What is a Learning Experience?

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Often new articles about education feature the latest techniques to enhance the learning experience. Much of the information in these articles revolves around techniques adults can employ to distribute knowledge to children. The new techniques are offered to educate adults in methods that promise to help children absorb information more efficiently and effectively so they can repeat this information back to an adult on a test. The ability for children and really all of us throughout life, to perform this sequence is how the learning experience is defined. 

Looking for another viewpoint, I started a search for the essence of a learning experience. To begin, I wrote a question down on a piece of paper that said, Is learning more than memorizing information and repeating it back to an authority figure for approval or a grade?

My search started by looking up the definition of learning. In Webster’s, the definition of learning is, “modification of a behavioral tendency by experience.”At dictionary.com the definition says, “the act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill.” Other dictionary definitions were similar. In search of another definition of learning, I decided to look into psychology.

In New Social Learning, by Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner, they define learning as, “The transformative process of taking in information that when internalized and mixed with what we have experienced, changes what we know and builds on what we do.”In The Wonder of Learning, by Reggio Children, Jerome Bruner shares that learning, “Is not simply about acquiring knowledge about what we have encountered, it is dedicated to going beyond the information given.” In the same book, Howard Gardner says about learning, “Babies and children act upon the world to know it.”

Continuing my thinking about learning, I wrote down all of the actions I have witnessed children engage in as they act upon the world in the search for meaning. The following are the most repeated actions I observed, that defined the learning experience for children in our school-age community.

Chosen Freely –The learning experience for the children always started with a choice. The children would develop an interest in a subject for reasons that made meaning to them and then began a search to know more. The search often utilized traditional tools of education like books and computers, tools employed to advance the search for meaning as the children worked toward their ultimate goal, to engage in a hands-on investigation with materials.

Construction of Knowledge –The children gathered information and moved quickly to apply this taste of knowledge into a practical application. By applying information into practice, the children either confirmed their theories or came up with new questions that needed to be tested through a hands-on application with materials. The process was not seen as a search for an endpoint, but a journey to know more about something they found interesting. 

The Search for Answers –The subjects the children decided to investigate were thought provoking and contained the potential for finding the unknown. The children were engaged in a search for meaning and were creating collisions between what they knew and what they wanted to know. The possibilities contained within this adventure created an environment where learning thrived. 

Timeless –When the children were engaged in a true learning experience time stood still. The work became engrossing and the children worked for hours and hours and never asked what time it was or mentioned they were bored. Instead of looking for the next distraction, children looked forward to the next work period so they could continue their investigation.

Sensorial –The children were very attuned to the sensorial experience of learning. They not only wanted to search for answers to their questions, but the children wanted to experience the sensations involved in finding the answer. This is why the children were often investigating their questions, theories, and possible solutions with hands-on materials.

Creative –The children expressed their search for knowledge through their creativity. They employed paper, paint, clay, Lego’s, sticks, markers, beads, and recycled materials, to name a few, in an attempt to express creatively the wonderings they had about the human experience. The children always shared a story for the work they created, because the story they attached to the creative process was the narrative of the learning experience.

Community –For children, the learning experience was often enacted in the community. During investigations, the children were most often engaged directly with peers and teachers in a co-learning relationship that provided extra inputs and insights into the search for meaning. Some children liked to work alone, but even in this scenario, there were always other children nearby sharing ideas and impressions of the work they were engaged in.

These were the seven main actions I observed as the children were engaged in the learning experience. In conclusion, I would offer an opinion that the learning experience is a journey where the children investigate the Who, What, Where, When, and Why’s of life, in their own time, in a search for meaning. This is a unique experience for each child and is not as programmed and standardized as we may be led to believe. 

What are the actions that you observe the children in your program engage in that you would define as being part of the learning experience?