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Intelligent educational methods for experiential learning

I. EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING THEORY

1. BASIC CONCEPTS AND PRINCIPLES

In order to label the process of learning from experience, various terms have been used like “learning by doing,” (John Dewey) or “experienced-based learning.” (Wolfe and Byrne). The essence of experiential learning was defined by Rogers (1969, p. 5) as: “It has a quality of personal involvement-the whole-person in both his feeling and cognitive aspects being in the learning event.” This definition represented the base on which Hoover made the point that experiential learning involves not only the cognitive learning generally stressed by management education but also the learning of behaviors: “Experiential learning exists when a personally responsible participant cognitively, affectively, and behaviorally, processes knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes in a learning situation characterized by a high level of active involvement.”

“In its simplest form, experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking.”

The Association for Experiential Education regards experiential education as \"a philosophy that informs many methodologies, in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people\'s capacity to contribute to their communities.\" Experiential education is the term for the philosophy and educational progressivism is the movement which it informed.

Built on social and constructivist theories of learning, experiential learning theories situate experience at the core of the learning process in order to understand the manners in which these experiences motivate learners and promote their learning.

This concept  can be represented as a four-stage cycle where the process of learning starts with experiences that allow participants to observe, review and think about what they have practised, and then to consciously link their  present experiences to theory or previous experiences.

An influential proponent of these theories, Carl Rogers, suggests that experiential learning is “self-initiated learning” due to people natural inclination to learn; and that they learn when they are fully involved in the learning process. Rogers put forward the following insight : “learning can only be facilitated: we cannot teach another person directly”, “learners become more rigid under threat”, “significant learning occurs in an environment where threat to the learner is reduced to a minimum”, “learning is most likely to occur and to last when it is self-initiated”. He supports a dynamic, continuous process of change where new learning results in and affects learning environments. This dynamic process of change is often considered in literatures on organizational learning.

There is an experiential learning task structure proposed by Wolfe and Byrne (1975). They state that experientially-based approaches involve four phases and that learning will be best facilitated when all these stages are present and repeated over time:

     

a) Design - This phase contains the instructor efforts to set the stage for the experience including the specification of learning objectives, the production or selection of activities for participants, the identification of factors affecting student learning, and the creation of a scheme for implementation. The design phase may include the creation of a timetable for the experience.

b) Conduct - This phase is resuming on maintaining and controlling the design, so the experience is a structured and closely-monitored one. The conduct phase involves the altering of the original timetable and activities to sustain a favorable learning environment.

c)  Evaluation – This process is conducted by the instructor, but according to Wolfe and Byrne is on the provision of opportunities for students to evaluate the experience. Participants should be able to articulate and demonstrate specific learning gained from the design and conduct of the experience.

d) Feedback - Wolfe and Byrne point out that feedback should be an almost continuous process until the final debriefing. One possible concern in this phase is whether participants should have the opportunity to fail. It is important to be taken into account the impact of the failure. The freedom to fail may be encouraged when it comes to  the extent that we learn from our errors, but if the experiential exercise involves a business client (such as in a small business case), failure can affect the business school's reputation negatively.

Experiential learning can be divided into two major categories: field-based experiences and classroom-based learning. Field-based learning includes internships, volunteer experiences, practicums, cooperative education and service learning while classroom-based experiential learning can take a multitude of forms, including role-playing, games, case studies, simulations, presentations, and various types of group work.

1.1 COMPONENTS OF EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

• Business curriculum-related. As pointed out by the AACSB  Task Force, business is an applied discipline:

“Business education involves studying applications of mathematics, economics and behavioral sciences to problems in the production and distribution of goods and services” [Carter et al., 1986, p. 6] One interesting point raised in the AACSB Task Force Memorandum is that, as an alternative or possibly a supplement to an increased use of experiential learning in the business curriculum, business schools should emphasize the benefits of the extracurricular activities of students. The business schools should actively encourage student clubs to promote activities which involve student participation so that their speaking, interpersonal, discussion, goal setting

abilities are developed.

• Applied. As presented by Wolfe and Byrne (1975), the design phase of the experience is critical because experiences occurring without guidance and adequate academic preparation may yield little insight into the general processes taking place. The Task Force stated that experiences will not represent applied experiential learning without having the expected educational outcomes articulated and related to the curriculum.

• Participative. Considering experiential learning is active the student must be involved in the process, do role plays or make decisions (as in a simulation game), or perform an analysis of a firm's problems (as in a small business case project).

• Interactive. The interaction isn't just the instructor/student dyad but student/student, student/client, or student/environment interaction including presentations to clients in small business case projects, group decision-making in a simulation game, and conducting survey research of local households for a marketing research course project.

• Whole-person emphasis. Experiential learning can involve learning on the behavioral and affective dimensions as well as the cognitive dimension. Given the problem-solving orientation of most management education, there is a natural tendency among business faculty to emphasize the cognitive dimension.

Given the importance of “people skills” and “technical skills” though, the broader horizons offered by experiential learning approaches (as compared to more traditional teaching methods such as lectures and class discussion) may be very beneficial. While the AACSB definition does not mention the wholeperson concept, the Task Force did acknowledge the development of a student's interpersonal and other non-cognitive skills as experiential learning.

• Contact with the Environment. The term “experience” implies a real world contact (or at least a “real-world-like”) contact. Most types of experiential learning will fall short of giving students actual decision-making authority as simulation games, role-playing exercises, and case discussions.

• Variability and Uncertainty. These terms are related to the real-world environment because they make the students get a feel for the ambiguity associated with real-world situations.

• Structured Exercise. The experience should be structured and monitored. There has to be sufficient autonomy, willingness to participate, guidance provided for the experience to be meaningful in terms of the specific content area for which the instructor is responsible.

• Student Evaluation of the Experience. Even though the instructor is monitoring the experience, it is important that students analyze and evaluate the experience. In this way, the students' ability to integrate content and process will be used to critique the experience by specifying what should have occurred in the experience as opposed to what was actually involved.

• Feedback. Regarding the fact that we learn by “trial and error,” the learning is essentially inductive in nature. In many cases, we judge the quality of the decision by the favorableness of the outcome feedback and not by the process feedback. Feedback is crucial because participants need to articulate their perception of what was learned, and the instructor needs to put things into a broader perspective.

Experiential education is practiced trough simulation-based learning, active-based learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, service-learning and place-based learning using the pattern of problem, plan, test and reflect as their foundation for the educative experience.

 Simulation-based learning—A combination of active, problem, project, and place-based learning; Participants are placed in a simulated environment and given objectives requiring constant attention and care.

 Active-based learning—All participants in the group must engage actively in working together toward the stated objectives.

 Problem-based learning—Provides a structure for discovery that helps students internalize learning and leads to greater comprehension.

 Project-based learning—An instructional method that uses projects as the central focus of instruction in a variety of disciplines.

 Service-learning—Providing meaningful service to a community agency or organization while simultaneously gaining new skills, knowledge and understanding as an integrated aspect of an academic program.

 Place-based learning—the process of using local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum.

1.2 The characteristics of experiential learning

Experiential learning theory is based on the work of prominent 20th century scholars who gave experience a central role in their theories of human learning and development – notably William James, John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Carl Jung, Paulo Freire, Carl Rogers. Observing the work of these foundational scholars, Kolb (1984) proposed six characteristics  of experiential learning:

-  Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes. Learning does not end at an outcome, nor is it always evidenced in performance, but it occurs through the course of connected experiences in which knowledge is modified and re-formed. As John Dewey suggests, “…education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience: … the process and goal of education are one and the same thing”

-  All learning is re-learning. Learning is best facilitated when the learners' beliefs and ideas about a topic are represented in order to be examined, tested and integrated with new, more refined ideas. According to Piaget, this proposition is constructivism—the knowledge of the world of individuals is constructed based on their experience.

- Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of  adaptation to the world. The learning process is driven by differences, conflict or disagreement.

These tensions are resolved in iterations of movement back and forth between opposing modes of reflection and thinking, action and feeling.

-  Learning is a holistic process of adaptation. Learning does not just summes up to the result of cognition but integrates thinking, feeling, perceiving and behaving. It encompasses other specialized models of adaptation from the scientific method to problems solving, decision making and creativity.

-  Learning results from synergetic transactions between the person and the environment.

In Piaget's terms, learning occurs through equilibration of the dialectic processes of assimilating

new experiences into existing concepts and accommodating existing concepts to new experience.

Following Lewin's famous formula that behavior is a function of the person and the environment, ELT holds that learning is influenced by characteristics of the learner and the

learning space.

- Learning is the process of creating knowledge. In ELT, knowledge is formed by the transaction between two forms of knowledge: personal knowledge (the subjective experience of the learner) and social knowledge (co-constructed in a socio-historical context). At the opposite pole, is the “transmission” model of education in which fixed, pre-existing ideas are transmitted to the learner.

1.3 The Cycle of Experiential Learning

Learning is defined as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience”.   Grasping experience represents the process of taking in information while transforming experience refers to how individuals interpret and act on that information. The ELT model portrays two dialectically related modes of grasping experience— Concrete Experience (CE)  and Abstract Conceptualization (AC) -- and two dialectically related modes of transforming experience—Reflective Observation (RO) and Active Experimentation (AE). The effectiveness of learning arises from the ability to balance these modes, which Kolb sees as opposite activities that best promote learning.

a) learning styles

Kolb theorized that the four combinations  of perceiving and processing determine one of four learning styles of how people prefer to learn.

• Diverging (concrete, reflective) - Emphasizes the innovative and imaginative approach to doing things. Views concrete situations from many perspectives and adapts by observation rather than by action. Interested in people and tends to be feeling-oriented. Likes such activities as cooperative groups and brainstorming.

• Assimilating (abstract, reflective) - Pulls a number of different observations and thoughts into an integrated whole. Likes to reason inductively and create models and theories. Likes to design projects and experiments.

• Converging (abstract, active)- Emphasizes the practical application of ideas and solving problems. Likes decision-making, problem-solving, and the practical application of ideas. Prefers technical problems over interpersonal issues.

• Accommodating (concrete, active) - Uses trial and error rather than thought and reflection. Good at adapting to changing circumstances; solves problems in an intuitive, trial-and-error manner, such as discovery learning. Also tends to be at ease with people.

Experiential learning theory argues that learning style is a dynamic state resulting from synergistic transactions between the person and the environment, not a fixed psychological trait. This dynamic state depends on individual's preferential resolution of the dual dialectics of experiencing/conceptualizing and acting/reflecting. “The stability and endurance of these states in individuals comes not solely from fixed genetic qualities or characteristics of human beings: nor, for that matter, does it come from the stable fixed demands of environmental circumstances. Rather, stable and enduring patterns of human individuality arise from consistent patterns of transaction between the individual and his or her environment…The way we process the possibilities of each new emerging event determines the range of choices and decisions we see. The choices and decisions we make to some extent determine the events we live through, and these events influence our future choices. Thus, people create themselves through the choice of the actual occasions that they live through.”

Learning style is not a fixed personality trait but more like a habit of learning shaped by experience and choices—it can be an automatic, unconscious mode of adapting or it can be consciously modified and changed. The learning style types described above portray how one prefers to learn in general.

b) learning flexibility is another important aspect of learning style and means the extent to which an individual adapts his or her learning style to the demands of the learning situation.

Learning flexibility is the ability to use each of the four learning modes to move freely around the learning cycle and to modify one's approach to learning based on the learning situation. Thinking, experiencing, reflecting and acting  provide valuable perspectives on the learning task in a way that enriches knowledge. This can be seen as traveling through each of the regions of the learning space in the process of learning. Learning flexibility allows us to operate comfortably and effectively in more regions of the learning space, promoting deep learning and development which means effective learning. According to a research on flexibility using the Adaptive Style Inventory (ASI; Boyatzis & Kolb, 1993), individuals who balance the dialectics of action-reflection and concrete-abstract have greater adaptive flexibility in their learning (Mainemelis, Boyatzis, & Kolb, 2002). Individuals with high adaptive flexibility have richer life structures, are more self-directed and experience less conflict in their lives.

c) learning space

In addition, the process of experiential learning can be viewed as a process of locomotion through the learning territories that is influenced by a person's position in the learning space. One's position in the learning space defines their experience and thus defines their “reality”. A space must be provided to engage in the four modes of the cycle—feeling, reflection, thinking, and action for a learner to engage fully in the learning cycle, It needs to be a welcoming, hospitable space that is characterized by respect for all, safe and supportive, but also challenging. Experiential learning space must allow learners to be in charge of their own learning and allow time for the repetitive practice that develops expertise.

The concept of deep learning describes the developmental process of learning that fully integrates the four modes of the experiential learning cycle—experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting. So deep learning generates development. Adult development occurs when the experiential learning cycle is becomes actually a learning spiral. The ELT developmental model defines three stages: acquisition (from birth to adolescence where basic abilities and cognitive structures develop), specialization (from formal schooling through the early work and personal experiences of adulthood where social, educational, and organizational socialization forces shape the development of a particular, specialized learning style), integration (in mid-career and later life where non-dominant modes of learning are expressed in work and personal life).

1.4 The importance of experiential learning

On one hand, universities need to prepare students able to apply their acquired knowledge to real-world problems. Over the course of a degree program, students must develop “21st century skills” in addition to core discipline knowledge in their chosen field. The Institute for the Future (IFTF) has identified the key drivers likely to influence the landscape over the next decade and how these translate into key work skills required by individuals.

The results of this research highlight that to succeed in the next decade, individuals will need to be able to navigate a rapidly shifting landscape and critically reflect on the knowledge and skills they need to adapt to multiple situations (IFTF, 2011). Experiential education, which is focused on learning through connection and collaboration through constant critical reflection, lends itself to developing these skills in individuals.

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