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Mekin Maheshwari

The author is Founder & CEO, Udhyam Learning Foundation

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Experiential Learning: Nurturing Entrepreneurial Mindsets

Experiential learning is not just for the scientists. Practising the steps in experiential learning builds a learning mindset enabling them to keep learning long after their education is done.

ASHOKA OR AKBAR? Who came first?

About two years ago, I was in a room full of teachers, and I asked – What is Photosynthesis?

Besides the two science teachers in the room, the others were not sure. We discussed it and had fun. We laughed about whether oxygen was an input or the output and if this process happened in the day or in the night?

If you are tempted to judge the group of teachers, hold your thoughts.

I was recently speaking to Sridhar Vembu, the founder of Zoho, who has recently moved to a village in Tamil Nadu and is working on starting a school. His favourite question to groups of adults is, “Who came first, Akbar or Ashoka”?

In his experience of asking dozens of groups of adults, he found that most people are unable to answer the question with certainty. This is bizarre, given that Akbar and Ashoka lived almost 2000 years apart! Both the above topics are taught in middle school, and everyone who completes school has answered exams on. Herman Ebbinghaus wrote about the Forgetting Curve in the 1880s – without usage and repetitions, we forget exponentially.

But then, how many of us forget cycling or swimming, even years after having not cycled?

They are both difficult to learn. We fall and scrape our knees and feel like we will drown many times – before we finally learn to cycle or swim. And then, these remain with us for our lives. What is happening here?

When I ask people – where and how did they learn to do the things they do at work? Almost all the people learnt them – at work, by doing them. Often with the guidance from someone who already knew how to do them. Long before the current factory models of schools, learning used to happen through a similar process: apprenticeship. This is still how most crafts and arts are learnt even today.

Could we explore ways of incorporating more experiential learning in our education system?

Z FOR ZEBRA

Our education system starts educating children with abstract concepts in a rote method that they have no way to verify. It is a shame that we continue to teach our kindergarten kids “Z for Zebra”, knowing fully well that there are no Zebras in our continent and 99% kids will never see a real zebra. We just want the child to blindly believe that there is an animal called Zebra and not to think, not to question. Just blindly believe.

HOW IT WORKS?

Experiential learning on the other hand starts with 

(1) A concrete experience – in the real world. The learner first experiences, and then 

(2) Makes her own observations – which they then 

(3) Translate into abstract concepts. 

(4) Finally, the learner applies the concept for active experimentation. 

This 4 step process is how Kolb defined Experiential Learning in his seminal paper in 2005. These steps give the learner the agency to discover and build their own learning. More importantly – these require the learner to independently think, to arrive at concepts, and finally learn to apply them.

While there are significant gains in the Forgetting Curve of the subject matter taught by using experiential learning, the real impact is in how this method of learning enables significant agency and independence for the learner. Learners learn to build learning from all around them. Students learn to question theories they are taught and validate them with real world experiments. This building of a scientific temperament at a foundational level is essential for these learners to be able to push the limits of science and create new discoveries and inventions in future. This ability also enables them to be critical thinkers and separate facts from opinions

Experiential learning is not just for the scientists. Practising the steps in experiential learning builds a learning mindset enabling them to keep learning long after their education is done. We live in a rapidly changing world. The pandemic that we are all living in right now, has proven beyond doubt that ‘Learning to Learn’ continuously is now a survival skill.

LEARNING BY DOING
I have been facilitating experiential learning for 14-25 year olds over the last 4 years. A simple and super powerful tool that I have used are business projects: Students run a small business project for periods of 2-6 weeks in groups of 4-6. Sometimes, there is a small pool of returnable money given to them to help them kickstart the project.

I have found this idea to be as powerful as it is simple.

Students are able to start their business with very little guidance. My focus is not on how innovative the ideas are, but on students experiencing the process of running a business.

Making decisions is a key part of life but we get no practice of this in our education system. Arts, Commerce or Science – is probably the only meaningful decision students get to make after their 12th standard.

The business project on the other hand – requires students to keep making decisions: What to sell; Who to sell to; When, How, and so on.  Just like with cycling, students make mistakes and learn to correct themselves. I only have to ask them some simple questions, to help them reflect on their actions and find ways of improving. The results of these projects have been staggering. The learners have grown immensely in confidence and their ability to communicate. 

THE COLLEGE QUEEN
In one such experiential learning program with a group of 17 girls studying in an ITI, I met Sana. In our first session, I had to ask Sana to say her name 3 times, because she was inaudible and unwilling to look up at the teacher/ person while speaking. As the program progressed and the girls got down to doing their business projects, they had amazing experiences to share every day. By the end of their program, their principal told me that “kya ye ladkiyan wahi hain?” (Are these the same girls that started the program 6 weeks ago?). Sana has since gone on to become the ‘College Queen’, and ran many sanitation and hygiene workshops in schools and communities. Her journey of building entrepreneurial mindsets is an inspiration for me and many others who know her.     

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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