On Experience

On Experience

November 8, 2019

“I want you to learn from my experience!” This earnest aspiration, sometimes seasoned with an element of exasperation, uttered by the experientially rich – often a parent, teacher, older sibling, or manager – is for the benefit of those of tender years who are deemed to be in need of guidance. Of course, we mean well, but unfortunately, we are misguided in this endeavor. In the sense intended – “I want you to have my experiences and learn” – we encounter a logical impossibility: we can only really share about our experiences, and hope that our youthful audience remembers something useful to apply in the future. Educationally, this can be a marginal proposition.

Our experiences belong to us alone: they are intimately and inextricably linked to our own lives, actions, interactions, relationships, journeys, triumphs, and hardships. When we draw from the deep well of our lived memory to share with others, they can only observe from a distance. Our memories, like projections on a wall, do not necessarily connect at all with their own experience. In the same way that we cannot learn to swim from watching video clips about water, the experiences of others cannot be internalized directly; we must construct a personal ‘inner world’ based on sensory stimulation derived from our immediate surroundings.
It is for this reason that in experiential education, where we learn is as important as what we learn. Our experiential learning programs offer a departure from school and home-based learning that is largely of a semantic nature – the acquisition or construction of declarative knowledge (facts and concepts) – to pursue a different kind of learning, one that is procedural, providing skills and informing action.
The setting of experiential learning provides an important element of sensory stimulation that promotes the formation of particularly durable memories, known as episodic memory – a kind of a mental DVD player – that allows each of us to recall in fine detail events of the past, right down to colors, sounds, and even odors. For the things learned during these novel events, experiential learners retain a great deal that can be used to shape actions and decisions in the future. This is the key element of experiential learning.
Each generation must experience and rediscover the world, their world, in a manner that is unique to themselves. Those of us with more candles on our birthday cake can certainly share what things were like in ‘our time’, but this is of indirect and perhaps marginal interest to our children. Our essential task is to ensure that the young have access to a full range of experiences and resources, all of which will shape their attitudes towards and understanding of their world.
This week, our thanks in particular go to the committed, passionate, and adventurous educators who, through our ELPs, led our students into the world to help them have the sort of experiences that they can learn from: rich and varied, full of challenge, confusion, and confrontation. These personal encounters of a different world are the memorable physical and emotional milestones that mark the journey each of our students is undertaking. Without them, they are indeed just learning about someone else’s experience of the world.



Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School

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