I am so lost without it, experiential learning

stencil art, athens

Interesting concept, this experiential learning thing.  We talk about learning from experience, reflecting on what we do and how we do it and then improving for the next time.  It is well established in literature and underpins all manner of courses from work based learning to apprenticeships and sandwich programmes.  Yet, we also make a huge case for currency.  Things we experienced recently seem to carry more weight than those early in our lives.  CVs ask for the last five years only, degrees and qualifications become obsolete and those early career experiences are perhaps little more than youthful follies.  Delving even further back, you would be laughed at if you included work and experiences from your school years in a job application or as part of explaining your life experience.  Experiential learning shouldn’t be simply about doing and reflecting.  These experiences represent something more than simple ‘experience’.  They are scaffolds; developmental practices that support and improve how we do things.  And they support the learning of a critical skill – the ability to adapt. 

Let’s take a step back.  Over 30 years ago I was a kid living in a small western suburb of Sydney called Dundas.  It was an interesting place to grow up because I lived in a cul-de-sac which had a creek and reserve running at the bottom of it.  This reserve was for a time densely forested and had a number of tracks, hiding spaces and rock formations.  Perfect for kids to play any manner of games.  The street had nearly 15 other kids, spread across two age ranges.  The eldest kids were 8-10 years older than me.  One of these kids was my brother.  My brother had the big bedroom, the funky yellow globe shaped hi-fi and the Morris Minor with a CB radio and a whole heap of loose change on the floor (perfect for buying a 7c bottle of lemonade).  He also had a record collection.  I listened to his records constantly.  There was one record that I loved. The cover was so bright and colourful.  I wanted to look like the singer on the left, especially the vest and shirt ensemble! I poured over every detail.  I listened to each song carefully, reading the words off the back as the song went along.  When I started getting money for Christmas and was allowed in Parramatta by myself, I bought this band’s other records.  I traced their logo for a poster on my wall.  In 1983, I took the cassette of their greatest hits which I got for Christmas that year into school and was dismayed when it was defaced by the boys who considered it soft.  And yes it was.  It was soft rock at its worst. 

Move forward 30 years to London and I find myself seeing this band play live for the first time.  And in my strange, strange way I find myself thinking about why I am seeing this band.  I had stopped listening to them over 20 years ago.  I had donated their albums to charity.  I doubt my brother still has scratchy old copy of that album.  But this band was my first fan experience.  Everything I have listened to since that time evolved from the skills I learnt by being a fan of that band.  I can safely say that my experiential learning in a number of key skill areas started at that point. 

·         The importance of tactility as a part of the way experience things. 

·         Creativity and how it comes in different packages.

·         Be proud of who you are

All my musical tastes have evolved from those formative album experiences.  Not directly mind, but I have adapted the things I liked into other forms of music.  I used the same model of learning from others when two of my mates who knew far more about music than I did started exposing me to other types of music.  Each successive iteration of musical development, I utilised these skills and adapted them to new circumstances.  When I started DJ’ing in a style of music I liked but knew little about (the lyrics were in French!) the ability to adapt a variety of skills to a new circumstance really came into its own.  The importance of visuals, the filtering of things that sounded good from the things that didn’t (there were hundreds of records in my brothers collection I hated – Seals and Croft anyone?).

Bored yet?  Yes?  Well I keep it simple and short.  Experiential learning is more than learning to do something better. It is also about learning to do something differently. It is about adapting what we know to different circumstances.  It is about sharing that with others.  How long ago you learnt something is irrelevant. How you choose to adapt, be informed and use that learning is the key.  Experiences are more than experiments.  They are constructing knowledge and skills in a way that is sustainable and flexible, but also hopefully reliable and relevant.    

And yes, even after 30 years I still remembered every word.  And I sang along and shook the singer’s hand, and despite myself, I enjoyed it immensely.    


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