Experiential learning – what’s good and what’s hot

farm

I am a proponent of learning by experience, of learning through one’s own explorations and making one’s own discoveries. In early childhood centres it is sometimes called ‘hands on’ learning. The recommendation is to provide opportunities for children to learn by doing rather than simply by listening to someone tell about it or by reading information in a book. For example, experiencing the sights, smells and sounds of a farm create an enriched understanding of farm life that is not possible simply from looking at pictures of farm animals in a caption book. Activities like mixing and making with modelling dough, or building and creating with construction sets provide opportunities for developing numerous skills and understandings.

That’s not to say that experiential learning is best in every situation or that learning from the explanations of others, including reading information in a book, is less worthy. Indeed there is a place for each and it is important to get the balance, timing and application right. You would not need to view many posts on my blog (for example here and here) to realise that I am a proponent of reading also and believe that instilling a love of reading is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child.

In their book A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown discuss the differences between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.  This chart shows my understanding of some of the differences.

Explicit and tacit learning

 

Michael Polanyi  The Tacit Dimension

I think it would be undisputed that there is knowledge best learned through explicit instruction and other best learned through experience. I am sure you can think of many examples in your own life, like riding a bicycle, learning a foreign language or playing a musical instrument.

But what about teaching young children about heat? It is not far into the life of any young child that they are cautioned about the heat of an oven or stove, heater or barbecue plate. But what is “hot” if you have never experienced it?

Thomas and Brown say that “when a parent first tells a child not to touch a flame because it is hot, the child will almost always put out her hand and get burned” because the child has only been given the explicit part of the information, the part that could be articulated: that “Fire is hot”. When the child is burned much more information is learned by the body: that it hurts and is unpleasant. The child is then able to make connections with other similar “hot” things and situations.

I think neither of the authors nor any parent would suggest a child be burned “for educational purposes” but the power of experience can be seen in this example. Perhaps it also helps to explain why young children need constant reminders to stay away, or precautions need to be taken to protect them, from hot things. Without the burning sensation they have not formed a true understanding.

thomas and brown - learning

At my previous school our year one classes were always visited by the local fire fighters who talked about fire safety, explaining the difference between “good” fires (like birthday candles, barbecues and campfires) and “bad” fires, while warning that even good fires could quickly become bad  if not monitored correctly.

They talked about the need for smoke alarms in the home and the importance of having escape routes and meeting places planned and practised. They ensured students knew their full name and address and the procedure for calling emergency (000 in Australia) if the need should arise. These are things that all young children should know.

firetruck

The children were always excited about the firefighters’ visit as they got to look at the firetruck close up, maybe even sit in it or, if they were lucky, see how high they could spray water with the large hose. The tacit knowledge learned through this type of experience, combined with explicit knowledge provides a context that allows children to learn the realities of fire danger and the importance of safety. It wasn’t unusual for the crew to receive a call and rush away during one of their visits, adding further to the overall experience for the children.

Thinking about heat and education, and the hold that explicit knowledge and its testing has on current practice makes me think of the story about a frog in a pot of hot water.

The story says that if you were to put a frog into a pot of hot water, it would jump out immediately; but that if you were to put the frog into a pot of cold water which is warmed slowly, the gradual increase in temperature wouldn’t be noticed and the frog would be boiled alive.

Perhaps this is why some educational practices are accepted without question. People have become so used to them, with small incremental changes seeming insignificant and unworthy of comment. However the cumulative effects over time can be enormous. By the time they are realised, making amends would require so great a change, possibly a total restructuring, that it would defy plausibility.

It is this thinking that has led to me my flash response to the challenge set by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch this week to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes the phrase, “Man, it’s a hot one.” I hope my contribution is a little more environmentally friendly and suitable for young children than boiling frogs.

Man it's hot

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

 

25 thoughts on “Experiential learning – what’s good and what’s hot

  1. Pingback: Sugar and Snails: On friendship, fact and fiction | Norah Colvin

  2. Bec

    A very entertaining FF! Those poor creatures. In classic sub-tropical acclimatised style, I was expecting for the moral of the story to be that you need to wear sunscreen!! I really enjoy the discussion of tacit knowledge, too, a great topic to be at the front of thinking about education!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Bec. I’m pleased you were surprised at the end. I guess you are more used to my lectures about sunscreen! 🙂 Perhaps it is tacit knowledge that works best in learning about the dangers of the sun too. Though the damage is done long before the results are obvious so a little explicit knowledge is more beneficial.

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  3. Sherri

    Love your flash poem Norah, I’m smiling from ear to ear after reading it 🙂 So glad to be back at your pad once again! And reading the first part of your post, I kept thinking of when I was a child and I remember sitting at the table while my mother poured tea into our cups. As I watched the steaming liquid coming out of the teapot, something I’d witnessed so many times, I heard my mother say, ‘”Be careful, it’s really hot.” Just her saying that made me want to see for myself, even though I knew it was hot. So just as she started to pour the tea into my cup, I shot out one hand right into the middle of the stream of boiling water. It burnt of course and I was told off, of course, but I learnt for myself the message my mother tried to teach me, and so then I knew not to do it again and my curiousty was satisfied! So I thank you very much for your, as always, excellently informative artice; now I know I wasn’t quite the weird child I always thought I was 😀

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    1. Norah Post author

      I can never imagine you as a weird child, Sherri. Only a delightful one. Sounds like you and I may have gotten up to some mischief together had we known each other as children. I was always one for finding out things for myself. Your story reminds me of one when I was perhaps three or four. My Mum was sewing on her old (probably new then) treadle Singer sewing machine. She had to get up to do something (I can’t remember what) and told me to not put my finger under the needle. Now that just sounded like an invitation to me. So what did I do? I put my finger under the needle and turned the handle, pushing the needle through the nail and into my finger. Ouch! I don’t think I was able to retract the needle so wasn’t able to hide that misdemeanor! I could continue the list of such things for a very long time! 🙂 What fun we could have had Sherri. The weird and the naughty – what a great combination!
      Thank you for reading and sharing. 🙂

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      1. Sherri

        Ouch!!! And OMG!!! My mum had the exact same Singer sewing machine. Black, turned upside down in a wooden cabinet when put away, right? I remember she taught me to sew with it and although I didn’t do that with the needle, I remember that happening to her, only in her case it was an accident 😮 Oh Norah, we would have had tons of fun for sure. And no doubt got bruised and battered along the way, but oh the things we had to learn! Such is the way of having inquisitive natures. Weird and naughty…love it 😀

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        1. Norah Post author

          That’s the same sewing machine! We’ll have to make up for all the fun we missed – now, online. Ready?
          Weird and naughty is good, but I think we need a third to make a trio – like the good the bad and the ugly. Who shall we lead astray with us? 🙂

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  4. Pingback: Man, It’s a Hot One « Carrot Ranch Communications

  5. Charli Mills

    Whenever a ranch hired a hand with a college degree in agriculture, the old cowboys would say he was “book smart.” It was a clash of explicit knowledge versus tactic experiences. Interesting how we learn in different ways and how experience and books can both open up knowledge in a cooperative way.

    Love your flash poem and its lesson contained!

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    1. Norah Post author

      It is interesting that those who learn from experience often have a disdain for those who learn from books, as if that knowledge is second best. I agree with you. What we need is a mix of both, opening up knowledge in a cooperative way. Neither on its own is always the best.
      Thank your for your comment re my poem. 🙂

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  6. TanGental

    what a lovely wrapper of a post. It was a wandering path we followed to the glorious poem at the end, all neatly tied up. I have wondered if the frog tale is true but rather hope no one has experimented to find out. I bet they have sadly.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Geoff – much appreciated, as always.
      The Wikipedia article I linked to has some info about the “truth” of the frog tale. I thought of adding it to the post but decided the post was long enough as it was. Contemporary biologists say it’s untrue: the frog will jump out. 19th century experiments say it is true. (I don’t like the sound of that!)

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  7. Annecdotist

    Ah, lovely rhyme, but would it work for children who don’t know snow?
    It’s tricky bit with young children in protecting them from things they haven’t experienced, and you don’t want them to – how can they possibly understand?
    And it reminds me how painful it can be to learn from experience, and why we might therefore avoid it – something that’s addressed quite a lot in psychoanalytic writings.
    I’m going to link to this post in my guest post!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Anne for your insightful comments. I’ll be interested to hear what connections you make in your guest post. 🙂
      I guess children must indeed learn about things that are not familiar in their immediate environments. Otherwise we would all end up with rather limited views of the world, and the universe, wouldn’t we? Although I have not had the snow/snowman experience, I have had other experiences that would help me understand the concept e.g. ice cream or ice blocks melting on a hot sunny day. The effect of heat being added to or removed from different materials is an important science concept which children learn fairly early in school. So sorry, I guess that’s a long response (ask Bec, I’m sometimes known for that) to your first statement! 🙂
      You are right about it being tricky to decide what is best learned by experience and what not. I wonder what those psychoanalytic writings would tell me. There are definitely experiences that I avoid as I have heard/read about their dangers. I think that mostly, that is a good thing. 🙂

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  8. macjam47

    I loved your story, Man It’s Hot. It is much better suited for young children than the frog in a pot story.
    I enjoyed reading your post, as at this stage of my granddaughter’s growth, I am constantly watching the way she processes new experiences. She is 21 months now, and curious about EVERYTHING! She lived in Oregon most of her life where the temperature is always on the cool side. Not so here. We went outside one day when it was near 90 degrees F (32 C). As we stepped outside she said, “HOT”. As I watch her saying and doing new things all the time, I am amazed once again, how much the minds of young children are like a sponge absorbing everything around them.
    Have a wonderful week. Hugs, my friend.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your lovely supportive comment, Michelle. I think children wouldn’t mind learning about heat with a snowman melting. It wouldn’t traumatize them like boiling a frog in water!
      21 months is such a wonderful age. Children develop so rapidly at that time. They already know so much, don’t they, as your little granddaughter’s exclamation of “hot” testifies. I agree with you about sponges, but I tend to go one step further and say that they are more than that. They do absorb everything, but they also use it to create their own understandings and their own ways of looking at things. They seem to come out with both individual, and combinations of, words that we wonder where they heard them or how they came to that understanding. Perhaps “hot” was like that for your granddaughter. Perhaps not, but it sounds like she has applied it correctly to an unfamiliar situation. As I always say, “Aren’t they amazing?” Spending time with young children is, in my opinion, one of life’s greatest pleasures.
      Thank you so much for reading and sharing.
      I hope your week is wonderful too. Hugs back. 🙂

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