Experiences are so important to our industry that it has made its way into the title of our field: Experiential Education. But why do we place the philosophy and psychology of experiences on such a high pedestal? This post explores three reasons that make experiences such a powerful and necessary part of all the work that we do.
Experiences contribute to deeper and more sustainable learning
The main reason we emphasize experience in all of our programming is because experiences help topics come alive. Theories, models, vocabulary, and strategies all lie within the realm of concept which, although extremely important and quintessentially human, isn’t the ultimate factor contributing to an educated and well lived life. There are many ways for humans to learn, in fact there is an entire field of philosophy operating under the term epistemology which deals exclusively with how we know what we know.
Perception, introspection, reason, and testimony are generally considered the main sources of coming to know what we know, and all of them play a role in experiential education. Testimony, also known as social learning, is the act of learning from other people. This can include blog posts (ahem), articles television, radio, tapes, books, and other presentations. Other ways of knowing are thought to be justified independently of experience through logic or reason such as when we deduce a certain activity will be dangerous even if we have never done it ourselves or seen anyone else do it before.
The final two sources of knowledge can both be considered experiential and thus take a central role in experiential education. Perception includes our five senses and it is the main source of how we come to know the external world around us. Introspection is the act of inspecting what takes place within our own minds. This can also be paired with interoception which is the capacity to observe what takes place within our own physical bodies.
Much of traditional education is based upon testimony and reason alone, which are certainly ways of knowing, but clearly do not complete the ecosystem of learning of which our minds are capable. Perception, introspection, and interoception are all foundations of experiential education because they provide a wider range of depth and opportunity for learning than testimony and reason alone.
Experiences are more fun
If we’re all being honest, instructors, guides, participants, and students are all interested in having fun. Enjoyment is one of the key aspects of a life well lived, and although learning is extremely important, given the option most people prefer to choose fun over obligation. Beyond the obvious benefits of having fun, enjoyment is typically an indication that one is in a state of flow- challenges and skills are balanced, clear goals are set, and feedback is readily available. Flow states propel us into further complexity and can even help to shape the evolution of culture and society.
When we’re having fun we are much more open and willing to participate in the subject matter at hand. There is even substantial evidence that suggests that when we feel positive emotions our attention is more broadly available and we can more easily build personal and social resources. By blurring the lines between work and play, or even assignments and games, we can make the process of education that much more worthwhile.
Life itself is comprised of experiences
As we explored above, there is more to life than concepts and theories, however, it is much more difficult to claim that there is more to life than our experiences. The things we experience are literally the only things that let us know we do indeed exist. When we pair this foundational truth with the topics and ideas found in experiential programs we can similarly come to understand what about them genuinely exists and what is merely a fiction or conceptualization.
Outside of the individual existential implications economists and sociologists have come to recognize that society itself is beginning to prioritize experiences as well. Some theorists have even gone so far as to suggest that we have gone through agrarian, industrial, and service economies and we are now in an age of an experience economy in which businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that the memories themselves become the product.
As a method of learning and knowing, as an avenue for enjoying oneself, as a motor for the economy, or even as a source of existential insight, experience is an incredibly valuable and important part of human life. Experiential educators intuitively understand this value and we work tirelessly to allow incredible experiences to be the true teachers.
Alston, W. P. (1985). Concepts of epistemic justification. The Monist, 68(1), 57-89.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1-53). Academic Press.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). The concept of flow. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 239-263). Springer, Dordrecht.
Pine, B. J., & Gilmore, J. H. (2011). The experience economy. Harvard Business Press.
Photo 1 by Morgan David de Lossy
Photo 2 by Roberto Nickson
Photo 3 by Cristofer Jeschke
Keywords: Experiential Education, Experiential Learning, Positive Psychology, Flow State, Epistemology, Enjoyment, Existential Philosophy