Experience fosters learning. No matter how much you may wish you could download skills and knowledge into your brain, the only foolproof way of mastering anything in life is through experience. And by experience, we mean “trial and error.”
Virtually any skill – speed reading, touch typing, walking, speaking a foreign language – requires substantial amounts of time invested in practicing. During a 1957 press conference, William Faulkner was asked for his advice to young, aspiring writers. This was his reply:
At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance.
On a similar vein, Aristotle asserted the same principle of experiential learning, hundreds of years before Faulkner:
For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.
This is the basic premise that underlines experiential learning (learning from experience). We don’t first learn something and then do it, rather we learn it by doing it. In other words, practice precedes learning and experience is a prerequisite for mastery. You cannot expect to speed read just by reading a book about speed reading, but the moment you experience and practice that skill you become a speed reader.
Experiential education is what allows a person to fully immerse themselves in the learning of a skill or capacity, and it’s what produces the most impressive learning results. According to psychologist David Kolb, knowledge is the product of experience. When a person is having a concrete experience, for example when they’re learning touch typing, this physical experience is what will allow the beginning typist to mentally reflect on their performance and produce their own interpretation of the process. With these abstract interpretations of the learning experience the typist is then back in the physical realm, actively testing out their assertions; this cycle is what ultimately results in learning to touch type. We repeat this process of practice, reflection, concept formation, and re-testing until learning takes place.
This approach to learning, like all others, of course has its flaws. Many people point out this theory’s inability to explain how people also learn without reflecting on the learning process. A common example is the fact that a person can learn how to tie their shoelaces through repetition, rather than reflecting on the process.
Nonetheless, the reflective aspect of experiential learning has a wide range of benefits and functions. With experiential learning, for example, we increase our self-esteem because we succeed in teaching ourselves something new by actively applying the new knowledge. This process is rewarding and gives a big boost to self-confidence because it has tangible results the learner can immediately recognize.
Theory turns into knowledge when we’re allowed to participate in our learning in a mindful, receptive, and attentive manner. What’s more, experiential learning is what will offer us the confirmation that learning indeed took place, that we’ve mastered a new skill and we’re ready to advance it even further. Whenever you have the chance, choose to learn through experience and practice rather than in the abstract. The results will astonish you.