December 14, 2015—A couple of educators I know are high on what they call “experiential learning.” They try to be “creative” in the use of “interactive” learning methods in their teaching: skits, simulations, role-play, art activity, dramatizations, etc. Given the dearth of imagination in most teaching-learning experiences, I suppose this is a good thing, overall. But I also know that if I were one of their students, a steady diet of “creative experiential learning experiences: would quickly burn me out.
As an avowed constructivist educator, you would think that I would be more enthusiastic about the “creative experiential learning” efforts of my friends. The truth is that learning happens on many levels and through many modalities. Someone once said that he doesn’t recommend books because you can’t really “learn it from a book.” While that is true in some sense, the fact is that people DO learn from books. Not everything, but many things are appropriate to that medium. A constructivist educator does not need every time to rely on kinesthetic experiences to bring about learning. The fact is that cognition (thinking, conceptualizing, imagining, muddling, assessing, philosophizing, opining, reflecting, considering, supposing, deeming, and judging, etc.) is a bona fide type of experience.
This is related to how the brain works and how it experiences experience. For example, the reason it is necessary to provide opportunity for dialogue in religious education is because that is precisely the WAY some things in faith are learned. It is important to help people learn in the modality through which it needs to be learned. Some experiences are INTERNAL, and they are just as REAL as external experiences (some who hold to a certain epistemological philosophy would argue that those internal experiences are MORE real than the ones people perceive they are having in the “real”-material world).
Here is what we know: we learn from experience. That’s a basic educational concept, but too often understood simplistically. For one thing, not all experiences are the equal. Some experiences enoble us, and some diminish us. Which means that both WHAT and HOW we experience things matters.
Additionally, you can learn the WRONG thing from an experience. This is, for example, why some people get “stuck.” They have an experience, interpret it wrong, and therefore don’t “learn” from the experience because they are stuck in the experience. In this case, I say, “Experience may be the best teacher, but then you have to throw away the experience and keep the lesson learned.” This is why people go to therapy: they get stuck in an experience that they have not been able to make meaning of. Because experience is a feeder for emotions, the trap is that we can associate strong feelings to our experiences, but be disconnected from conceptualizing on the experience.
Experiences in and of themselves are meaningless, but we can associate feelings and emotions to them. The work of “learning” is to make MEANING of our experiences. And guess how that happens? Through thinking, dialogue, talking it out, and theological reflection. The pedagogical formula is: Experience (or Concepts) + Dialogue = Meaning.
In this sense, given how many teachers misapply “experiential learning” it may matter very little that someone is participating in a kinesthetic, “creative” experience if we do not follow through on the process by helping them make theological meaning of the experience through reflection and dialogical learning. Any experiential learning activity disconnected from the learning outcome intended can be just as ineffective and detrimental to the learning process as any boring lecture.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).