“We simply ‘learn by doing’ – don’t we?”
Empowering Learning: the importance of being experiential

Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Published by John Catt Educational

empowering learning

Experience: it is our first teacher in life, our early warning system, and our guide to world discovery. Yet, hidden in plain sight, experiential learning is largely taken for granted by educators and researchers.

There is a world of difference between ‘doing’ and ‘doing intelligently’. By understanding how experience acts as a mechanism to inspire and scaffold memorable learning, we stand to gain greater control over this most powerful and universal force in human development. Learning, empowered by experience, is lifechanging for learners; experience, purposefully harnessed, is transformational for schools.

Empowering Learning: the importance of being experiential’ explores risk, experience, and learning to offer a practical guide to powerful and inspirational experiential learning programs for teachers and school leaders.

To explore more on risk, experience and learning, please read on…

Risk, Experience and Learning

The passage of every child into adulthood is marked by the ever-present tension between risk and experience. Each time we try something new, we take risks. Each time we experience something, we create the possibility of learning that will enable us to manage or eliminate risk when faced with similar novel situations in the future. We can eliminate or reduce risk, often by taming the experience, and in so doing we remove elements of uncertainty from the learning equation. This does, however, potentially sacrifice learning opportunities in the name of safety.

Of course, the safety and wellbeing of every child is the primary concern for parents and educators. Schools are designed around the elimination of harm; anything that is uncertain poses a risk and is thus undesirable. In reducing uncertainty, schools have become highly sensitive to risk and vigilant in its management. Educators and parents have become more risk averse in an age of accountability, oversight, and safeguarding. Our ultimate goal is to protect children from harm through safer learning.

We might ask, however, what do we lose in the pursuit of safety and the elimination of risk in education? A very old idea is that learning is a process of trial and error: we ask learners to ‘try’ something and work to eliminate ‘error’. This seems to imply that with trial, we are prepared to accept a degree of error. The extent to which error is absent in anything our children do is probably the most common benchmark of achievement. A ‘right’ answer marks success; a ‘wrong’ answer is undesirable. In one sense, learning is about the elimination of errors. Ideal learning is a process that takes a learner to ‘right’ from an irreducible number of ‘wrongs’.

There is a strong deficit view of risk and error in many educational settings, but is risk always harmful? Are mistakes always bad? The real world is neither perfect nor predictable. As soon as we inject human agency, or indeed any novelty, into any situation, we generate the potential for the unexpected. Beyond the controlled and contrived world of school, life is complex; it is full of hazards and uncertainties. We cannot expect that students on graduation from school will step into a world where challenges have been simplified to a point where they cannot fail.

Given the complexities of the adult human experience, avoiding risk may carry hidden risks. A completely ‘safe’ education may set up young learners for immediate and devastating failure when they leave the carefully curated experiences of school.

Our capacity to control the life experiences of a learner is finite. Our ultimate goal must be to prepare our children for life beyond the years of formal education, when control is no longer possible or desirable.

Through overemphasis on risk aversion, however, we run the greater risk of trapping learners in an artificial world of childish simplicity, ill-suited to developing the skills and understandings that are expected of adults managing the risks of the real world. In seeking safety in the short-term, we remove the opportunity to learn about assessing and managing risk; we deny our children the very experiences that will generate coping skills to recover from mistakes and grow. In effect, we create the very thing we fear the most: we ensure that our children will fail when they move beyond the sanctuary of school and home.

In fact, learning as a process of developmental change, cannot be separated from risk. The more interesting and challenging the learning experience, the greater the range of potential outcomes; and the greater the uncertainty, the greater the risk. The truly novel, by definition, lies beyond the learner’s existing experiential frame of reference. How a learner responds to a novel learning problem is therefore inherently unpredictable and hence entails risk.

In one sense, ‘safe learning’ is something of a false tautology: it might be harmless learning – innocuous, inoffensive, inert, and ineffective. Safety is sometimes pursued as a stable state, a place protected from harm. Learning is a process of change and growth, where learners are exposed to uncertainty and risk. Errors are an essential part of that growth: they should be embraced as real evidence of engagement in

learning. One must ‘try’ in the trial, before experiencing ‘error’; one must risk error in order to succeed. To use a medical analogy, exposure to risk and experience of error is a form of inoculation: we reinforce our mental and emotional defence systems by exposure to controlled and relatively benign risks.

Safe learning is thus experientially rich; it builds capacity to assess risk, judgement to measure risk, agility to cope with change, adaptation to the unexpected, recovery from failure, confidence to grow and develop. If learning is genuinely aimed at preparation for life beyond the safe harbour of school, our aim must be to encourage trial and celebrate error on our way to success. At the same time, we must be wise in managing the ever-present tension between harmful risk and learning reward.

Dr. Malcolm Pritchard is currently Head of School at The Independent Schools Foundation Academy, a unique Chinese-English bilingual, K-12 International Baccalaureate (IB) school in Hong Kong. In previous senior appointments, Dr. Pritchard was the Principal of Komilda College, an IB school with a strong Australian Indigenous boarding enrolment, located in Darwin, Australia. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian College of Educators in 2016.

Buffalo Educational Travel hopes that by sharing experiences with the global education community we continue to develop innovative and life changing experiences for our partner students, schools and the communities we serve.