Experiential learning occurs when you are an active participant in the learning. When you first learned to ride a bicycle, hit a baseball, or write your own name, you didn't merely read a book about the skill. No, you actually had to experience the doing of it. Learning, in this sense is a participatory sport.
Let's say you wanted to learn how to swim. You went to the library, checked out some books on swimming, and read them all. Then you wrote an essay about swimming, one that pointed out all of the motions necessary to swim. You then sought out people who are swimmers, talking with them about the sensation of swimming. Then one day you went to the neighborhood pool. If you jumped in the deep end of the pool, what do you think might happen? I think you might just sink to the bottom. All the books, all the writing, and all the interviews had little to do with actually getting in the pool. You may have learned about swimming but not how to swim.
Experiential Learning: Making it Work
I will suggest that learning itself must have a purpose. You really don't learn something if you don't understand the reason you are doing it. I wrote a bit about this in the last post when I wrote about quadratic equations. I could do the work to calculate and graph such equations. Today, however, the only thing I remember about them is their name. There was no purpose, no justification for learning. So I went through the motions learning nothing.
I learned something from that experience. Sometimes there seems to be no reason for learning something. Sometimes not even your teacher understands why you do something in class. They may understand the how, just not the why. So what do you do in a situation like that? How do you overcome the stagnation of learning for no recognizable purpose?
Creating Your Own Reason
In order to truly experience learning, one must have a reason for making the effort. It is not enough to merely read a book, learn the calculations, or talk with practitioners. No there is more to learning which might be called mental. Experiential learning begins with purpose. When you are unable to find that reason then you are best served by creating one of your own.
The key word here is creating. Thinking about those pesky quadratic equations, if someone told me that they would be useful in calculus I might have paid more attention. If someone mentioned that the quadratic equation is the foundation of the golden ratio, I might have paid more attention. I saw no purpose in these calculations and graphs so I paid as little attention as possible. In retrospect, however, I might have created a purpose for doing them just to make them appear important. For example, I might have pretended to be a space flight engineer. Whether or not the space flight engineer used quadratic equations or not would be irrelevant. I would have a purpose for doing them. I could send an astronaut to Mars.
Setting The Tone for Experiential Learning
Sometimes, creating a purpose for learning when none appears to exist moves the needle forward. It adds excitement to the activity. It motivates you to understand because you believe you have a purpose for engaging. This harmless fantasy of creating a purpose doesn't remove you from reality. In fact, when the time comes for you to run into the real purpose for doing something, you may abandon your original motivator for the true motivator.
What I am suggesting is that discovering or creating a reason for learning is a path to experiential learning. It is through the physical experience coupled with a mental foundation that leads to true learning. Try it on for size, You might find it works for you when nothing else will.