Experiential learning

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Written by Abeya El Bakry


The concept of experiential learning is related to the perception that ‘learning is a central lifelong task essential for personal development and career success’ necessary as an individual undertaking development to meet the demands of a ‘future learning society’ where knowledge is increasing at ‘a dizzying rate of change’ (Kolb 1984 pp.2-3).

In the context of professional development, the experiential learning ‘model pursues a framework for examining and strengthening the critical linkages among education, work, and personal development’ so that an individual experience becomes a resource from which individuals can draw to develop and to grasp the changes taking place in a number of physical contexts.

The ‘intellectual origins’ of David Kolb’s ‘experiential learning theory’ is the work of Dewey, Lewin and Piaget. ‘Experiential’ here is defined to ‘emphasize the central role that experience plays in the learning process’ and to differentiate ‘experiential learning theory from rationalist and other cognitive theories of learning that tend to give primary emphasis to acquisition, manipulation, and recall of abstract symbols, and from behavioral learning theories that deny any role for consciousness and subjective experience in the learning process’ (Kolb 1984 p.20).

The theory of experiential learning which Kolb formulates is based on the interaction between the individual as learner, the experience through which he learns, and the context which is affected by his learning after the insight gleaned from the experience he has gone through.

This process is formulated through three stages:

The organisation process of the learning experience

This is based on the ‘organisation’ of knowledge obtained from direct experience to be applied on the actors of the experiences so that they ‘learn’ from their experience. This perception of the relationship between knowledge and learners as actors in an experience, is drawn from action research and laboratory methods as it is formulated by Lewin. In this situation, the concrete experience is considered the subject of study, from which the researcher collects data through observation notes, and after the analysis of the information, proceeds to inform the actors of the experience about their experience so they may understand it.


The ‘developmental’ model of learning based on Dewey focuses on the interception of the action between the ‘blind impulse of desire’ and what should become a ‘mature’ sense of action based on ‘informed choice in which the learner-individual considers his/ her actions on the basis of 1) observation of surroundings 2) knowledge of what has previously happened in the past … 3) judgement, which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify’ (Kolb quoting Dewey 1939 p.69).

Thus, ‘purpose’ according to Dewey ‘differs from an original impulse or desire through its translation into a plan and method of action based upon foresight of the consequences of action under given observed conditions in a certain way’ (Kolb quoting Dewey 1939 p.69)

Accommodation-assimilation concept

The stages in the development of learning, in the adult stage, progress from the earlier stages from infancy to adolescence. According to Piaget, the stages of child development are classified by age from 0-2 years (the sensory-motor stage), 2-6 years (concrete re-orientation to reflective development stage), 7 -11 years (abstract symbolism stage) and 12 – 15 years (cognitive development stage).

These ages signify the development of the human learning capacity from the ‘concrete to abstract and from active to reflective’ on the basis of a ‘continual transaction between assimilation and accommodation’ in which the individual learner draws from the environment the knowledge and learns to assimilate it under concepts of knowledge related to their experience.

Experiential learning usually refers to professional development, although it is also used to develop and enrich the learner-individual’s experience. It is also referred to as active learning. However, there are websites which differentiate between experiential learning and team-building. Experiential learning is also different from the concept of thinking skills which is being considered for development in the field of educating children.


Kolb, David (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development, London: Prentice Hall.

Kolb, David A. (1991) Organizational Behavior: An Experiential Approach, (5th ed.), London: Prentice Hall.

Moon, Jennifer A. (2004)A Handbook Of Reflective And Experiential Learning: Theory And Practice, London: Routledge Falmer.

Beard, Colin (2002) The Power Of Experiential Learning: A Handbook For Trainers And Educators, London: Kogan Page.

Useful links

The Active Reviewing Guide - Experiential Learning
This seems an easy to read site with resources and definitions of experiential learning and its application.
http://www.reviewing.co.uk/reviews/experiential-learning.htm (Visited 20-July-05)

Experiential Learning ... on the Web
A site on David Kolb’s theory on experiential learning, explanation and critiques.
http://reviewing.co.uk/research/experiential.learning.htm (Visited 20-July-05)

What is experiential learning?
This is a comprehensive website referred to on the previous sites, it explains experiential learning from a training and professional development point of view.
http://www.teamskillstraining.co.uk/tst_article1.htm (Visited 20-July-05)

Experiential Learning & Experiential Education: Philosophy, Theory, Practice & Resources
Part of Wilderdom website. The site has many interesting articles on experiential learning.

Nunes, Jose Miguel Baptista and Fowell, Susan P. (1996) Hypermedia as an experiential learning tool: a theoretical model. Information Research, 2 (1)

Tangen-Foster, Jim & Tangen-foster, Laurel (1998). The Caring Capacity: A Case for Multi-age Experiential Learning. Electronic Green Journal, 9

Hovelynck, Johan (2001). Beyond Didactics: A Reconnaissance of Experiential Learning. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 6 (1): 4-14

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