John Dewey – Experiential Learning


John Dewey (October 20, 1859 – June 1, 1952) was an American philosopherpsychologist, and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. He was one of the most prominent American scholars in the first half of the twentieth century.

Learning and development are built upon the legacy of the scholars whose ideas continue to contribute to this state-of-art knowledge. No matter how innovative and advanced the technology gets, these theories and ideas never get too old not to be implemented. Whether you consider traditional learning, virtual learning, or perhaps remote and eLearning, these concepts play an important role in shaping the world of learning and development regardless of the learning modality. Nowadays, these theories are actively used to create an optimal learning experience design.

What Is Kinesthetic Learning Model?

In this blog, we will cover the intellectual practice of learning which gave rise to the experiential learning, i.e., learning by doing. It is the most challenging form of learning as the trainers and instructors still struggle with this type of learner.

The experiential learning theory (ELT) was presented by John Dewey (1938). According to the book, Experience And Education (1938), and in the words of Dewey, “The history of learning and development is needed to prove that the reformers felt the need of educational philosophy to justify the existing practices using decent vocabulary.” Hence, the real educational work, i.e., progressive education, was done by the same habitat who got frustrated with the fixed educational institutionalism, thus pressing against the former reformers. Therefore, the philosophy of education got its true meaning when combined with the philosophy of experience.

Hence, experiential learning theory established its roots. It was created to ring an intellectual bell in traditional education to validate institutional innovation. Let us discuss the experiential learning theory and how it relates to modern learning and development methodologies.

Experiential Learning Theory (ELT)

Many notable theorists worked in this area of learning. Experiential learning theory, following the work of these theorists, can be defined as:

“The active yet highly strategic learner engagement in learning opportunities that use activities for learning. The reflection of these activities empowers the learners to practically use their theoretical knowledge inside and outside the institutional settings.”

The Need for Experiential Learning Theory

In his book, Experience And Education (1938), Dewey notes that “the rejection of the traditional education sets new difficulties for those who do not follow the traditional education blindly.” He emphasizes that everyone follows the instituted practices until a problem arises that these practices cannot solve. Thus, the organic link between education and experience is the permanent frame of reference for keeping the instituted practices updated. Let us move on to the core design principles of experiential learning, which will solve the mystery of experience and experimental empiricism, i.e., educational evidence discovered by experimentation.

Core Design Principles of Experiential Learning Theory

Experiential learning focuses on multiple core design principles, focusing on learners reflecting on the instructions based on their experiences. In this way, the learners attain conceptual insights backed up with practical experiences. Nonetheless, not all experiences that a learner has are related to education and learning. As noted by Dewey in his book, Experience And Education (1938), “The belief that all genuine educational is experience-centric does not imply that all experiences are educative.” It means that if an experience distorts the growth of further experience, it is a miseducating experience. An educative experience is the one that improves the knowledge, skills, and abilities of a person such that he lands on a furthering experience.

Thus, an experience can only be educative if it leads to further growth and development of a learner. Hence, experiential learning gives rise to developmental experimentation. It is a systemic process and can be explained in four stages. This process was provided by David Kolb, who is actively working on experiential learning theory given by Dewey. Following are the four stages of the experiential learning process:

  1. Active experimentation – validating what you have learned
  2. Concrete experience – having an experience
  3. Reflective observation – reflecting on the experience
  4. Abstract conceptualization – learning from the experience

Experiential Learning in Traditional Learning Environments

Several models of experiential learning are actively used instructional design to make training and development more practical and evidence-based. These include inquiry-based learning, community-based learning, project-based learning, case-based learning, problem-based learning, workshop, and apprenticeship learning. The focus of experiential learning is to design and deliver testable and verifiable instructions, emphasizing technological innovations. In this way, learners can develop the skills, knowledge, and abilities needed to prosper in the digital realm.

Experiential Learning in Virtual Learning Environments

The advocates of ELT highly criticize virtual learning modalities. They argue that it is impossible to combine virtual learning with real-world examples. Nevertheless, with the advent and adaptation of virtual reality in instructional designs of training and learning, we agree to disagree with the criticism. There are a lot of contexts in which experiential learning can be used in virtual learning environments. Although it can be challenging to embed experiential learning in a virtual environment; still, it is in practice. Simulating real-world experiences using virtual reality is one way. It has been in practice for a long time, for example, flight simulators, medical training, and vice versa.

Strengths of Experiential Learning Theory

Problem-based, project-based, and case-based learnings are the most famous experiential learning modalities that are actively practiced. Nevertheless, the strengths and weaknesses of experiential learning depend on the epistemological position of the learner. If the learner is an objectivist, he would be skeptical of this approach. On the other hand, constructivist learners highly support experiential learning. Following are the few strengths of experiential learning:

  1. It helps in profound understanding and active retention of the delivered instructions
  2. It helps in better knowledge management and high engagement among learners
  3. It enables the learners to develop digitally proficient skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, situation handling, and boundary management for the domains where knowledge boundaries are hard to manage.

John Dewey and ID9 Intelligent Design

ID9 Intelligent Design is a researched based learning design system.  John Dewey’s theory is a major influence in ID9 Intelligent Design.

Dewey believed traditional learning drew on cultural heritage for learning content as well as promoting a learner’s desire to learn new and current content. A sound educational experience involved the continuity and interaction between learner and what was learned. Dewey emphasized experience, experiment, purposeful learning, and freedom to learn through ‘progressive education’.   This theory forms a strong foundation stone throughout the entire ID9 Intelligent Design process.

Specific steps of the ID9 Intelligent Design 9-step learning design process include links to Dewey’s findings:

  • Step 3: Big Picture Overview – connect course objectives and outcomes with each participant.
  • Step 4: Connect – activity designed to connect the learning to each participant.
  • Step 5: Topic Rotation Tool – Drawing together adult learning engagement methods, styles, and experiential learning to assist in the transfer and application process.
  • Step 6: Major Review – Repetition, Reflection and Review linked to learning objectives demonstrates retention of new learning and mastery of new knowledge.


Following the experiential learning theory given by John Dewey, we see that experiences are vital to validate educational concepts. However, not all experiences are educative. Only those experiences that lead to further experience can help broaden your learning abilities. If you want to get a better and more precise insight into John Dewey’s ideas and concepts, read through his literary masterpiece. If there are still some questions or queries left unanswered, feel free to reach out to us.

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