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Experiential Learning: What and how? - Kristof Geysemans

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Deze korte tekst is geschreven naar aanleiding van een opleidingstraject ervaringsleren voor begeleiders van de 'International Young Nature Friends'.

Experiential learning is not just a methodology one can apply; it is a way of looking at and approaching processes, growth and development. This makes that experiential is not always easy to understand.
There are many theories and concepts written about the topic. If you go through literature you will notice that there are many different opinions. In my background (Outward Bound Belgium) there is a strong influence by Gestalt therapy; witch is a form of therapy, based on how the client experiences events. What I am trying to say is that what I have written here is also coloured by my own patterns and schools of thought. It is not complete and it might even be in conflict with what you can read somewhere else.
I believe that to truly understand what EL is all about, you have to experience and conceptualise it yourself, and develop your own theory.

On our journey of the LTTC X-perience we have done this. We developed some definitions on EL along the way. It seemed not to be an easy job, but a good starting point to look deeper into the mystical world of EL.

Definition made by the team on TC1:

·    About oneself: getting in touch with oneself
·    Personal: The theory / generalisation comes through personal experience


·    Learning opportunities are created for participants
·    Openness: not a predicted outcome
·    Dialogue: happens in contact, sharing
·    Facilitated process
·    Active personal input of participants: accepting personal responsibility


·    More complete way of being
·    Impact on daily life
·    Increase a personal awareness

To make it a bit clearer:

Content: it is not about teaching skills, behaviour, insights, … It is about getting in touch with yourself and your own learning agenda. Only you can know what you have to learn. The theory or generalisation follows after the experience. Before the words come, there is already a form of awareness.

Conditions: Experiential learning is something that you can facilitate, encourage, support… but you can not force it, nor can you force what people have to learn. All you can do is to create opportunities and to support. The learning happens amongst others, in dialogue. The group (at least 2 people) is an instrument of EE. We speak of a facilitated process because we made a difference between learning from life in general and taking part in an experiential learning program.


Result: what we aim for, when facilitating EE programs is that participants become more aware of their person, that they can better apply their qualities and manage their pitfalls, so that they can become a more complete person. Because this learning goes to the core of the people, this must have an impact on the daily life.

What makes an experience a learning experience?

The definition above is quit theoretical and contemplative. I try to be more specific in the following lines.


There are a few elements that have to be part of an experience to make it a learning experience:


1.    Action: challenging, preferably new, holistic (not only brain or muscles to use), the free choice to participate: challenge by choice (not forced): it’s the participants own decision to participate in the activity.


2.    Reflection: How did I experience the happening (what did I think, feel, and wish)? Letting the awareness grow, allowing the experience to be as it is. Literally look back like in a rear view mirror, without judging or valuing, but allowing everything that comes up. Becoming aware of how you experienced the action.
This reflection can be done individually or in group. It can be done after, but also during the action (ask the participant: ‘what is going on now?’). To make it true learning, there should be at least some sharing with other members. There are different aspects that make the sharing important: making contact with oneself often goes together with making contact with others, it can be a moment of formalising what you have learned, the learning often has to do with relations between people, people can infect each other with a learning flow and can give feedback to each other.


3.    The allowing of how you experience things can lead to the recognition of behavioural patterns. We have all developed all kinds of patterns to be able to understand and to function in this world. Manny aspects have influenced them: family where you grow up in, peers, your genes, some big-impact-events… These patterns have an influence on how we behave in the world, amongst others. By allowing the experience to be as it is, these patterns become more clear and recognisable. This recognising is often frustrating, not pleasant. But therefore it can be an engine for change, it creates a need.


4.    The recognising of patterns is the first step in a process. Acknowledging that you have your own share in what happens to you is the next one. This brings responsibility. The recognising and acknowledging gives you the choice to continue as it is, or to change patterns. Here pops up a different interpretation of challenge by choice: the learner has the choice to challenge himself, by choosing to change the way of behaviour.


5.    To make the learning experience complete, there is a next phase of trying out new behaviour. In Gestalt therapy they call it experimenting. Try different behaviour, leave the beaten track of old behavioural patterns, and try new possibilities. Step into action again, but with a different mindset: aware of (dysfunctional) patterns, and the will to try out alternatives.

This is a very brief description of experiential learning. It is definitely not complete, and many things are discussable. But that is how it goes with experiential learning: we all make our own theories, and they are never finished…

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