Is Personal Experience Important in Education?

The other day I was reading “Elephant’s Child” to my children.  It is from the book Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling and it is the most hilarious explanations of why personal experience is so important in gaining an education.  You can listen to the audio here.  This is one of my many favorite stories, and here is why. 

This elephant’s child has a “satiable curtiosity”; that is, an insatiable (never able to be satisfied) curiosity.  He wants to know about everything!

Even though his family wants to discourage his questions, Elephant’s Child still asks…

Despite the fact that his family wants to discourage all his different questions, the Elephant’s Child still wants to know “what the crocodile has for dinner.”  Then, like a breath of fresh air, the Kolokolo bird suggests that Elephant’s Child go and find out.  Kolokolo bird is suggesting he try what is called personal experience, or experiential education.  It’s not a made up situation to try and teach a concept or rote practice of an algorithm.

Personal study and experience uses a genuine question from an individual and leads to his/her active pursuit of knowledge.

Academic Freedom

Talk about Academic Freedom!  If we wondered why the sky was blue, or the grass was green, or roses smell so nice and we were told to go and find out, our nation wouldn’t have a shortage of children interested in math and science.  Our own insatiable curiosity about our everyday world would lead us to discoveries.  Discoveries that could increase not only our own understanding, but the whole world’s understanding!  We need more Kolokolo birds encouraging this!  That would give us more Elephant’s Children that want to explore their world and find answers!

When we are encouraged to wonder and then encouraged to learn everything about what we’re wondering, we learn the most information.  We are open to any information that relates to our interest.  We absorb it from every source we can: books, mentors, homes, yards, inside, outside, upside-down…Oh wait, that’s another great children’s book.  But aside from all the places and ways we learn, there are other benefits, too.

Why experiential education helps us:

  • Desire – We really want to know, and when we are allowed to “go and find out”, that keeps our passion for learning alive.  Then we are always getting an education.
  • Physical and mental strength – The work involved in gaining personal experience, both physically and mentally, is rewarding.  It’s hard, but it makes us feel good because we’ve satisfied our need to know.  We also gain skills.  Physical skills can be used in other areas, as can mental skills.  Think of the strength you build taking a hike and the mental clarity you have being in nature.  Think of the physical skills you gain building your own tree house and the mental power you get when you plan, rework, and follow through on your plan to get it built.  These carry over into other things you do, too.
  • Real world application – There is no need to explain a concept to a student on how it applies to the real world when they have already experienced it in the real world.  They get it because that’s where they got it!
  • Discovery of principles – when we see something happen again and again, in different places and times, that is our clue that it is a principle.  Once we know and understand principles, we are free to act according to them for our own benefit and the benefit of others.  Changing circumstances won’t fool us because principles always apply.
  • Retention – Our memory of something, our retention, is increased when physical sensations accompany it.  What it smelt like, how it feels, what it sounded like, taste and sight all contribute to strengthening our memory of what we have learned.  And when we learn something during a peak emotion like excitement or fear, it is imprinted even more deeply.
  • Growth and Change – The elephant’s child experienced not only mental growth on his journey, but a physical change, as well.  He no longer had a “mere, smear of a nose” but one much more useful.  We, too, grow physically and mentally during our personal experiences.  In fact, our bodies are what is called Anti-fragile, a name coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe things that actually gain from disorder or are strengthened by trials.  When we learn something truly great, it not only changes the way we see the world, but it changes us, too!  We are no longer the same.  What we learn makes us want to change the way we think and act.  Great learning makes us want to be great!

What are you curious about?

What are you curious about?  What do you desire to know?  Do you want to learn about your ancestors homeland?  Do you want to know what it feels like to be debt free?  Do you want to know what it’s like to run your own business?  Do you want to bake the best sourdough bread you’ve ever tasted?  Then do it! 

We learn the most and learning sticks with us the best and has the potential to bring about a great change in us when we use our academic freedom to learn through our own personal experience.  Go to the banks of your own “great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees and find out!” 

Take the Challenge

Think about things in your daily life and things that may hold a deeper wonder for you.  Make a list of all these things on paper.  Whether it is how a toilet flushes, how to make a great loaf of bread, or why the stars twinkle (hint: it's called scintillation), you can learn and begin to satisfy your "satiable curtiosity"!  Make the list and keep track of what you learn.  Add to it when new things begin to interest you.

Listen to the audio of "Elephant's Child" from Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

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