Experiential learning is the way Learning happens « naturally » : when a child starts school at 5 or 6, she has a host of conceptions about the world’s physics, about the self, about life, etc. (see H. Gardner, The unschooled mind). It doesn’t mean that these conceptions are conscious: she has acquired them from observing the world around her, and living in it.
It can be as simple as experiencing a correlation of events (the bell is ringing / there is someone at the door). Some conceptions are wrong (mis-conceptions, like : if I drop a stone from a traveling plane, the stone will draw a parabola towards the rear of the plane) Some conceptions will evolve into right ones (like the various conservations described by Piaget).
Not all of those experiences need be made conscious. If they are not wrong, then it is much less taxing for the brain that they remain unconscious. In fact, 98% of our reasoning is unconscious. It takes up very little energy to the brain, and allows us to function relatively well in our world.
On the other hand, any misconception should be challenged in a experiential manner, so as to provide the ground for a change in our conception. In the case of the stone-dropping plane (and other physics misconceptions), researchers devised a serious game, Mecanika, in order for the students to systematically challenge their misconception : the game provides the otherwise (and luckily) unavailable environment for experiencing stone dropping from planes. Because it is experiential, the student learning in physics remains largely implicit. Has learning happened, then ? The interesting part is this : in order to test the game’s and the teacher’s impact, the researchers made three groups.
- Group A had the physics taught to them by a teacher
- Group B had the physics taught to them by the same teacher, but using the game as a starting point for the lesson. In this modality, the teacher makes conscious the conceptions experienced in the game.
- Group C only played with the game, without having the teacher “evaluating of generalizing the experience” (as @Clare Dygert puts it).
The results : group C’s performance on their understanding of physics is not only good, but very close to group B’s –while group A has not moved much from their original misconceptions. The big difference is between experiential and non-experiential learning. In this case at least, the benefits of making understanding explicit are not overwhelming.
In fact, if we think about it, there is an instance when fighting misconceptions explicitly might actually be counterproductive, and that is when fighting stereotypes. If, as a teacher, I routinely talk about male and female composers, novelists, physicists, mathematicians, it implicitly tells my students that women and men are equally able in all those fields. If I chose to do it “consciously”, by telling them “See ? You can find women in all these fields ! Women are men’s equals!”, then it suggests that some people might not think so. This is the “don’t think of an elephant !” described by the cognitive linguist George Lakoff.