This model reveals and validates the logic of the educational process. Figuratively speaking, it is the ‘kitchen’ of non-formal learning in youth work and training and frequently revelation of this models helps learners to come to an understanding. It becomes clearer to everyone in what we engage and why our attitude as trainers is namely like this. I want to stress that there are no theoretical models that are more significant or right, but this one is one of the main models I am following as a trainer when building an educational process.
Why did I choose this tool?
I chose this model because I have tested it in multiple educative contexts. It works, helps, educates and empowers.
Experiential learning is the main form of youth work and training that we use. In order to develop young people’s independence, creativity, participation, citizenship and other important qualities we have to ‘let them try’. They must try their luck, to experience failure, try to find answers and learn life lessons that will be applied in THEIR everyday activities. The experiential method allows us to work not only with young people’s knowledge, but also with their skills and attitudes within the context of the surrounding environment and their participation in society.
Why learning through experience?
The main feature of experiential learning is that the learner is not treated as an object for teaching or instructing, but rather a learning subject. In other words, the teaching is not considered as help from the informed to the uninformed. The experiential learning is considered as a cooperation between a teacher and a learner in an attempt to enhance individual learning, encourage personal discoveries and conclusions. Trainers here are mostly responsible for the organization of the teaching process and the learning conditions, while the participants are mostly responsible for the learning results and their own discoveries and final conclusions. However, both organizers and learners influence the learning process and its results. Meanwhile, more traditional teaching (giving instructions) works better in situations where the learning content is more objective and unambiguous, where ‘this and no other way’ answers are possible. In a case when the learning object is subjective (e.g. conflict solving), the experiential methodology works better and allows finding answers through one’s own specific experience. Participants act in the ‘here and now’ context, understanding and defining phenomena in their own words since there is almost no objective content in learning conflict solution skills. There is no model, which would explain how to solve conflicts in a right way. But even if we had one universally acknowledged pattern of solving conflicts, the way in which each person will implement it will still remain very individual. It means that each person has to find a way of solving conflicts that is most suitable to him or her.
So what is experiential learning?
Experiential learning is a process, in which participants acquire knowledge and skills through certain experiences, and later on are able to use them in everyday activities. It is important to mention that experiential learning is not only based on various methods that are used for the purpose of learning. Experience-based methods are one (but not the only one) of the sources of experiential learning. Each young person has a lot of authentic life experience that can be discussed (reflected on) and used for learning. Therefore a young person’s experience is one more source of learning and it can be used for educative purposes.
Presence and interaction in a group is also a powerful experience and is often used in pursuing learning goals. Experiencing group processes – forming, storming, norming, performing and un-forming – provides lots of material for discussion and allows making valuable decisions, which can be used in a young person’s social life.
Frequently, while working with youth groups we employ all three sources of experiential learning, we use them in variation and look for connections between them. We have to keep in mind that the goal of experiential learning is to apply derived conclusions in a young person’s real life.
When working in an experiential manner, the learning results are unique every time, because they are obtained based on the experience of a specific group of people, i.e. each group and each person learns what is most relevant at that moment. The knowledge acquired during the programme is not academic, and specific results are not projected in advance.
Experiential learning is the oldest means of learning and it is the closest to human nature. Learning occurs through personal discoveries, not through instructions. The experiential method enhances basic competences: independence, responsibility for one’s own learning results, interpersonal competences. The greatest attention is paid to the learner’s experience here and now, therefore learning is particular.
We will discuss four main steps or stages of the experiential method:
1. Active experience
In trainings we often use active tasks, which help to create an educative experience. Given tasks are often active, unusual and contain challenging elements. Such tasks help us to recognize the peculiarities of our own behavior, encourage creativity, initiative and cooperation and reveal new powers. Active tasks require active involvement from the participants. Cooperation, care for others, confidence in self and others, sharing functions and much more is experienced through doing a task. Unusual tasks create a context where participants can see themselves, their relationships and cooperation with others in a different light. We often organize an experience in nature, where we create a certain unusual setting: sometimes we work in silence, other times blindfolded, etc. Tasks with challenging elements intensify the experiences. It allows the participants to clearly realize their possibilities and the peculiarities of cooperation and interrelations.
2. Discussion on acquired experience. Reflection
Many of us know the word reflection. But, it can be perceived in different ways, and the reflection itself can happen differently. We want to share our perception and provide several steps to illustrate how we do it. We use reflection as a tool, which allows raising awareness. To us, reflection is an essential part of experiential learning.
Possible stages of conducting a period of reflection:
a) Emotional reactions.
We invite people to voice reactions, states of mind – how participants (learners) experienced a specific experience. We ask how they feel when everything is over. In this stage, it is important to make sure that participants will voice their thoughts, but it is equally important not to allow discussion or arguments. There are no ‘wrong’ responses. Every emotion experienced is real and extremely valuable; it is important to hear them and try to understand. We have noticed that sometimes participants find it hard to name certain emotions. Frequently the question “How did you feel or what emotions did you have?” is answered with “We felt ok, everything is fine”. There are no “ok emotions”. All emotions are grouped into two major groups – positive and negative. Perception and naming of their own emotions is not an easy process for the participants, it is a separate competence (emotional intellect) that has to be trained. In this stage, it is important to get the participants to describe their emotions, as precisely as possible, since they are the best indicators of a specific experience, but you should not ‘overdo’ it, since the participants might not yet be ready for this challenge.
Note: if the participants cannot name their emotions precisely, ask them a question: “Were the emotions more positive or negative?” This question can help find a ‘hook’ for knowing more specific emotions.
A possible method: if a group continuously finds it hard to name specific emotions, you can give them a task to search and make a list of emotions, which can later on be used in discussions.
b) Debriefing of process. Situation reconstruction – how things went.
We usually invite everyone to share their ‘story’. Here it is important to listen and HEAR, without trying to argue or discuss. If you succeed, it often becomes a strong learning/educative moment, because people have heard ‘other people’s truths’, and by sharing different perspectives they develop sensitivity and enrich one another.
The task of youth workers is to help people realize which one of their and other people’s actions evoked these particular emotional reactions. It doesn’t matter if they are a success or a failure, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ experiences.
Steps a. and b. can be interchanged depending on the type of activity, intensity of experience and educative purposes.
Note: if you have doubts about how people felt or feel (step 1) – ask! It really helps!
Our efforts should be directed so that people can see the consequences of their behaviour and actions (what did I do, how did I and others act that made me react in that way, at that time?) (at the time/at that moment).
3. Conclusions about the relationship between acquired experience and life situation
In this step, a space is created for participants to make conclusions, insights, lessons, discoveries, understandings and recommendations. It can be done individually. Inviting people to reflect and write down the most important things is very helpful. It is not obligatory to share all insights and discoveries with the group. Yet from our experience we know that when participants do share them, it enriches everybody.
It is very useful to relate the experience with real-life situations. The behavior of group participants is further developed according to a specific experience. For example, “I have doubts when faced with an unfamiliar thing or phenomenon in real life as well”, “In real life, I am afraid of taking responsibility. If you notice this, please tell me…”
4. Applying conclusions in real life
This step does not necessarily have to happen at once. Sometimes it takes time to be with one’s own experience and conclusions, ‘sleep on them’ or at least ‘digest them’. Sometimes it is useful to postpone the 3rd step, especially when the experience is very intense and emotionally charged. It depends on many things: whether the group will be together for a short period of time or long-time; what stage of group dynamics you are in; what educative goals you have in mind etc. Yet again, from our own experience, we know that it is useful to ask people – what happens next? How will we live further? And what will we do next with our conclusions and understandings? Development and empowerment of awareness is a process, which requires time and certain guidance.
Usually, participants firstly apply their conclusions in further educative activity in order to make sure that they ‘work’, and then later in real life according to a scheduled plan. When we say ‘in real life’ we mean outside educative activities, i.e. in a different setting, different social contexts. Educative programmes are still frequently highly structured and therefore experience is acquired in artificial situations. Even professional trainers, who often create a certain hothouse atmosphere for the group, cannot always mirror the reality where life can be much harder.
If the occasion arises, experiential learning can happen by asking young people questions about their acquired life experience, by discussing it, making conclusions and trying to apply them.
Principles and mistakes
While using the method of learning from experience it is important to consider several practical principles:
- In experiential learning, a non-directive, open relationship between the leader and the learners is important.
- Experiential learning is learning from personal experience, and most importantly – learning by acting, not by theorizing.
- In experience-based programmes, the leader lives through an experience together, and beside the participant. Together; because he demonstrates equal relationship and carries out long-term tasks together with the participant. Beside; because he respects the subjective nature of a participant’s experience and helps the individual make sense of it.
- Work should be based on mutual agreements; mutually accepted conditions of being together have to be defined.
Practical mistakes often occur when the method of experiential learning is applied in practice. It is important to pay attention to each of the possible dangers discussed below.
For the trainers:
- Poor preparation and competence. The leader of an experiential learning programme has to have technical as well as pedagogic preparation. It is also important that the leader himself has carried out the tasks that he gives to the participants.
- Attachment to results instead of openness towards them. In programmes of experiential learning, it is important to define what the learning will be about, but you should not define ‘what will be learnt’.
- Manipulation or the use of experiential learning for ‘illustrating’ what needs to be learnt.
- Hidden goals and formal not open communication between • the leader and the participants.
- Absolution of experience or work forms. It is frequently thought that the most important thing in experiential learning is exercises and various attractive forms of experience, but the manner of working with numerous forms of experience is of no less importance.
- Distancing from the group. Since the leader has to allow a lot of freedom and give responsibility to the learners during the application of the experiential learning method, there might be a danger of excessive distancing from the group. It is important to avoid it, since the group constantly needs support, consulting, discussions, etc.
- Excessive care and structuring. You should not overdo taking care of the group, because then the experience becomes meaningless.
For the participants:
- Overrating the importance of the circumstances and/or the leader. Participants often think that changes can only be achieved by a change in circumstances or by the leader, group, etc., while every change is also the result of personal efforts and abilities.
- Seeing and valuing others instead of yourself. Participants often tend to firstly value and talk about others, but not about their own behaviour; they firstly expect changes in others rather than in themselves.
- Impatience in the process of looking for answers and conclusions
- Depreciation of his own opinions, feelings, observations in communication with the group or the leader.
How comfortable you feel while building an educational process on active experiencing? Why?
How competent you feel in running an in-depth reflection after an experience you gave to your learners? What do you need to improve to be better in this?
Experiential learning activities actually are longer and can be at the end of each session or the day. It can be used as a reflection group by the end of each day or the training in general. It can be marked as a treasure hunt game at the very beginning of the training and can be used as a team building activity, cooperation, social cohesion and experiential learning about the participants and/or environment (these depends of the tasks given for the treasure hunt)
But most important things or questions to highlight are:
– Link the training activities to the real world in general or everyday life`s happenings
– Actively engage through the process
– Build conviction that individual behavior matters
– Provide a short debrief as a trainer, but allow other participants to make statements too, to help the process and feel the support to each other