Element 26:

Why Experience Beats Linguistic Learning Every Time

“At the beginning of the 21st century, we now have enough biological, genetic, and neuroscientific data to understand why experiential learning is a much more powerful promoter of long-term memory and behavioral change than classroom learning.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

evolution[1]Since life first appeared on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, evolution has used experience, not words, as the primary basis of learning, which is represented by change at the level of genes and nerve tissue (see “What Is Learning“). At the beginning of the 21st century, we now have enough biological, genetic, and neuroscientific data to understand why experiential learning is a much more powerful promoter of long-term memory and behavioral change than classroom learning.

But most of us don’t need science to tell us this. All we have to do is consider our own history with formal linguistic learning systems devoid of real world experience. To get from kindergarten through 12th grade, we had to pass thorough 13 years of approximately 13,000 45-minute lecture segments, put in at least another 2,100 hours of memorization, and study for approximately 30,000 test questions, of which today, after all that effort, most of us remember very little.

Experiential Learning Is the Best Teacher

stackingstones[1]For centuries humans have been aware that “experience is the best teacher.” In 1451 BC, the great Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand.” In 1865, in Louis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Dodo reflected Confucius’ words of wisdom. “‘Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to explain it is do it.” In the early 1900s, Albert Einstein, considered by many to possess one of the most proficient brains on earth, said, “All true learning is experience, everything else is just information.” In an article published in the 1990s by New Horizons In Learning, the authors point out, “We learn 10 percent of what we read, 15 percent of what we hear, but 80 percent of what we experience.”

At home we all have experienced the limitations of trying to get our children to change their behaviors through words alone. We endlessly lecture our offspring to turn off lights, close doors, wipe feet, brush teeth, and be respectful – with very limited success. Husbands and wives lecture each other about similar topics with little satisfaction. And, at the work place, bosses constantly lecture their employees till they are blue in the face about how exactly they want them to do their jobs but end up frustrated because of the limited impact of their words. We try to pour words into learners’ heads like we pour water into a jug. The only difference is that most of the words leak out, never to be remembered. Learners’ brains are complex biological organs, not jugs.

blahblah[1]Brain-based educators are beginning to recognize the dramatic lack of neurological efficiency of an education system based solely on a linguistic approach. Eric Jensen, in his book Brain-Based Learning, criticizes linguistic learning, which he terms “semantic.” Semantic is the type oflist-oriented rote unnatural memory, which requires rehearsal, is resistant to change, isolated from context, has strict limits, lacks meanings, and is linked to extrinsic motivation. The semantic memory is not brain compatible. In fact, it is a very unnatural way to learn and remember.” M. C. Wittrock, a professor of education and psychology at the University of California, notes, “The brain does not usually learn in the sense of accepting or recording information from teachers. The brain is not a passive consumer of information. To the brain, a lecture, blackboard, or book is not reality. Author of The Brain Book, Peter Russell says, “Without direct experience, education can become dry, meaningless and boring.” As author and education researcher Robert Sylwester says to the brain, “Explaining a smell is not as good as smelling it.”

The Isolation of School

John Dewey was one of the first educators to recognize that education systems would fail if they tried to create learning by locking students away from real world experiences. In 1902, he wrote, “From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside of school in any complete way within the school itself; while on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school. That is the isolation of the school – the isolation from the life. Today, by the time students are taught parallel lines in geometry class, they have encountered thousands upon thousands of parallel lines in fences, table legs, door jambs, and picture frames. Yet, in classrooms, our educational dogma dictates that a teacher draw parallel lines on the board and supply a written definition as if the student has no real exposure to them. The relationship between experience and school learning is seldom made.

We get learners to regurgitate the facts, handing out A’s, B’s and C’s that indicate they understand the information. But because linguistic knowledge alone fails to help learners connect information to the context of real world experience, we fail to activate the appropriate brain centers that ensure the information can be remembered and efficiently used. In his groundbreaking book, Human Brain, Human Learning, Leslie Hart points to a report by the National Assembly of Educational Process, which showed that students tested strongest in knowledge of facts and weakest in applying them to the real world. Asked how far a car going 8 kilometers in five minutes would go in an hour, only 28 percent of 13-year-olds and 56 percent of 17-year-olds could provide the correct answer. Hart says, “When we consider that a 10th grader had 8-10 years of mathematics, we must marvel at the potency of classroom instruction in preventing learning!” While this report was done over 20 years ago, the results still ring true, with 60 to 70 percent of the students in some sections of the United States not yet scoring at proficiency levels in nationwide tests of math and reading.

money[1]Writing of the research that shows school experience does not translate into real world understanding, Harvard’s Howard Gardner notes, “These investigations document that even students that have been well trained and who exhibit all the overt signs of success – faithful attendance, good schools, high grades and high test scores, accolades from their teachers – typically do not display an adequate understanding of the materials and concepts with which they have been working.” Today’s students can succeed in math courses because they can memorize multiplication tables, but these same students have difficulty making change at the checkout counters of their local stores.

Read on to get a deeper understanding of why, from a scientific perspective, experience is the best teacher

Evolution has designed real world experience, not words, as the chief architect of the brain. While genes direct synapses, axons, and dendrites only to their approximate location in the brain, it is our experiences that shape and customize these neural circuits so they best fit their environments (see “The Environment Is Everything“). As Nobel Prize winner for discovering the structure of DNA, Francis Crick, writes, “It is sufficient to say that genes … lay down the broad structure of the nervous system, but that experience is needed to tune up and refine many details of its structure.” Renowned neuroscientist Robert Ornstein writes, “So we come into the world with the basic human inheritance in place, but in order to become individual, we must have human experience. Our environment and actions shape our brain’s internal connections.”

Pediatric neurobiologist Harry Chungany of Wayne University says that experiences at the right time are so powerful that “they can completely change the way a person turns out.” Joseph Chilton Pearce estimates that the stand-and-deliver, lecture-and-test format is so unnatural to the brain that the average learner only remembers 3 percent of a 45-minutes class. Hart writes, “Brain compatible learning takes place in a free setting. The core of natural learning is the desire to better understand how the world operates.” He goes on to say, “Today’s students are starved for exposure to reality” and concludes, “Schools have failed to bring reality inside their walls.” To the brain, the chalkboard is not reality. To vent his frustration over how far education was from the real world, Mark Twain once wrote, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Six Reasons Why Experiential Learning Beats Classroom Learning

There are six main reasons why physical experience in rich natural environments increases the opportunity for long-term memory formation over linguistic instruction.

  1. At this point in human evolution, the brain centers that support linguistic processing are not mature enough to support learning solely through language. Our experiential learning centers are over 65 million years old, while the centers for language learning are only 50,000 years old.
  2. While experience automatically stimulates approximately 95 percent of all neurons that provide the massive neural firing that is the basis for all long-term memory, verbal presentation in general fires only 5 to 20 percent of neurons (see “What Is Learning“).
  3. Experience dramatically enhances working memory formation by stimulating the all-important monoamine neurotransmitter system by up to 500 percent over sitting in a classroom.
  4. Experiential learning naturally activates all the stages of learning. Memory is not a single event but a process which can be broken down into four distinct stages: information, action, feedback, and incubation. To the detriment of the learner, classroom learning only focuses on one stage, – information acquisition (see “Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning“).
  5. As we move through time and space, real world experience builds large spatial maps which provide substantial neurological structures upon which new information can easily attach itself (see “Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning“).
  6. Experience allows for the natural creation of personal meaning where no meaning previously existed. The Meaning Network (see elements on Meaning, 13-20) has a much greater chance of being activated by real world experience than by sitting still in a class room.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:


That the classroom limits sensory complexity, thus limiting the massive simultaneous firing of neurons that are necessary for efficient long-term memory formation.

That, from a evolutionary perspective, sitting still in sensory-deprived sterile classrooms listening to lectures for 18 years of our brains’ most explosive growth period is a very new concept indeed.

That in 1900 only 1 percent of the population graduated from high school!

That classroom learning limits the activation of the all-important aminergic neurotransmitter system (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine), thus limiting focus, attention, meaning making, and working memory stimulation.

That we know from experiments with things, such as sensory deprivation tanks and solitary confinement, when subjects are restricted from moving and their senses are deprived of rich sensory stimulation, not only is learning compromised, but subjects become confused, disoriented, agitated, and depressed.

That the brain is a self-organizing system, and, like all highly interconnected systems, such as ecosystems and financial markets, it needs complex input from many diverse sources to operate efficiently and reach higher states of order.

How something as simple as natural sunlight has been show to increase test performance by 26 percent.

How the neurotransmitters that make us feel joyful and alive are stimulated by physically moving through complex sensory environments.

Why, if you go too long without physical movement and/or exposing yourself to complex sensory bombardment, your susceptibility to depression will rise profoundly.

Why the recent dramatic increases in childhood maladies, such as high stress levels, obesity, anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorders, may have their roots in the limited amount of movement and sensory stimulation that our kids get today, mainly because so much of their time is spent sitting in classrooms and in front of the media.

How simply by going outside and moving around you can stimulate 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of your synapses.

That a new term called “nature deficit disorder” describes the maladies afflicting individuals who do not get enough physical experience outdoors.

That for the fist time in human history, children get less physical exercise than their grandparents!

How, in a Portland, Oregon, middle school where teachers employ local mountains, rivers, and woods as part of the curriculum, 96 percent of students meet or exceed state standards for math problem-solving compared to only 65 percent in traditional schools.

How, by combining biology, English, history, ecology, geography, and computer science in field trips, students at a New Zealand school performed 20 to 30 percent higher in geometry and 10 to 15 percent higher in math and science than students in traditional classrooms.

That, other than increased grade scores, the real benefit of experiential learning systems is that students report profound joy and personal fulfillment from the learning process.

Why, in some foreign countries, students don’t start school till 7 years of age.

Why Finland’s minister of social affairs and health says, “The core of learning is not information… being predigested from the outside, but in the interaction between a child and the environment.”

How experiential-environmental-natural learning programs have been shown to reduce behavioral problems by as much as 1,000 percent.

Why experiential-based learning programs are being called “the Holy Grail of education reform.”

That the Association of Experiential Education now has approximately 2,000 members in over 35 countries.


How your speed of learning and your Adaptability / Intelligence Factor are dramatically increased by having a solid spatial map representation of your world and how you fit into it.

How the aminergic system (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) helps us build spatial maps of our world.

That spatial maps provide huge networks of physical structures upon which new information can easily attach itself.

That spatial maps are a primary reason why it is easier to remember what you experience on a trip to Hong Kong than what you read in a book about Hong Kong.

How too much sitting still in a classroom and too much media exposure can limit learning because they afford little opportunity for us to move through time and space building spatial maps.

Why, after finishing years and years of education, many of us don’t feel as if we “fit” into the real world.

Why corporate trainings can succeed at getting employees to pass written tests of new management techniques but fail miserably in getting these same techniques implemented into the company.

Why lectures and textbooks are such inefficient tools at building personal spatial maps.

To help you understand more about why experience beats linguistic learning, click on other Elements:

The Environment Is Everything to Increasing Your Adaptability / Intelligence Factor

Memory Is Not an Event: The Four Stages of Learning

The Incubation Stage of Learning

Sleep – the Most Powerful Incubation Phase

The Grinches Who Stole Experience From Our Learning Institutions

Stress – the Death of Learning