Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is basically learning through direct experience with the subject matter (McCleery et al. 2005). It can be viewed as a circle consisting of four stages: Concrete experience, observation and reflection, abstract concepts, and testing in new situations (Kolb and Fry 1975, Millenbah and Millspaugh 2003).

The fourth stage, testing in new situations, implicitly requires use of feedback to change practices and theories. Although the circle of learning can be entered at any of the four stages, learning comes through a direct encounter instead of merely thinking about the encounter (the latter is called cognitive learning).

Experiential learning is not an alternative approach, but the oldest and most fundamental method in all of education. Paul Shepard (1998) followed evolutionary logic in stating that the human genome present today was shaped in the Pleistocene Epoch (the Pleistocene is only several hundred human generations away). Learning at that time was all experiential, and childhood development was closely tied to important cues found in nature. Modern life lacks contact with those cues, and as a result childhood development can be arrested, slowed, or changed (Shepard 1998). Indeed, a recent book by Louv (2005) links children’s alienation from nature to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, stress, depression, anxiety disorders, and obesity. Louv (2005) also expounds on the restorative qualities of nature.

Experiential learning is particularly important in the natural sciences and conservation. Classroom discussions are not sufficient to address present conservation problems (Ryan and Campa 2000). Knowledge may change an opinion if a person does not have a strongly held viewpoint (Williams et al. 2002), but knowledge is only one of several factors influencing values, attitudes, and beliefs, and its influence can be relatively weak when values are strongly held (Reading 1993, Kellert et al. 1996). Importantly, the values people place on nature drive the current crisis in biodiversity (Kellert 1979, Reading 1993). The term value is defined as a template for how we believe we should behave or exist (Reading 1993). Most damaging to nature are values that are negative (having fear of or hostility toward nature), dominionistic (seeking control or domination of nature), and utilitarian (placing nature subordinate to human desires) (Kellert 1979; Reading 1993).

A compelling example of inconsistencies between level of knowledge and type of attitude was found during the Montana effort to reintroduce black-footed ferrets. Two groups (ranchers and members of conservation groups) showed the highest level of knowledge about ferrets, yet those two groups had diametrically opposite views of whether black-footed ferrets should be recovered (Reading and Kellert 1993). This finding mirrored studies about knowledge of, and attitudes toward, wolves in Michigan (Kellert 1990) and Wyoming (Bath 1989). Furthermore, lack of knowledge is not the reason that politicians ignore global warming, that energy companies want to exploit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or that timber corporations clear-cut old-growth forest. Values are the core of those actions.

When values, attitudes, and beliefs are strongly held, new knowledge can be selectively received, selectively interpreted, and selectively remembered (Tessler and Shaffer 1990, Olson and Zanna 1993). In other words, people unconsciously focus on ideas that support their viewpoint / values and tend to remember those ideas better than oppositional information. Meadow et al. (2005) sampled attitudes of people toward wolves in the Southern Rockies Ecoregion then supplied those people with arguments both favoring and opposing wolf reintroduction. Nearly 64% of the recipients of these arguments showed no attitude change when retested. Nearly all of the people who scored differently after receiving the arguments simply increased the extremity of their previous opinions.

Thus, education efforts must do more than impart facts. They must address and change values / attitudes and increase political enfranchisement of people who will exercise their right as citizens. The cause of both social and conservation problems is the same: A system that places personal gain above nature and other people is in effect a system based on greed. Changing attitudes toward nature is only possible when people feel compassion for life. Experiential education offers an excellent way to instill that compassion, particularly in children.

Experiential education also offers academic advantages to students. Learner-based education promotes greater retention of material than listening to a lecture (Ryan and Campa 2000). Lectures promote rote memorization, but remembering facts without critical thinking ability will fail in the face of complex conservation issues (Millenbah and Millspaugh 2003). Furthermore, presenting information in lectures assumes that auditory learning techniques reach all students equally, when that typically benefits educated individuals who are capable of such learning; in contrast, experiential learning casts a wider net and reaches students who process information through a variety of different styles (Ryan and Campa 2000, McCleery et al. 2005). The former is teacher-based while the latter is student-based. Because experiential methods teach students to learn how to learn, they develop lifelong learning skills (Ryan and Campa 2000).

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