How Learning Through Experience is the Best Form of Learning


The most basic level human beings learn is through experience. We give meaning to each event in our lives according to our current needs and belief system. Our experiences are the sum total of our memory of the event and the meaning that we attach to it. What we learn from each experience determined by our belief system and needs at the time of the event as much as by the event itself. This helps in explaining why two different people can participate in the same event and have completely different experiences.

If the experience is sufficiently strong, it can call our current values and beliefs into question.

To resolve the ensuing tension, we have four options:

  • learn to be comfortable with our inconsistencies,
  • change how we view the conflict through a paradigm shift,
  • change our belief system,
  • or change our actions to become consistent with our beliefs.

Change requires process time. Process time is more effective when it closely follows the new experience. A minor adaptation to our belief system occurs with minimal effort and happens rather quickly. Experiences that challenge close held values usually require more effort and time to process and often disrupt our state of being during process period. If strong enough, this disruption manifests itself as actions that fall outside our normal behavior.

The above concept illustrates why the Action/Reflection Model commonly used in outdoor adventure education is often an effective strategy for values clarification and change. Debrief circles, mini solos, solo, etc. are examples of structured “reflection or process” strategies. It is extremely important for instructors to remember that reflection must be preceded by a valuable experience, and not all experiences are equally valuable. Instructors can facilitate metaphoric learning by scheduling process time after some significant experiences. The “trick” lies in recognizing these experiences at the time they occur, having the power and flexibility to adapt the course itinerary, and having the human skills to successfully intervene/assist if the situation reaches crisis proportions.

Depending on the student population, the individual student, and the nature of the crisis, instructors may need advanced training in counseling to be successful; hence, the use of trained mental health workers in wilderness therapeutic programs is needed. Fortunately for most outdoor educators and guides all that is required to a clients with processing their experience is good observation skills, the ability to schedule “down” time immediately following a “valuable experience”, and have an attentive ear.

In addition to a minimum level of fitness and health, safe travel in a wilderness environment and/or participating in an adventure activity require a minimum level of outdoor and human skills on the side of the participants. The level of each varies depending on the specific activity and the environment. The progressive development of skills required for safety during these trips also provides the framework for value forming experiences. In outdoor education, instructors design and manage a progression of outdoor activities that enable their students to master the skills they need in order to be at safe and provide an opportunity for them to consciously examine their values and beliefs in light of their actions as they learn those same skills. Metaphoric learning occurs as students strive to master the outdoor and human skills required to succeed in the trip environment. It is during moments of stress that their character emerges and they find themselves face to face with the questions.

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