken a language detour into the twilight zone.
I looked out the window at the place where we had stopped. The “service station.” I noticed that there were no gas tanks or other visible signs of being a place to service a vehicle.
“Where are we?” I said.
“At the service station,” he said.
And that’s when I noticed the sign in front of the building, the one with a first aid symbol.
Obviously, the words service station had one meaning for me but a very different one for the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians.
The good news is that, in the end, everyone had a good laugh at my expense, especially the doctor who arrived right about then. Of course, the student who had gone to use the bathroom was a little confused when he exited the building and saw an ambulance and a doctor waiting for him.
“Who’s sick?” he said.
What’s most interesting about these two language experiences isn’t the awkward predicament experienced by the respective protagonists. What makes them noteworthy is that both served as valuable learning experiences.
Steve’s experience motivated him to sharpen his listening comprehension skills and master the metric system. Meanwhile, I learned a valuable linguistics lesson about not making assumptions regarding the shared meaning of words, particularly if you are not fluent in both languages and cultures.
And, we did more than simply learn from our experiences. I can assure you that both Steve and I put our newfound knowledge to good use and worked hard to never repeat our mistakes.
In terms of learning theory, these experiences and their outcomes align nicely with the ideas about experiential learning that David Kolb put forth in the 1970s. Kolb quantified the processes and requirements around what many had long understood intuitively — that learning through experience or “doing” leads to greater participation and relevance and offers a higher likelihood of concept mastery.
More specifically, Kolb identified four abilities that learners must possess in order to gain genuine knowledge from an experience.
- Learners need to be able to be actively involved in the experience
- Learners need to be able to reflect on their experience
- Learners need to possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience
- Learners need to possess decision making and problem-solving skills in order to use new ideas gained from the experience.
Looking back at the language experiences I described, it’s easy to see these four abilities at play. Steve and I were actively involved in the experience; we were motivated to reflect on the significance of what was happening; we were required to analyze and conceptualize the experience; and we were able to use the new knowledge aquired through the experience.
Not surprisingly, many would argue that this type of hands-on, experiential learning is the ideal way to help people acquire new knowledge and skills. It’s certainly how most of us have obtained much of the valuable knowledge we use daily. And, it seems particularly valuable as we look at teaching the skills and literacies required for the modern workforce.
There are a number of challenges with operationalizing this approach, however. Experiential learning is necessarily messy. It pushes us with a centrifugal force beyond the neat confines of the classroom. It also requires additional planning and it makes us rethink how we evaluate student progress. Finally, it necessitates that we move beneath the comfortable and quantifiable surface of informational processing into the less predictable murkiness of reflection.
In other words, while incredibly valuable, experiential learning is challenging to design or organize in a formal educational environment.
At TEL, we understand these difficulties but we also believe that experiential learning is fundamental to addressing 21st-century education needs. To that end, we’ve begun work on an aggressive design project to provide a library of openly licensed experiential learning components for our online general education courses. Equally important, these components will be aligned to specific topics and learning outcomes, which should make them easy for anyone to use regardless of their specific curriculum. To further broaden their potential impact, we are designing these modules so that they can be used in blended environments with face-to-face facilitators, as well as in self-paced online learning.
As we work with school partners to develop our initial set of modules, I look forward to the unplanned experiential messiness we are likely to encounter. Hopefully, it will lead to deep reflection, critical analysis, and to meaningful knowledge and design that we can pass on to others.
Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library