When we think about experiential learning, what types of experiences come to mind? I suspect that, for many of us, we immediately think about sending students out beyond the classroom walls and reflecting upon particular experiences using course readings. Perhaps we ask them to engage in a campus, service learning, or civic engagement project. In our assignments, we might require students, following Kolb’s theory of experiential learning, to make connections between concrete experiences, observation and reflection, abstract concepts, and to apply their acquired knowledge to new situations (Kolb and Fry 1975; Kolb 1984). But can we achieve experiential learning inside the classroom? More abstractly, what constitutes an “experience”?
Can video be a form of concrete experience that is part of the cycle of experiential learning (depicted in this graphic)?
While we often take what constitutes an experience for granted, Peter Jarvis et al (2004) explore this concept more explicitly. They argued that, at a philosophical level, experience must be viewed existentially as a subjective encounter with the world outside of us, and interpreted through previous knowledge and discourse; this interpretation process is socially constructed. In the context of experiential learning (and teaching), experience “usually implies that individuals have, or are given, in the teaching and learning process a direct or simulated encounter with the external world. One of the major strengths of this approach … is that the whole person does the experiencing rather than just the individual’s mind or body. By the whole person, we mean the cognitive, the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual; that is, the individual’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, beliefs, emotions, and senses. We learn from all these dimensions of the person in episodic experience” (Jarvis et al 2004: 55). While such experience might be primary (such as with service learning or civic engagement), it can also be secondary, where it is mediated through technology and not the immediate social context. Jarvis et al note that video functions as a secondary form of experiential learning.
If you pause for a moment and consider some of your favorite films, think about what characteristics made those films so powerful? In The Power of Film, UCLA film instructor Howard Suber argues “feelings … lie at the heart of all memorable popular films. When the feelings of the filmmakers, feelings of the characters, and feelings of the audience come together, there is the opportunity for greatness” (Suber 2006: 162). At the heart of this “greatness,” I believe, is an experience: through an audiovisual encounter, our senses of sight and hearing are aroused, interacting with cognitive and affective capacities, to construct a potentially transformative experience. In Jarvis’ words, a powerful film can engage the “whole person.” I found this same sentiment in a similarly titled book (The Power of Movies) by philosopher Colin McGinn, who seeks to show “how screen and mind interact.” McGinn (2005: 14) explores the “perceptual, cognitive, and affective” dimensions of film reception, and argues “movies engage our psychological faculties in profound and unique ways ... they serve to condense much of significance into a relatively brief and isolated experience” (emphasis added). Following this work, I see film as engaging the affective, cognitive, emotional, and even spiritual levels of the viewer, bringing them outside of their normal, routine modes of thought, thus constituting new experiences for the viewer.
Let’s briefly take a look at an example from the best television show of all time, The Wire (if you live under a rock and don’t know about the Wire, lift up the rock, and go watch it. Now. Seriously, stop reading, and go watch it. I’m not joking. You’ll thank me later). The show follows the lives of Baltimore street gangs, the police that continuously try to convict them, and the local institutions that shape their struggles. Characters who might normally incite disgust among a general audience—active gang members—are seen as human and shaped by their disadvantaged social circumstances. Through unparalleled storytelling and pitch-perfect dialogue, the viewer develops empathy—and fondness—for the characters (especially Omar!), and begins to understand their situations in light of the inner-city poverty, police ineffectiveness, corrupt local governments, broken families, dysfunctional educational system, and the distortions of local media, that shape their lives, and keeps them in a vicious cycle of poverty and crime. The characters’ stories stimulate viewers at affective, cognitive, and emotional levels, in some ways feeling a secondary experience of poverty, crime, and the myriad of institutions governing the characters’ lives. As such, clips from the show (such as this clip) can serve as the basis of experiential learning, further reflected upon and connected to abstract concepts through course readings, discussions, and assignments.
Of course, not all films or videos will engage the “whole person.” For example, compared to many news clips or presentations, The Wire or Michael Moore’s Sicko (see this clip) are much more likely to serve purposes of experiential learning. However each type of video clip has its own uses, and it seems that the trick is to find the clip most effective to meet your teaching goals, in any particular class. But if you aim to draw upon experiential learning in your own teaching, you may not need to look any further than the video clips available on this site and elsewhere!
1. Jarvis, Peter, John Holford, and Colin Griffin. 2004. The Theory and Practice of Learning, 2e. Taylor & Francis.
2. Kolb, David. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.
3. Kolb, David and Roger Fry. 1975 ”Toward an Applied Theory of Experiential Learning,” in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process. John Wiley.
4. McGinn, Colin. 2005. The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. Pantheon Books.
5. Suber, Howard. 2006. The Power of Film. Michael Wiese Productions.