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Aristotle’s wisdom that “the things we have to learn before we do them, we learn by doing them,” while being common sense, is often ignored in the realm of conventional education. Ironically, “learn by doing” is an instinctive activity, as can be seen by the role-play games by children that help them understand complex systems and dynamic processes in real life. Roleplay is a classic mix of simulation and emulation wherein a real situation is enhanced through imagination and helps in better perception of spaces and scenarios; Einstein knew a thing or two when he claimed imagination to be more important than knowledge.[1]

In this article, we will look into different aspects of the idea of learning by doing.

Learning by Doing

Learning by doing means learning from experiences resulting directly from one’s actions. This is contrasted with learning from watching others perform, reading others’ instructions or descriptions, or listening to others’ instructions or lectures.

Of course, watching, reading, and listening are actions, but they are not the kinds of doing referred to as learning by doing. This is because they yield direct experience with demonstrations or descriptions of activities rather than with actions the learner performs. In classical psychology and its hangers-on “direct experience” meant mental contact with mental phenomena by introspection; but in the present context, it means sensory contact with the results of doing.

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The Learning-By-Doing Principle

The learning-by-doing principle has been advocated widely and in many forms; including learn-by-doing, trial-and-error learning or discovery versus instruction, and practical experience. The learning by doing idea is old. Learning by doing belief has many angels and many ideas. We can list some of those ideas [2]:

Mechanic teaching an intern the best practice. Learning on the job during a practical internship in a garage.          Photo: Corepics

If we go to the schools where computers and different technological devices are introduced or widely used, we will see that learning by doing become important.

Driven by the synergy of technological advancements and instructional innovations, simulations are rapidly gaining importance in the classroom in tech-savvy nations as robust add-ons, either as a supplement to traditional teaching methods or as a substitute for sections of the curriculum. Merging traditional methods with simulations can potentially enhance the experience of the learning process. [1]

Learning by Doing at Work

Most employees are interested in learning to do their jobs better. One reason for this is, of course, potential monetary rewards. But the real reason is much deeper than that. If you do something often enough, you get better at it – simple and obvious. When people care about what they are doing, they may even learn how to do their jobs better than anyone had hoped. They wonder how to improve their performance. They innovate.

Since mistakes are often quite jarring to someone who cares about what they are doing, people naturally work hard to avoid them. No one likes to fail. It is essential to human nature to try to do better, and this means attempting to explain one’s failures well enough so that they can be remedied. This self-correcting behaviour can take place when one has been made aware of one’s mistakes and when one cares enough to improve. If an employee understands and believes that an error has been made, he will work hard to correct it and will want to be trained to do better, if proper rewards are in place for a job well done.

Many of the distinctive theoretical implications of learning by doing have been derived under the assumption that the cost–quantity relationships observed in numerous empirical studies are mostly the result of passive learning and some further require that passive learning is unbounded. The empirical literature raises doubts about both assumptions. When observed cost–quantity relationships indicate sustained productivity growth, factors other than passive learning are generally at work. When passive learning is the dominant factor, productivity growth is invariably bounded. Thus, empirically relevant theories incorporating learning by doing are hybrid models in which passive learning coexists with other sources of growth. But in such models, many of the distinctive implications of passive learning become unimportant. Moreover, passive learning is often an inessential component of long-run growth; to the contrary, too much knowledge can lead to stagnation. [3]

Learning by Doing in School

There are two crucial reasons why learning by doing isn’t our standard form of education. First, it is quite tricky to implement without “doing devices.” How can we teach history by doing? What does it mean to teach literature by doing? In many cases, it is difficult to define what doing might mean concerning a given subject and to attempt to implement a realistic sense of doing in a classroom setting.

Different programs we can use on the computer may bring us closer to the doing principle in the schools. When there are “doing devices” available, it is easier to implement learning by doing.

Photo: mentatdgt

Driving can easily be taught in a learning-by-doing manner, for example, because students can reasonably be placed behind the steering wheel of a car. This can be done because vehicles are relatively inexpensive and relatively safe. When this is not the case when the necessary equipment is too expensive or unsafe, or where there is no equipment at all, learning by doing is usually abandoned as a teaching philosophy.

There is, of course, another reason why learning by doing isn’t the primary teaching model in schools. Educators and psychologists have not understood why learning by doing works and thus are loathe to insist upon it. They can’t say exactly what it is that learning by doing teaches. They suppose that it teaches real-life skills, but what about facts, the darlings of the “drill-them-and-test- them” school of educational thought?

Implicit and Explicit Learning

Learning by doing works because it teaches implicitly rather than explicitly. Things that are learned implicitly need only be adequately experienced at the proper time. To make classrooms into learning-by-doing experiences, we need to allow students to be in situations that are relevant to their interests.

What students learn when they learn by doing often remains implicit. Micro-scripts, participation strategies, explicit functional knowledge, and lessons from cases are usually the kind of experience that people don’t know they have. The learning comes up when they need it, and people can sometimes explicitly state what they know. Educators are often confused by the fact that people can explicitly say what they know. They are so confused by this that they pervert the education system so that it will highlight the explicit statement of what one knows rather than highlight the behaviour that would indicate the presence of implicit knowledge. We must turn this state of affairs around if we are ever really to change education.[4]

A young couple preparing fresh vegetables food reading cookbook looking for recipes.            Photo: anetlanda

Theory Is a Distillation of Previous Persons’ Direct Experiences

Book-learning or theory deals with universals, which are abstract, and practice deals with particulars, which are concrete. Therefore, book learning is insufficient by itself because it is uninformative about regularly successful practice, which requires knowing and dealing with the relevant particulars of each different person. However, direct experience is also insufficient by itself because although it deals with particulars, life is too short for direct learning of all the particulars that are relevant to successful practice. Therefore, effective practitioners base their procedures not only on extensive practical experience but also on theoretical principles. The theoretical principles are learned from books written by well-experienced prior practitioners; the practical experience permits implementing the principles in ways that are effective in particular cases such as a physician’s curing a particular ailment in a particular person. [2]

The conclusion can be that that theory is a distillation of previous persons’ direct experiences and it is needed to guide present seekers of direct experiences.




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[1] Suren Ramasubbu, The Art of Learning by Doing, 01/30/2015

[2] Hayne W. Reese, The Learning-by-Doing Principle, REESEBEHAVIORAL DEVELOPMENT BULLETIN, VOL. 11, 2011

[3] PeterThompson, Handbook of the Economics of Innovation, Volume 1, 2010, Pages 429-476

[4] Roger C. Schank, What We Learn When We Learn by Doing, Institute for the Learning Sciences Northwestern University, Technical Report No. 60 (1995)

Lucubrate Magazine, Issue 44, October 26th, 2018

The photo on top: Sam D’Cruz

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Karl Skaar
Mr. Karl Skaar

He is a highly successful professional with a high degree of entrepreneurial flair.

- Responsible editor and publisher of the Lucubrate Magazine, Global
- Project Manager of the Lucubrate Project, Global
- Chairman of the Board of Directors of Norsk Kompetansebygging AS, Norway
- Chairman of the Board of Directors of Nobel Knowledge Building, Uganda

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