Experiential Learning from Five Perspectives

Journal Club: Fenwick, T. J. (2001). Experiential Learning: A Theoretical Critique from Five Perspectives. Information Series No. 385.

Experiential Learning


The importance for the educator in understanding the adult learner and their experience in a world of lifelong learning, workplace learning, informal learning and self-directed learning. Experiential learning means a process of human cognition (or to learn).

Three main perspectives of experiential learning exist:

  1.  Phenonomenological: use of reflection to analyse self (Schon, Kolb and Bould).
  2.  Critical Theory: use of critical self reflection (Habermas, Mezirow, Foucault and Friere).
  3.  Situated and Action Theory: the role of cultural action and power (Lave and Wenger).

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” ― John Dewey

Five orientations on experiential learning in adult education are explored by Fenwick.

Reflection: Constructivism

Reflection is the most prevalent understanding of experiential learning. Reflecting and interpreting lived experience, and then transferring this understanding to new situations. Kolb (1984) theory of  learning through the cognitive process by integrating their ‘concrete’ emotional experiences with reflection. “The learner takes some time for reflective observation. The learner asks of the experience: What did I observe? What was I aware of? What does this experience mean to me? How might this experience have been different?”

Schon’s reflection theory focuses on everyday action by professional workers. Reflection-in-action” and “reflection-on-action” provides critical reflection on what informs practice and how they develop or hinder workplace practices.

Some constructivist theorists:

Interference: Psychoanalytic Perspective

Educational analyses are drawn from the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. “The inside world is configured by knowledge dilemmas, these unfold through struggles between the unconscious and the conscious mind”. Learning and desire to learn are considered enmeshed, in that as we learn we may learn to desire to learn more. Lacan (1978) learning theory of experience is where the psychic mind meets the external world, where understanding self, ego, unconsciousness and reality are explored and where the problem is attempted to be solved.

Participation: Situative Perspective

“Knowing and learning are defined as engaging in changing processes of human activity in a particular community. Knowledge is not a substance to be ingested and then transferred to new situations, but part of the process of participation in the immediate situation”. Lave and Wenger (1991) state that learning is entwined participating an interacting with the community. The objective is to become an active participant in this ‘community of practice’.

Simulation provides the possibility of designing environments that promote embodied, situative learning. A simulation or case study can be ways top integrate learning whilst tackling work problems.

Resistance: Critical Cultural

Critical cultural perspectives focus on power, and the relations in human cultural systems. Political, historical, cultural and gender provide conflicting perspectives and practices in critical cultural perspectives. Learning occurs informally and incidentally in everyday life, and some of the most powerful learning occurs as people try to make sense during the struggle against oppression (Foley, 1999). The need for individualism in learning, through choice and learning needs.

Some critical cultural theorists:

C0-Emergence: Enactivist Perspective

“Enactivism is a theory explaining the co-emergence of learner and setting. Enactivism explores how cognition and environment becomes simultaneously enacted through experiential learning” (Maturana and Varela, 1987; Varela, Thompson & Rosch, 1991). The person and context are deemed inseparable, influencing systems. As learners participate, they adapt, develop and learn, their behaviours then effect and change the systems themselves. An environment and learner approach is central to the process of cognition in the enactivist perspective.

For The Educator

As the educator consider these perspectives on experiential learning and if the issues of reflection, inferences, participation, power and co-emergence are raised in your education setting. Do your beliefs of adult learning experience and learning match the education philosophy of your workplace?


Fenwick, T. J. (2001). Experiential Learning: A Theoretical Critique from Five Perspectives. Information Series No. 385.