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Experiential learning

Venessa Silveira /
18/06/2020 /
  • Schools
“There exists within everyone a grand passion, an outlandish thirst for adventure, a desire to live boldly and vividly through the journey of life.”Kurt Hahn

Have you ever noticed a young child trying to avoid hot objects, like a burning candle because of the discomfort and pain caused by it during his/her past experiences with fire?

Do you think, the child would learn the dangers of fire if he/she had not directly experienced it?

Well, here’s when the concept of experiential learning slides in.

For thousands of years humans have survived, evolved and thrived by our nature of curiosity, our connection with each other and the environment around us.

One of the most pivotal moments in human history must be the discovery of fire and its manipulation for practical purposes; this is nothing but a reminder of how our curious minds have got us to where we now stand.

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Over time, humans have rapidly progressed and have made great advancements in the field of science and technology.

Yet, our connection with the natural world has grown to be more fragile than ever before.

Our abilities to think and create have not fallen into disuse; rather they are much more pertinent and vital for our personal growth and for the betterment of our communities.

What is Experiential Learning?

You may have heard or read about the concept of experiential learning at some point in your life.

We gain an understanding of concepts, ideas and theories through books, lectures, music, workshops etc. but it is only when we truly experience something directly, we develop a strong personal connection with the experience.

Going back in time, Experiential learning is a theory that was initially proposed by philosopher and psychologist David Kolb in the late 1970s.

David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model

Kolb emphasised highly on how meaningful learning is influenced by series of experiences. He believed that our personal experiences work to teach us about different subjects and understand different concepts:

“If an experience is interactive, emotional, challenging, and thought-provoking, it will stimulate further learning for the individual involved in the experience.”

With that, Kolb stresses on how active involvement is essential for experiential learning. To achieve the useful knowledge through experiencing, it’s not enough to only be physically present;

rather, the individuals who are not fully involved in an experience will not gain an insight from the activity.

In other words, Kolb highlights the role of active and meaningful participation for experiential learning to take place.

Here at Outward Bound Croatia, we greatly value Kolb’s theoretical learning framework.

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In his experiential learning theory, Kolb asserts that the experiential learning process follows a 4-step cycle that can be used in grasping and transforming experience:

  • Concrete experiences
  • Reflective observation
  • Abstract Conceptualisation
  • Active experimentation

Let’s have a closer look at each step:

1.     Concrete Experience

According to Kolb, the learner must be fully involved in the experience.

For instance, we design our outdoor courses using activities such as hiking, rock climbing, caving, camping etc. that are meant to serve as a learning experience to our participants.

However, the dept of each individual’s learning experience will depend on how they involve themselves with the activity.

2.     Reflective Observation

At Outward Bound, we consider reflection as the most important aspect of the learning cycle.

During this process, facilitators ask the participants thought-provoking questions relevant to their experience.

Reflection is crucial for the process of learning because it allows individuals to analyse and verbalise their experiences. Without reflection, the experience is merely an activity with no personal connection.

3.     Abstract Conceptualisation

After the reflection process, participants are given the space to use their knowledge and analytical skills to conceptualise the experience. This highly depends on how the individual decides to use his/her knowledge and skills to create a new idea/concept.

This process of learning takes place outside the concrete experience.

4.     Active Experimentation

At this stage, the participants act on their knowledge and apply these concepts to the world around them. The participants are now set to put up the skills into practice.

In the end, this is the final goal set by Outward Bound.

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Learning Through Experiencing and Why Is It Important?

Over the years, there have been significant studies conducted to understand the role of experience and learning. Adopting the value of education and learning, Dewey (1986) emphasised that there is no discipline in the world so severe as the discipline of experience.

When you go trekking across mountains or camping in forests, you experience mother earth in all its glory; offering magical views and discoveries in the wild.

Such experiences teach us important lessons and life skills; it teaches us to be humble, to co-operate with one another and to reflect on ourselves and grow.

Experiences in the Outdoors and the Development of a Young Person

In today’s times the world is rapidly evolving; we have grown so attached to the superficial world that we often find ourselves disconnected from the natural world; this has in turn led to major personal development issues among young children as well as adults.

For instance:

We are all aware that the young children and young adults are facing a higher number of mental health conditions than ever before.

Here’s why experiential learning courses may offer a possible solution to that:

Guiding and challenging teenagers and young adults to move out of their comfort zone and develop new skills and competences is highly beneficial for the development of their self-confidence and resilience.

Unlike normative classroom settings where students receive textbook knowledge, experiential learning courses provide opportunities to think, question, reason, and act on the knowledge they experience within a hands-on environment.

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The Outward Bound Learning Process

The Outward Bound learning process is one of the many significant learning models created to explain the application of experiential learning.

This model was created by Walsh & Golins in the year 1976 with an intention to organize important elements of the leading adventure courses. Walsh & Golins created this model with 7 elements that must be considered when facilitating experiential learning in the outdoors.

1.   Motivated Learner

For any learning to happen, the learner must be motivated and ready.

This also means that the learner needs to be assessed by the facilitator before starting the course and he/she needs to have all relevant information about what is going to happen during the course.

Sharing information and building rapport between instructor and participant is crucial for the motivation and emotional safety of the learner.

2.   Unique Physical Environment

The physical learning environment is one of the most important aspects that must be considered to facilitate experiential learning. On an OBC experiential learning course, the physical learning environment is the outdoors.

The environment itself is so different from what the participants are used to, that their actions and reactions naturally can also strongly differ from what they would behave like in a familiar environment.

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When reflected upon, this experience can lead to new insights about themselves and their environment as well as the readiness to adopt new behaviours.

3.   Unique Social Environment

Social environments play an important role in experiential learning courses.

This element points to the need of having smaller groups that are dynamic. Meaning, 7-15 individuals with common learning objectives must be placed together with collective group consciousness, individuality, autonomy, trust, and conflict resolution.

This will help participants to analyse their actions and behaviour, how it may have affected others and how their personal outcome may have varied from others within the group.

4.   Characteristic Set of Problem-Solving Tasks

Experiential learning is one of the best ways through which children and adults learn creative problem-solving.

This can be achieved through the challenges encountered in outdoor experiences with real world content.

These activities and experiences can help boost personal competences and encourage participants to use their creative thought process and find unique solutions to the tasks.

5.   State of Adaptive Dissonance

Outdoor experiential courses are designed with the intention to push participants into a state called “adaptive dissonance”. After an early success, which is meant to build confidence, the participants will encounter tasks that are challenging enough to let them experience frustration and failure.

Only when facing frustration, the participants can practice coping skills and perseverance and build resilience.

The desired learning outcome is for the participants to embrace struggle, frustration, and failure as parts of learning, instead of signs of failure.

To reach this learning goal, the instructor’s task is to mentor, support, encourage, and refocus the participants but without doing the work for them.

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6.   Mastery or Competence

Successfully enduring and overcoming the state of adaptive dissonance will in turn boost the learners’ self-esteem.

This will let him/her develop a great deal of confidence in accomplishing other meaningful tasks in his/her life.

7.   Reorganisation of the Meaning and Direction

Mastery provides high levels of motivation for change.

Developing new sets of skills and creative problem-solving abilities in such learning environments can help individuals to reorganize the meaning and direction in his/her personal life.

However, the impact of this reorganisation is only as strong as the participants’ ability to create continuous and lasting change.

experiential learning

Outward Bound Croatia designs each of our outdoor courses with an understanding that every individual has a unique learning process.

What works for one, may not work for the other.

When we take our participants into the outdoors, we make sure that we allow every individual to have an experience that is of his/her own.

Based on our participants’ testimonies and experiences, it’s safe to say that experiential learning is the way to go!

For it helps individuals to find themselves as it allows them to push their boundaries in a safe environment; allowing growth and motivation for change.


Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. FT press.
Dewey, J. (1986). Experience and Education. The Educational Forum, 50(3), 241–252.doi:10.1080/00131728609335764
Priest, S., & Gass, M. A. (1997). Effective leadership in adventure programming. University of new Hampshire.


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