Adult Learning and Development

Adapting to dynamic environments through experiential learning

While classroom environments transfer explicit knowledge, experiential learning theory proposes that people acquire tacit knowledge and skills through experience and observation. A key assumption of experiential learning theory is found in Lindeman’s adage that “experience is the adult learners living textbook” (Brookfield, 1995) and that the purpose of adult education is to provide “a continuing process of evaluating experiences” (p. 85). Observing that learning results from experience is hardly a groundbreaking concept, but adult learning programs from the classroom to the boardroom have recently “discovered” that experiential learning is an effective means to engage individuals, groups, and organizations in acquiring, using, disseminating, and evaluating information to more effectively adapt in dynamic environments. Experience being a critical component of learning in adulthood seems intuitive; but, different theoretical perspectives differ on the focus and application of experiential learning.

Constructivist applications

Building on Dewey, Piaget, and Lewin, Kolb (Kolb D. A., 1981; Kolb & Kolb, 2005) suggested that learning is the process of constructing knowledge through transforming experience. Attempting to link theory to practice, Kolb proposed that experiential learning is a cyclical four-stage process that includes concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation, as follows:

  1. In the concrete experience stage, a learner becomes open and willing to engage in a new experience.
  2. In the reflexive observation stage the individual observes by listening, watching, recording, and elaborating on the experience from different perspectives.
  3. In the abstract observational stage, the individual integrates ideas and concepts with observations and current knowledge to generate logically sound theories.
  4. In the active experimentation stage, the individual applies problem-solving skills to test the new concepts in the context of the situation.

Kolb presented the stages in, what Harvard Business Review Senior Editor Gardiner Morse (2005) might call, a “crap circle”, a perpetually self-fueling closed loop that always returns the learner to the first step--regardless of what happens in the final step (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). While the cycle may sound intuitive, using a metaphor that always returns the user to the beginning seems like a no-growth process. Linda Lewis (2003) suggested a more relevant metaphor by stepping outside the circle to see experiential learning as a process of progressive cycles. Through this perspective each cycle represents a “new round of learning” that is more sophisticated than the last, building “an ever-increasing spiral of complexity”, with the ultimate goal being “a fully integrated personality” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 164).

Additional criticisms of Kolb’s model are that it considers neither context nor power structure as factors that affect learning. Criticisms aside, Lewis (2003) asserted that Kolb’s model demonstrates how experiential learning teaches learners to process information, arouse motivation, engage in learning, develop social skills, and build sensitivity.

Humanist applications

From a humanist perspective, Carl Rogers (1994) recognized that two fundamental types of learning exist:

  1. cognitive learning, which is “meaningless” knowledge like memorized vocabulary, formulas, and multiplication tables, and;
  2. experiential learning, which is significant applied knowledge that results from doing, such dissecting a frog to learn biology.

While both cognitive and experiential learning are important, the humanist perspective sees that experiential learning puts learner desires and needs at the center of the learning process, driving self-initiation, active engagement, and self-evaluation. Rogers (1994) asserted that humans have an intrinsic drive for growth and learning, making the role of the teacher to facilitate learning by doing the following:

  1. create a positive learning environment;
  2. clarify the learner’s purpose;
  3. provide learning resources;
  4. balance the emotional and intellectual components of learning, and;
  5. share feeling and thoughts, but do not dominate.

In this experiential learning environment, successful facilitation means that the learner does the following:

  1. fully engages in planning, directing, and controlling learning;
  2. confronts practical, social, personal, and research problems, and;
  3. evaluates personal progress.

Rogers’ (1994) experiential learning theory influenced adult learning theorists like Knowles (2005) and Cross (1981) by proposing the following:

  1. learning increases when the material is relevant to the needs and interests of the learner;
  2. information that threatens existing attitudes and perspectives is more easily assimilated by learners in a secure environment;
  3. learning accelerates when the learner feels secure;
  4. learning is more lasting and pervasive when it is initiated by the learner.

To apply experiential learning principles in the classroom, educators can find ways to make the material relevant to the learner in a supportive environment that actively engages learners in designing and implementing the learning process.

Organizational applications

Considering experiential learning from an organizational perspective can help clarify its value in a social setting. Like the people within them, organizations acquire knowledge through experience. This learning can be through intentional efforts. However, for businesses that are slow to adapt in a dynamic environment, learning is too often unintentional; in other words, organizations learn the hard way, by reacting to threats and mistakes. High performance organizations are finding that experiential learning provides a more proactive method to intentionally learn by controlling the acquisition, distribution, and use of knowledge that will help the organization and its members to continuously adapt to a dynamic environment (Schermerhorn, Hunt, & Osborn, 2007) and build a competitive advantage (McShane & Von Glinow, 2005).

Huber (1991) identified the following ways experiential learning can occur in organizations:

  1. experiments that enhance the availability and analysis of feedback, like decision-making processes;
  2. self-appraisal, which involves activities like action research and organizational development contributing to the organization’s ability to adapt to a niche;
  3. experimenting to develop long-term survivability strategies by fostering adaptability to new opportunities;
  4. unintentional or unsystematic learning, or learning that is not planned;
  5. experience-based learning curves that investigate possible explanations of organizational learning, and;
  6. evaluation of the literature on learning from experience.

Miner, Bassoff, and Moorman (2001) identified impromptu actions as another form of experiential learning that occurs in organizations. Impromptu actions are intentional acts that deviate from the established plan but are created from elements of the plan. Miner, et al found that workers with well-defined processes ad-libbed when they confronted with unexpected challenges. This indicates that impromptu actions are a special type of learning that create new knowledge and experience-based behavior. Since impromptu actions happen in the moment, they will not lead to lasting organizational change unless the members formalize the actions into the established process.

Schermerhorn, et al (2007) pointed out that learning by experience can generate incremental changes that lead to major improvements in quality and efficiency. However, learning by experience can also cause unintended consequences, like competency traps. A competency trap arises when an organization has established ability and process that prevent people from considering superior procedures. For example, while its competitors adopted digital technology and automated offshore manufacturing, Westinghouse Security Electronics continued to manufacture analog access control systems by hand in the Silicon Valley into the 1990s, simply because those were competencies that had once made them the pioneering industry leader in the 1970s. When management finally accepted that its competencies were leading to the failure of the company, they stopped accepting “that’s the way we do things around here” and started saying, “if you drag your feet with the old ways, you will be left behind” (B. Prevost, CEO, personal meeting, July 1998).

To learn more effectively from experience, Schermerhorn, et al (2007) counsel organizational leaders “to believe that improvements can be made, listen to suggestions, and actually implement the changes. It is much more difficult to do than say” (p. 424).

Critical perspectives

Brookfield (1995) argued that relying on experience as a defining characteristic of adult learning is dangerous on two fronts: Experience is an individual construct and length of experience does not necessarily translate to depth of experience.

Subjective experience

On the first front, experience is an individual construct, influenced by personal interpretations that are framed and shaped by dynamically interacting variables like culture, context, and time. This means that the experience an adult brings to the table may not be relevant to the topic or situation, and may be completely disconnected from objective reality.

For example, the head teller at a credit union who receives a marketing manager position through her connections with key executives, but who lacks experience with or objective understanding of marketing may lack the capacity and skills to perform in her new job--regardless of the personal reality she constructs about marketing. Her fundamental perception of the marketing function is that “marketing is fun” and that the position should allow her to “create”. Her perceptions are influenced by the visible aspects of marketing--like trade shows, events, advertisements--and by media depictions of marketing. As her perceptions of marketing as a fun and creative process confront the reality of marketing--market research, product development and pricing, distribution, operations, promotion, statistics, analytics, finance and budgets, networking, politics, and communications--the teller as marketing manager becomes increasingly overwhelmed, leading to an ineffective marketing function for the organization and contributing to her hospitalization for stress.

The combination of experience as a teller and a personally constructed reality about marketing do not translate into success as a marketing professional; her experience and personally constructed reality are so disconnected from the needs and reality of the job that they contribute to individual and department failure, adversely impacting all functions that rely on marketing.

Disconnect between length and depth of experience

On the second front, the length of experience does not necessarily translate to depth of experience. For example, the educator who works for 15 years in the same classroom teaching the same subject to students in the same demographic may be able to develop habits that allow successful and efficient practice in that specific environment. However, the experiences gained in those 15 years may have limited application outside of the narrow setting, and may hinder that teacher from successfully operating in other more dynamic environments that require critical thinking, cross-cultural skills, and adaptation.

Feminist perspective

Fenwick (1999) presented criticisms of experiential learning theory from a feminist perspective, saying that emphasizing critical reflection depersonalizes the learner. Reflection “ignores the possibility that all knowledge is constructed within power-laden social processes, that experience and knowledge are mutually determined, and that experience itself is knowledge-driven and cannot be known outside socially available meanings”. From this perspective, constructivism emphasizes rational thought that does not allow for inquisition.

NOTE: This article is an excerpt from "Perpetual learning in adulthood" by Brent Duncan, PhD. The contents are (C) 2017 by Brent Duncan, PhD. All rights reserved. For usage rights, please contact the author through the Contact Form.


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