The Best Way to Learn is From Experience, But Experience Itself is Not Enough

Learning is not just a matter of education or experience. We need both to encourage personal development.

It can be tough to learn from experience. Experience may frighten us, weaken us or make us self-doubt, but it may also make us stronger. What all experiences have in common is that they shape who we are.

I believe that most experiences provide an opportunity for personal development, but in order to take advantage of our experiences, we need to think about how they can help us learn. Here is an example I made up:

“A man experiences difficulties at work. He begins to think that he is the problem.  His co-workers send out messages that he is “a pain in the ass”. He believes them and starts to blame himself. He sees no escape, so he quits his job.”

How could this experience facilitate learning? Instead of quitting his job, he could have thought: “What causes the difficulties, and how can I/we change or improve the situation?“. Perhaps, he made the right decision to quit his job. Perhaps, he thought it was easier to let go. My point is that we too often miss opportunities for learning, simply because we forget to reflect:

“Learning from experience is one of the most fundamental and natural means of learning available to everyone … All it requires is the opportunity to reflect and think, either alone or in the company of other people.”

According to experiential learning theory, we learn through a learning cycle. Our experience serves a basis for reflection. From reflections, we develop ideas about the world. We then test the ideas to see if they are true, and finally we have a new experience. The learning cycle does not necessarily begin with experience. For example, we may have an idea that we want to test, and so on:

“Thinking … is the intentional endeavour to discover specific  connections between something which we do and the consequences which result, so that the two become continuous.” (Dewey, 1916).

We need to reflect on our experiences to encourage lifelong learning and personal development – experience itself is not enough:

“When we undergo an experience, this does not always lead to new insights and learning. For example, if the experience only serves to confirm some already held beliefs it will be interpreted as supporting the existing cognitive status quo (see Piaget’s cognitive theory), and little attention will be paid to it. If we do not pay attention to it the opportunity for new learning will not happen”.

Image: G Talan – All quotes: Beard & Wilson, 2006, p. 15-20.