chapter  3
13 Pages


To say that we learn from experience is a truism – and so, why has the idea of experiential learning developed into such a popular area of learning theory? Perhaps the answer to this is that educationalists have taken for granted the idea that we learn cognitively and usually in formal settings, such as schools and in pedagogic processes. Once it was recognised that practice is more basic to learning than cognitive theorising, so the idea of experiential learning became more popular. Knowles’ (1980) work on andragogy in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s led a great number of practitioners to utilise his thinking and his techniques – which were the traditional adult education ones to a great extent. Andragogy, therefore, led to a considerable growth in thinking about experiential learning. But it also came to reinforce the idea that vocational learners had to spend some time in a placement during their occupational preparation and, eventually, this even led to the rediscovery of apprenticeship models of vocational training. But an interesting paradox emerged – while experience became a common and taken-for-granted concept in the educational vocabulary philosophers have always claimed that the concept of experience is one of the most difficult in the philosophical vocabulary (Oakeshott, 1933, p. 9). Knowles (1980), however, referred to it in only one way – that of our personal biography – the experience we bring to learning which is very fundamental to adult learning and so anthologies of experiential learning (e.g. Weil and McGill, 1989) were more concerned with practice and early major studies were more concerned with reflection on practice – the cognitive (Boud et al ., 1983, Schon, 1983) than with theorising about this complex concept. For others, the term ‘experience’ was not only a focus (Marton et al ., 1984) rather a basis for dealing with the philosophical niceties of the concept and these points remained true even for some later studies that examined experiential learning (Fraser, 1995). But the foundations were being laid in education for a move towards a more philosophical approach (Jarvis, 1992, Marton and Booth, 1997). In my most recent book on learning I tackled this topic more fully (Jarvis, 2006, pp. 70-86) and this chapter is a development of the material that I put into that chapter: there is obviously some overlap with it, but there is also a lot of new material.