Experiential Learning theory in healthcare education:

Born on the 20th of October 1859 John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer. Dewey is considered one of the fathers of functional psychology. Dewey was known as “The Modern Father of Experiential Education”.
Considered as one of the greatest philosopher’s and educational thinkers of the 20th century. “Dewey became famous for pointing out that the authoritarian, strict, pre-ordained knowledge approach of modern traditional education was too concerned with delivering knowledge, and not enough with understanding students actual experiences”. He became the champion of progressive education.

Known as a founding father of constructivists theory, they identify knowledge as constructed by learners as they attempt to make sense of their experiences. Constructivists draw from a number of well-known theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky and Dewey himself. Dewey’s notion of experience is that it is a transaction taking place between the individual and what at the time constitutes his environment.

This experience then, is the basis for “genuine education”. This approach has grown out of the philosophy of pragmatism where more value is placed “in knowledge derived from observation and experience than from tradition and authority” (Merriam & Brockett, 1997).

Dewey identified four key elements to underpin his theories in childhood education, which were, learning by;

· Doing (memorable experiences)
· Discussion (Debriefing, social change)
· Interaction (passive recipient)
· Inter-disciplinary (build on what they know which strengthens their knowledge (learns how things are connected) Building stronger mental models.

Building on Dewey’s theory I can see huge relevance in healthcare simulation, drawing on Kolb’s experiential theory which was heavily influenced by Dewey’s early work. Kolb’s theory of experiential learning addressed a four stage cyclical theory, which combines; experience, perception, cognition and behaviour.

Concrete experience; Medical simulation creates kinesthetic learning (learning by physical actions), simulation may evoke strong emotional responses that reveal cause-effect relationships, which will be remembered by the learners.

Reflective observation; The learner consciously reflects back on that experience. Debriefing allows time for learners to reflect and analyze their own behaviours.

Abstract conceptualization; The learner attempts to conceptualize a theory or model of what is observed. Simulations allow learners to think critically about a given situation. They will formulate concepts and plan behaviours for future events.

Active experimentation; The learner is trying to plan how to test a model or theory or plan for a forthcoming experience. Role-playing activities really helps participants “learn by doing.” Active experimentation leads to concrete experiences, and the cycle of experiential learning resumes again.

Dewey’s theories have had a profound impact on educational systems.

They have provided the philosophical basis for learning by doing, project work, simulation and many forms of experiential education. Dewey heavily influenced Kolb’s experiential learning theory and for me, this theory is something I see successfully used on a consistent basis through immersive simulation based education activities and experiential learning in health care education.

The most exciting element of experiential learning for me is when enquiring of participants, what are the key changes in their learning or future practice, and they identify a change, which is actually applied in future practice. Transition to practice of ideas (change to practice) is the ultimate reward for the participant and the educators when utilising Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, ultimately leading to higher quality patient care and reduced patient harm!


Abrandt, D. M., Rystedt, H., Felländer-Tsai, L., & Nyström, S. (Eds.). (2019). Interprofessional simulation in health care : Materiality, embodiment, interaction.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2013). Adult learning : Linking theory and practice.