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Humans are designed to learn by doing. So why aren't we doing by learning?

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

In my heart of hearts, I have always been an educator. I sincerely believe that it is humanity's utmost privilege to create and share knowledge with the goal of shaping young minds towards being good, knowledgable global citizens. To that end, like many like-minded 21st century profs, I work hard to ensure my course content is relevant to my students, not just in an evidence-based manner, which is critical, but also in ways that evoke engagement through case discussions, current events, and story-telling techniques. In a word, my primary 'go-to' pedagogical technique is problem-based, in-class experiential learning.


Experiential learning, or 'learning by doing', is not a new concept. Its roots date back at least to the ancient Greeks, who called it 'praxis', if not earlier. However, to many scholars and practitioners alike, it is a concept whose time has come owing to its promise of expanding and deepening learning by applying knowledge to experience to develop new ways of thinking and acting. It is rooted in the constructivist model of human learning, where instructors and learners work together to come up with bespoke solutions to shared 'real-world' problems. In this model, instructors are not lecturers, they are facilitators and caretakers of the learning process.


I believe that experiential learning is at the core of every human's motivation to do anything. In fact, it appears as though we are cognitively 'wired' to learn this way. For example, some of my previous work on goal-setting with my colleagues Dr. Bruce Martin and Dr. Simon Taggar provided the first-ever evidence that people set goals to engage in a process of learning about themselves, even if other people will never observe them pursuing those goals. This provides support for the idea that experiential learners see themselves as captains of their own learning journeys - the proverbial 'buck' stops with them when it comes to thinking about their own successes and failures. This represents a critical element of experiential learning - reflection.

Too many times have I sat in meetings or on various university-level committees with faculty and administrators only to hear reasons, usually from senior faculty members, about why applying and studying experiential learning techniques is a good idea, but it will not work here. Stuck in or near their own ivory silos, these colleagues get lost in the weeds by, for example, focussing on which measurement tools are best to study the outcomes of experiential learning. Some downplay the qualitative nature of reflection, while others view quantitative methodologies as insufficient for understanding the 'why' and 'how' of experiential learning outcomes. Others still get distracted by the tiresome but oh-so-common politics of deciding who in the university community are most qualified to conduct the sort of research that needs to be done to examine the outcomes of experiential learning. As Henry Kissenger said, "Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small."

"Too many times have I sat in meetings or on various university-level committees with faculty and administrators only to hear reasons, usually from senior faculty members, about why applying and studying experiential learning techniques will not work."

In part, the reason for this resistance is cultural. Though New Brunswick is a province of unparalleled natural beauty that has deep and important roots in Canadian history it has, for many years, been a 'have-not' region facing its own set of unique and challenging circumstances. Those challenges include stubbornly high unemployment rates, a bourgeoning debt, shrinking resources, low standardized test scores in its school children, and a population that is both aging and declining in number. These generational problems, in my opinion, have somewhat understandably resulted in an insidious and persistent form of defeatism in its population - even senior university faculty members can succumb to it after years of having to face it via their own efforts to strengthen the province's educational and research profile. Speaking from hardened experience, this very real zeitgeist of 'we can't do it here' is difficult to surmount, both politically and empirically.


I think another reason for the resistance is that experiential learning, as an empirical concept, though widely studied for years, was not a learning approach whose time had fully come to inform the vast literature devoted to human learning. For decades the prevailing 'cells and bells' model of primary and secondary education, which was appropriate for post-Industrial Revolution classrooms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has guided the research of educational outcomes at the university level. These static models of learning have traditionally focussed more on the effectiveness of various pedagogical techniques, and less on the internal changes in students that happens as a result of these interventions and activities.


Now, at the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which features the interaction of humans and technology toward the pursuit of goals, experiential learning is a concept whose time has come for the development of core critical skills and competencies needed for success in the 21st century workforce. Ready or not, now is the time for rigorous and relevant research on the antecedents and outcomes of experiential learning. And, unlike Henry Kissenger's assessment of academic politics, the stakes are high - the outcomes could represent nothing less than the future performance of K-12 and university students in the 21st-century workforce.


Now is the time to get it right.


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Dr. Jeffrey J. McNally, or 'Dr. Jeff' as he is known to his students, is a professor of management at the University of New Brunswick, Canada. His award-winning research focuses primarily on studying the outcomes of entrepreneurship education. Jeff also studies the outcomes of workplace attitudes. More information about him can be found online on LinkedIn, Twitter, or you can send him an email at jeff.mcnally@unb.ca.


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