What is Experiential Learning?

”方其知之, 而行未及之, 則知尚淺。既親歷其域, 則知之益明, 非前日之意味。” 《朱子語錄》卷九 • 學三 • 論知行
“When you know something but don’t act on it, your knowledge of it is still superficial. After you’ve personally experienced it, your knowledge of it will be much clearer and its significance will be different from what it used to be.”
Chu Hsi, [朱熹 Zhu Xi], Chapter 9, translated by D.K. Gardner, 1990, p. 116.

That learning is fundamentally experiential has been pointed out by philosophers and educationists in the East and the West. The above quotation from the Chinese philosopher, Zhu Xi, crystallizes the essence of experiential learning. The dialectical relationship between knowing and doing is well captured by the often cited quote “知行合一”(“knowing and doing are unified”) from Wang Yang Ming [王陽明], another Chinese philosopher. Similarly, “learning by doing” is a central concept in the education theory of the influential American educationist, John Dewey. In recent decades, American anthropologists, such as Jean Lave, have reinvigorated the concept of learning as participation in social practice.

At HKU, Faculties have been incorporating various forms of experiential learning into their curricula (either credit-bearing or non-credit bearing), and some have already made it a graduation requirement. Examples of these initiatives can be accessed on the website of the Gallant Ho Experiential Learning Centre. Our short-term goal is to support as many staff and students as possible to design and pilot new opportunities for experiential learning, and to strengthen and expand existing ones. Our medium-term goal is to ensure that all curricula will embed experiential learning in their courses. Our long-term goal, however, is to bring about a paradigm shift in our understanding of learning as experiential so that it becomes not only a guiding principle in the way we design our curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, but also a predominant mode of learning.

Achieving the above goals is non-trivial. Colleagues at HKU have put in a tremendous amount of time and effort to identify suitable sites for learning, to work with community partners, and to provide on-site guidance for their students. I salute their selfless dedication to the core mission of this University and I thank them for making learning at this University liberating and exciting.

Implementing experiential learning is much more resource-intensive than the traditional form of classroom learning. My colleagues and I are greatly indebted to Dr. Gallant Ho for his generous donation to support this initiative and to enable wide participation by students. The Gallant Ho Experiential Learning Centre will bring together the Faculties and the community partners, and promote the sharing of good practices in designing, supporting and assessing experiential learning. On behalf of my colleagues, I would like to express our deepest gratitude to Dr. Ho for his endorsement of the goals of experiential learning and for enabling us to bring it to new heights.

Amy B M Tsui
Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Teaching and Learning)
December 2007 to March 2014