Experiential Learning Theory ... 
Teamwork Theories and Team Building Basics

Experiential learning theory has been highly influential in adult training and development. Learn some of the basic concepts of this teamwork theory.

Definition of Experiential Learning

The definition of experiential learning isn’t straightforward. But for our purposes, the most important point is that experiential learning is based on the idea that people learn best from experience.

Some would simply describe experiential learning
as learning-by-doing.

Experiential learning theory can be traced back to the famous Chinese philosopher, Confucius who said around 450 BC:

“Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. 
Involve me, and I will understand.”

Kolbs Experiential Learning Model

The design of learning and development activities has been heavily influenced by the work of David Kolb, and his highly influential book entitled 'Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development'.

I suggest you consider Kolb’s experiential learning model when planning any training or team building at work. 

It’s really just a simple way of describing the adult learning process.

In simple terms, Kolbs experiential learning model suggests that there are four stages in learning:

experiential learning theory diagram
  1. Concrete experience – eg - simulation, case study, field trip, demonstration 

  2. Reflection on experience on a personal basis – observation, discussion, small groups

  3. Drawing general learnings (abstract conceptualisation) to apply to other situations

  4. Developing ways to modify things the next time the experience occurs (active experimentation) – eg - testing implications, practice sessions

.....leading in turn to the next Concrete Experience.

All this may happen very fast, or over weeks or months. The cycle may not be simple – there may be ‘wheels within wheels’ going on at the 
same time.

The Learning Wheel

Another similar concept widely recognised in experiential learning is the ‘learning wheel’. The learning wheel represents a cycle of learning –

  • set objectives
  • think, plan, experiment and decide
  • ACT (take action)
  • Observe, reflect, review
  • Think and decide (eg - are improvements required?)
  • ...start the process again by adjusting your goals as necessary

This ‘learning wheel’ cycle is the basis for most continuous improvement.

Experiential learning theory explains that this cycle is 
effective for all of us, no matter our individual learning styles.

This is because we are using our own experiences and our own reflections to build our understanding and skills in a particular area or activity. It’s not what someone else is telling me; it’s what my own experience and mental review is telling me.

And of course, I’m always right in my own mind, aren’t you?!

According to experiential learning theory, this ‘ownership’ of the learning process is what makes it effective.

By physically doing something, not just reading or hearing about it:

  • I find out how I feel doing it.
  • I discover what it means to me, maybe some of my strengths and weaknesses.
  • I’m emotionally involved in the learning process.

This has been just a very brief overview of experiential learning theory.

For me personally, it boils down to a few simple ideas to think about when introducing new ideas or considering ways for team members to develop and learn:

Try to get people doing rather than listening whenever possible.

Provide time for reflection and repetition ...

Your team members will discover for themselves what works and what doesn't ... and the learning and change is likely to last a lot longer as a result. 

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