In A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice, Jennifer A. Moon notes that all learning is, in effect, learning from experience. However, experiential learning is recognized to depend upon theory as much as practice because theory places experience into context and permits extrapolation. A very simple example of experiential learning follows.
A father has spent some months telling his young daughter, "Don't touch! Hot!" about coffee cups, soup bowls, pots and pans full of food cooking on the stove. But the child is strong, inquisitive and stubborn, and more than once he has barely been able to keep her from scalding herself. So he decides to set her up with a cup of hot liquid before she pulls a stock pot of soup off the stove and all over herself. The cup is full of liquid that is only unpleasantly hot for a child's tender skin, certainly not scalding; to him, it is little more than lukewarm.
After being told yet again, "Don't touch, hot!" the child is allowed to touch the cup, which she proceeds to pull off the table and onto herself. A squall of tears follow, more surprised than pained, and her father quickly wipes her off with a washcloth soaked in cool water. The redness vanishes within minutes, but the lesson is learned and the child now knows several concepts, including that of "hot." The next time she reaches for a cup, she asks, "Hot?" and her father checks the cup, saying, "Yes, too hot."
This small example illustrates David Kolb's four-Stage theory of learning, presented at Learning Theories.com:
1. The child has an unpleasant experience.
2. She observes that the word "hot" refers to something unpleasant.
3. She forms an abstract concept of hot: Hot can mean her father's coffee, or a pot of soup simmering on the stove, the radiator in the winter or a luxurious soak in the tub.
4. She starts testing the meaning of the word "hot," and the degrees of hot, in different situations.
The difference between the simple experience of dousing herself with coffee, and making that experience an incident of experiential learning is that the father uses the experience to help his daughter understand a word, "hot," and the concept behind the word.
Experiential learning has a long history. It was inherent to the old guild and apprentice systems, wherein aspiring young craftsmen served as apprentices to established guild members and had to acquire a certain level of skill before they were admitted to the guild. It is also visible in craft hobbies, such as woodworking or knitting, where there is a great deal of self-taught learning. And experiential learning is crucial to scientific education, with its insistence on results that can be observed and duplicated.
Despite this rich history, there is no universal recognized definition of experiential learning. Moon offers at least 11, including this one: "The received professional ideology of experiential learning is that it empowers individuals to gain control over learning and hence their lives and to take responsibility for themselves. [It is] widely regarded as empowering learners perhaps in ways that non-experiential learning does not."
Yet the father of modern experiential learning, the American educator and philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952), understood that scholarly learning was central to human existence. He wrote in Democracy and Education, "With the growth of civilization, the gap between the original capacities of the immature and the standards and customs of the elders increases. Mere physical growing up, mere mastery of the bare necessities of subsistence will not suffice to reproduce the life of the group. Deliberate effort and the taking of thoughtful pains are required." However, Dewey understood that "Schools are, indeed, one important method of the transmission which forms the dispositions of the immature; but ... Only as we have grasped the necessity of more fundamental and persistent modes of tuition can we make sure of placing the scholastic methods in their true context."
Kurt Hahn (1886-1974), another influential founder of experiential learning, placed scholarly and experiential learning in their proper relationship to each other in his Harrogate Address of 1965. Hahn, who fled Hitler's Germany because of both his politics and his Judaism, founded the Gordonstoun School in Scotland in 1934 and Outward Bound in Wales in 1941; he also cofounded the Salem School in 1920 with Prince Max von Baden. In his 1965 Harrowgate speech, Hahn refers to the wise pride of Prince Max that there was nothing original about the Salem School; they had simply "stolen" the best they could find, from the Boy Scouts to Plato.
"In medicine," Hahn begins by quoting the Prince, "as in education, you must harvest the wisdom of a thousand years. If you ever come across a surgeon who wants to take out your appendix in the most original manner possible, I strongly advise you to go to another surgeon."