Experience is the best teacher!

Since the NEP2020 has strongly recommended changing classroom pedagogies to inquiry-based, discovery-based, experiential learning, these themes are trending on the training circuit. I often wonder if training is the only way for teachers to get a hang of these new and old pedagogies that surface at regular intervals. Why not try action-research that will give them first -hand feedback into the efficacy of any pedagogy in the classroom through a process of problem-solving that integrates research, experience, observation, analysis, and experimentation into their own practices. This will also give them deep insights into the fundamental questions, how does learning happen and what is the role of experience in the learning process.

Pursuit of ‘Learning’

To make an objective inquiry into the learning process, it would be worthwhile for teachers to mentally distance themselves from their school, classroom, lesson plans, exams, academic calendar, syllabi, and routine activities and pursue this question by simply observing their own learning and learnability. My experiences have informed me that I learn best when I do something practically. This process puts me in the driver’s seat as I plan the task by figuring out the materials, process and time required to accomplish it. The end product is of course a big revelation as it tells me what went right and what did not and what I could have done differently for better outcomes. In addition to this, watching others perform a similar task and listening to tales of their own adventures and misadventures adds greater insights to my understanding and motivates me to experiment again, more confident, and surer of the results this time round! According to David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) this is exactly how learning happens, irrespective of when and where.

Value Experience

Kolb was greatly influenced by educational philosophies of Dewey and Piaget. Being an eternal pragmatist John Dewey, believed that human beings learnt through a hands-on experience i.e. ‘learning by doing’ and that learning is impacted by the ‘quality of experiences’. Jean Piaget too in his Theory of Cognitive Development said that learning begins with concrete experiences and grows into abstract understandings. Children learn best when they play an active role in the learning process, acting like little scientists performing experiments and making observations to make sense of the task.

Some more educational philosophies worth considering in pursuit of our understanding of experiential learning are by- Sri Aurobindo who believed that learning best happens in free and creative environment that aids and allows development of child’s interest, creativity, mental, moral, and aesthetic sense. Mahatma Gandhi, another pragmatist, writes in his book Nai Talim that ‘work and knowledge should go together’. Children should be taught craft (work) not mechanically but scientifically (with reason and evidence) as it would develop the intellect of the child. The most revealing statement of Gandhi’s educational philosophy is when he says, ‘the brain must be educated through the hand.’ J Krishnamurthy squarely puts the onus of learning on the teacher’s ability to plan the right kind of enquiry. He declares that since the purpose of learning is to develop a questioning mind and spirit, teacher has to free himself from mindless repetition of content and practices. He astutely concludes that most times the problem thus is not the child but the educator, for what he is, that he imparts!

I – Do Theory

In 1984 through his I -Do Theory David Kolb explained the learning process in four stages – action, reflection, conceptualisation, and experimentation. Kolb’s theory is truly learner centred as for him it is the learner who drives and develops the learning process. Teacher for him is the facilitator of learning through efficient planning and monitoring. Whether planning for an online or off-line, the teacher must keep in mind these cardinal rules of experiential learning.

  •  Learning is process and not a product or outcome.


  • The learning process is grounded in experience and reflection.


  • The learning process is holistic and integrated as it involves feeling, watching, thinking, and doing.


  •  Learning is not complete without problem solving and decision-making processes that require learner to use higher order thinking skills.


  • Learning involves transactions between the person and the environment (surroundings) therefore learning must be adapted to the real-life context of the learner.


  •  Interactions between personal knowledge and social knowledge (peer- discussions, collaborations, and review) help learners conceptualise or construct knowledge.


In-Class Experience

Four stages of experiential learning are explained in detail here for the educators to understand the role of each stage on the learning continuum because learners acquire critical knowledge/insights from each stage. Depending upon the situation the learners may enter the learning cycle at any stage, however, they will best learn the new task/concept if they undergo all the four stages.

1. Concrete Experience – Teacher plans an activity for introduction of the theme through an interesting fun experience requiring learners to perform, demonstrate, express, or enact freely using his imagination, emotions, and senses. This is the ‘feeling stage’ where learners’ experiences enable them to get a feel of the concept they are about to learn. e.g. to learn about flying, learners would be asked to imitate a flying thing of their choice such as an insect, bird, or plane and also express how they felt in that role. Similarly, generic themes across curriculum such as happiness, nature, poverty, illiteracy or pollution could be experienced and expressed realistically by learners. Mathematical concepts on the other hand could be experienced and expressed by learners using manipulatives or other materials. This concrete experience sets the stage for learning by creating readiness in the learners.

2. Reflective Observation- This is the ‘watching stage’ when learners reflect on their experience before making any judgement about it. This stage also gives them the opportunity to observe peer-performances that broaden their perspective and gives them enough fodder to mull over the experience they have recently undergone. They imbibe a lot of new information simply through mindful and focussed observation and sharing of these reflections. This information processing puts learners on the process continuum that leads them eventually to active experimentation.

3. Abstract Conceptualisation: This is the thinking stage. While during reflective observation they had focused on thinking about previous experiences and developing observations about them, abstract conceptualization takes the reflective process a step forward by making learners focus on developing those observations into a set of generalisations that form the core of a concept or theory. Teacher involves students in researching the inquiry questions by information gathering, sorting, classifying, defining new terminology, analysing processes, group discussions, presentations, peer-review, and feedback. All these strategies aid conceptualisation or construction of knowledge.

4. Active Experimentation – The fourth stage is the doing stage where the teacher gives learners an opportunity to test their ideas through active experimentation. Teachers create opportunities of active experimentation for learners by requiring them to construct, model, demonstrate, write, compose, illustrate, develop a code, perform or problem- solve. They apply their ideas mindfully to these situations and attempt problem solving, decision making or devising innovations. This helps them eventually connect the dots and arrive at a holistic understanding of the concept being learnt.

When planned thoughtfully all these stages happen seamlessly on the learning continuum with one stage leading the learner to another quite effortlessly.


Experiential learning requires all learners to use their head, heart, and hand in the learning process. Therefore, the experiences range from emotional, concrete, kinaesthetic to intellectual. Learning process becomes fun and collaborative albeit challenging. Psychologically learners are in an optimistic and confident space as they contribute, collaborate, and participate actively in the learning process. They may stress over the outcomes of their experimentation; however, they are confident of success as they know that they are on the learning curve. The ‘power of yet’ has surely and certainly driven out the fear of failure!

In conclusion

The concept of experiential learning is universal and time-tested. In 6 th century BCE after retiring from the Emperors court, the Chinese philosopher Confucius established his own school. He used the experiential approach to not only teach rudimentary subjects but also for developing character and humanity in all his learners, rich and poor alike. Although experiential learning has been validated repeatedly over centuries by eminent educationists however Confucius has immortalised it in these words – I hear I forget; I see I remember; I do I understand. – Confucius



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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