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Plataforma electrónica dedicada a la enseñanza para adultos en Europa



Perspectives of experiential learning in adult education

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Experiential learning is the process of learning through experiences. It is defined as learning by doing, as per Dewey (1915), and as the experienced-based learning, as per Wolfe & Bryne (1975).

It is a powerful tool for adult learners because they gain concrete experiences and reflect on them by comparing the new experiences with their prior learning. This type of learning has been widely used in management research and practice due to the dualism of action-reflection and its holistic character (Corbet, 2005; Fenwick, 2003).

In the following, different perspectives on experiential learning and its importance are provided.

The Constructivist Perspective

One of the most well-known perspectives of experiential learning in adult education is constructivism. In this humanistic approach, individuals are in the centre of personal meaning-making, and their experiences from mental structures and knowledge are constructed through interaction (Fenwick, 2001, pp.3, 17).

In Kolb's constructivist model (1984) experiential learning is considered as a conflict-filled process, as a tension. Knowledge and skills are acquired through concrete experience, reflective observation, and abstract conceptualization. According to Kolb's model, learners pose the question about future contexts. However, in constructivism, not all experiences lead to learning.

A relevant model to Kolb's model has been developed by Boud and Walker (1991), in which specific contexts shape an individual's experience in diverse ways. Here, emotions, prior learning strategies, and experiences play a significant role in learning. It is remarkable that negative feelings can block any potential learning, and that individuals' learning gets affected by the notion of readiness.

Referring to constructivism, as a dominant conception in experiential learning, it is worth mentioning Schön's view (1983) about the importance of critical reflection on the construction of knowledge. Per Schön, individuals learn by framing the problems they are interested in within working environments that are defined by complexity and value conflicts.

Merizow (1991:9) argued about the critical reflection on experiences for transformative learning and Brookfield (1995) suggested the importance of reflection on learners' experiences since adults refine or correct their knowledge constructions through reflection.

The Psychoanalytical Perspective

"We do not address the unconscious, it addresses us" (Britzman, 1986, p. 55). In Fenwick's monograph (2001, p. 28), the psychoanalytical perspective is identified by the individuals’ relation between their inside world of dilemmas and desires as well as their outside world of culture and objects of knowledge.

According to Britzman's theory (1998), based on the psychoanalytic idea of split subjectivity, individuals resist to different objects, such as the working incidents, due to the conflicts between conscious and unconscious, between the internal and the external social world. But adults learn through these conflicts; learn to pay attention to their internal world when dealing with dilemmas. A potential weakness of the psychoanalytical perspective is the lack of the social context, something that the socio-cultural perspective takes into consideration.

The Situative Perspective

In the situative or socio-cultural perspective, social relationships and discussion are the keys to experiential learning (Fenwick, 2001, p.36). Lave and Wenger (1991) have described as "legitimate peripheral participation", meaning that individuals learn in communities through interactions. They construct knowledge through participation in activities, which are imposed by history, culture, assumptions, norms, and language. Learning is not an individual process like in constructivism, but a social process, situated in a specific context. At the centre of learning is participation, as the object of learning.

However, prior learning and experiences are new insights provided for further analysis. A consideration related to the social-cultural perspective, since each team participant brings into the workplace or classroom cultural, historical, political, and social elements to be harmonized with the team's values. Newcomers join a team ready to apply the already established rules in the working or school community and to give elements of their own values and beliefs. The already existing cultural dynamics within the team are sometimes opposed.

Since participating effectively is more important than learning about the community (Fenwick, 2001, p. 34), a working or school community ought to value prior knowledge and skills, which are the elements for improving the potential learning. Within teams, sometimes occur inevitably uncomfortable situations, in which adults tend to ignore negative feelings and tensions. These tensions are however valuable in the construction of social structures.

The Critical-Cultural Perspective

In Fenwick's monograph (2001) it is mentioned that "critical cultural studies offer tools for tracing complex power relations and their consequences" (p.40).

The key to understanding in learning is the role of power in human cultural systems. The power is central to the experience and experiential learning. In multicultural classrooms or workplaces, there are males and females of different ages, of different educational backgrounds, beliefs, and values.

Whereas the power circulates through everything and everyone, like Foucault states (1980, cited in Brookfield, 2001), there might be distinct relationships in the potential workplace or classroom; between the line manager and the employees, the employees and the organization, the lecturer and the student, among the students, and among all team members.

The "conscientization" of power (Freire, 1970, cited in Fenwick, 2001) is restricted to each of the above-mentioned distinct relationships. The options for further actions and critical reflection are limited, due to the hierarchy that outlines the organizational culture. The power dynamics that are set up hierarchically provide few opportunities for open dialogue. Moreover, they alternate possibilities for engagement in the university's or organization's procedures, a fact that imposes barriers to learning.

The Enactivist Perspective

In enactivist or ecological perspective, experiential learning occurs interactively between the environment and the learner (Fenwick, 2001, p.47). Cognition is acquired through participation into experiences, while environment and cognition are simultaneously enacted. The theory considers learning to be embedded in conduct; it is continuous and is produced through identity, interactions and structural dynamics of complex systems (Fenwick, 2001, p. 48). The learning community within individuals belongs and interacts, is split into systems and subsystems, where learners construct knowledge.


Experiential learning, as in working in international workplaces or studying in multiculturally diverse classrooms, is a challenge for the adult learners. It fosters the upgrading of life skills, such as respect for diversity, exposure to different perspectives, opportunities for critical reflection and open-mindedness, and opens new horizons to learning.

The active participation of adult learners, either as students or employees, in experiential learning (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010) is beneficial for both learners and the community.


Sofia Bakirli
About the author: Sofia Bakirli studied Pedagogy, Psychology, Human Resource Management, and Adult Learning in Thessaloniki, Rome, and Linköping. Before joining our community, I worked at the Greek Ministry of Education, Aristoteles University, Regional District of Darmstadt, European Patent Office, and the European Business School in Munich. I have been a member of the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA), and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). My research interests include international policy analysis in social inclusion, migrants´ integration in host countries, diverse workforce in multicultural workplaces, and global talent management.


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