Experiential Learning in Schools – Is India Ready?

kids learning

Here’s this really interesting conversation I had with my 7 year old – One of his new year resolutions is to learn swimming. He feels lazy about it and given that he likes to read, he asked me a very pertinent question – why do I need to get into a pool to learn swimming, why can’t I just read about it and learn it? Very good question indeed, given that most of what he learns in the CBSE school he is a part of is by reading/ watching videos etc. To him, that’s the most logical format of ‘learning’.

This question got me thinking about whether we can change the learning path of children at very early ages to actually get them to learn most of the stuff that they learn by doing. At present, a bulk of the topics covered in schools and colleges are theoretical and consequently disengaging. Children are not made to sit passively in a chair for an hour and listen – no wonder attention span is low and retention is low. Memory experiments conducted by Ebbinghaus show that in this traditional approach, students forget approximately 50% of the content just in the first 40 minutes after learning. The figure shoots up to 70% within a day. Constant re-enforcements of the topics at home through assignments and home tuitions help but only in the short run.

Consider the alternative – a more engaging learn-by-doing approach in schools. There is no debating the merits of ‘learn-by-doing’ or ‘experiential learning’. In fact, we were born to learn through experiences and as kids, there is no other way we can learn. For example, a child might learn to be wary of touching a stove after burning her fingers on a hot plate that had been used recently. As we get older, our learning experiences become less ‘concrete’ and we do start to learn visually or through music or reading. However, the most deep-set format of learning remains experiential.

Then why do education systems not favour an experiential learning format? Firstly, the traditional system of education is definitely more ‘efficient’. More concepts can get covered in a shorter time frame with a larger set of students. Consider teaching the Newton’s laws – the traditional format teaches these through textbooks. Experiential learning of Newton’s Laws, for instance, is when the learner is given a ball and asked to roll it and experience it coming to a halt due to friction. This approach is far more interesting, engaging and proven to exhibit higher retention levels over traditional means of reading a textbook. However, while in the former method, a class of 50 students ‘learn’ the concept in 45 mins, in the latter method only about 10 students would ‘learn’ the method in 45 mins. In a country with abysmal student-teacher ratios and very limited schooling infrastructure, adopting the experiential learning format would be inefficient.

Another factor that makes experiential learning less practical is the fact that teachers in India are not trained to impart education in this fashion. Consider that ‘reflection’ and ‘feedback’ are the key to learning from experience because it consciously focuses our attention on what we have learnt and thus consolidates it. Further, understanding the general principle (‘generalisation’) that they experienced and ‘applying’ the same to new situations are higher order skills required to complete the experiential learning cycle. Are teachers today equipped to guide and facilitate a reflection and feedback session with students effectively? Can they create an atmosphere in the class that stimulates higher order thinking and application skills?

There is no denying that the future of education is a more experiential format. But there are many steps that the education system in India needs to take before we can adopt such a format. Till then, we will have to make do with what we have.