Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Useful Shelf Life of Experiential Learning

The choice of title for this installment is a little odd given that one could assume that learning through experience doesn’t possess a ‘best before’ date.  I for one, having a bias for ‘experiences’ and ‘adventure’, may not be the most objective individual when it comes to pointing out the benefits and limitations of this segment of learning. For the purposes of argument, experiential learning focuses on the dynamic around how the learner and the thing being learned interface with the resultant effect on the learner.  There are other definitions, but this explanation gets to the core of the matter.  With this in mind I’d like to talk about a problem that I’ve encountered when chatting with my fellow educators about the power of situated versus experiential learning.  It seems that the mind’s ability to substitute the general for the specific is at play when the terms ‘experiential’ and ‘situational’ are volleyed around in the same conversation.  

The confusion usually begins with the assumption that the learning experience and the learning situation are interchangeable.  If you look closely it becomes apparent that this is not the case, especially if we use the ‘interface’ definition as an experiential reference point.  There will always be an interface between the learner and a thing being learned (the experience of the learning regardless of situation), but it is the specifics of the situational context that seem to have the most impact on what the mind retains and reuses should the need arise some time into the future.

Let me provide an up to the moment example.  As I type today it is snowing hard.  Under a different set of circumstances I’d probably have to do what my spouse and everyone else on our crescent did this morning…curse Canadian weather, then leave for work early so as to avoid the traffic congestion that 20 cm’s of new snow creates.  If one were to ask about the experience of driving to work under these conditions, one would probably hear answers describing the traction issues or the visibility issues.  However, if one were to hear a description of the situation there would likely be some mention of how the conditions affected driving behavior.  The focus would subtly shift but there would be no doubt that causality would come into play. 

With causality you might hear something about the cautious, more deliberate effort required in order to avoid an accident.  Maybe there would be some conversation around how things went smoother or faster than anticipated, or why some people really shouldn’t drive without snow tires.  What shouldn’t be confusing is that the response to the experience is different than the response to the situation.  Additionally, even though driving in deep snow is rather uncommon this year from a learning standpoint (there is relative infrequency) it is the situational exposure to a snowstorm that provides the impetus for exchanging understandings as to why behavioral dynamics change (causality) when heavy snows fall during the morning commute.

Yes, the experience of driving to work today like the experience of driving to work everyday is something that can be inventoried, but that isn’t the same as what is shared when asked to explain what went on.  The point of taking an inventory is to keep track of large volumes of information.  How often does the description of the commute sound like this: 4 red lights, 3 drivers failed to signal, 2 plows witnessed etc. even though this way of organizing information is perfectly sound?  What we track are the strategies and tactics that are employed to deal with the unique properties of deep snow and our ability to overcome the potential impediment that this might become.  If there are prior experiences that we can draw on (“the car slid at that intersection last snow storm”) we don’t need to be prompted to compare, contrast and consolidate that experience with the one currently being re-visited. 

What this scenario points out, is the fact that our minds are eager to find similarities between situations, but not necessarily commonalities of feelings via the experience of driving winter roads…with the ‘misery loves company in a snowstorm’ exception duly noted.  Our intuitions, our pattern detectors if you will, tell us what the temperature will probably feel like, what our wet hair will smell like until it dries, what that unplowed hill will generate in terms of potential anxiety, even the name “Slippery Corner” now attached to the place where we slid.  These experiential factors are momentary considerations at best and play only a cursory role while drivers get to work.   What we learn is that our extra ten minute cushion was sufficient this time, that we didn’t check the windshield washer reservoir before leaving, and that a rear window defogger won’t melt snow across the entire back windshield, especially when waiting in traffic.  Each of these learnings came about through exposure, and in this example the specific situational exposure of this morning’s driving effort.

So beyond the use of terms as descriptors, is there another fundamental difference between experience and exposure?  To my mind we should also look at how experiences can be used to anticipate the probability of outcomes given similar circumstances, whereas exposure reveals cues or prompts in real time.  A quick example of a cue might be avoiding left hand turns given the long lines that were already forming at the first two sets of lights.  These cues are much closer to the eventual outcome than are the intuitions we had about the drive prior to starting the car.  This tends to make the cues more accurate (guess the final score with one minute vs. one second remaining).   The cues may or may not confirm our best guesses but they will definitely add to the mounting evidence that will be examined should a performance autopsy be taken post outcome.

When I question experiential education, and as mentioned in the opening, I probably don’t question this enough, it is in the generalities around ‘experiencing’ and ‘experienced’ replacing the specific effort as a result of exposure.  This tendency to substitute the specifics of exposure with the more superficial nature of experience isn’t the exclusive domain of educators.   Still, educators appear to have a hard time realizing that if you are going to take up learning with an exposure element, you must be prepared to deal with the responses you get in a different way than how you deal with what you gather when determining learner prior knowledge and learner prior experience.  The learning conversations involving accident avoidance on snowy streets, and why husbands should take care of the windshield washer fluids, require a willingness to appreciate the specific efforts that were made on a detailed level, and cannot be resolved through re-telling experience (individual or shared) alone.

If you are at that point in your educational practice that you see the differences between experiences and exposures, you too may have begun to ask whether learning from experience is given more credit than it deserves.  This is a tough call because experiencing is ever present and many teachers would love their students to become more immersed in the knowledge seeking process.  The fact that experiential learning is now given its own forum of consideration in educational publications provides additional legitimacy.  But once again, through added focusing on the learning experience are we increasing the likelihood of specific effort, which we know is fundamental to learning?  In many ways, in the wrong teaching hands, experiential learning can assume many of the characteristics (see the inventory example above) of content coverage now employed when teaching for a test.  Not that there is anything wrong with preparing for tests, but memorizing terms does not guarantee the ability to employ proper tactics (being able to identify a ‘windrow of snow’ won’t help you get to work today).

So as you might be able to tell, I do see that experiential learning has an important role to play.  I know that, for example, background information becomes consolidated when that information is used to solve a problem correctly.   This is learning 101.  I also know that repetitive experience reduces the amount of time required to attend.  Awareness becomes familiarity.  But neither of these fundamental forms of learning speaks to causality.  Does this mean we should reduce the experiential load?  Absolutely not.  What we must become aware of is the fact that experience does not always beget better understanding.  We must watch and see if the experience is moving the thinking to a place where intentional, specific efforts are being made to determine the cause-effect relationships.  If not, the usefulness of the ‘experience’ has run its course, and now’s the time to find a specific situation to test – refine – verify.  In that respect, there is no certainty around the idea of experiential shelf life, but with a keen eye, you can certainly tell when the experience no longer serves a useful purpose.