Learning by Doing: Experiential learning through engaging with the third sector

Jana Filosof, Ekaterina Murzacheva

Research output: Contribution to conferencePresentationpeer-review


Although in the last two decades experiential learning has become more established in management education, it is still more widespread in management training and social educational studies (Reynolds, 2009, Tomkins and Ulus, 2016). Experiential learning is understood as ‘a cycle that consists of concrete experience, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation’ (Miller and Maellaro, 2016: 171). This circular understanding of experiential learning draws on widely quoted Kolb’s ‘Experiential Learning Cycle’ (Kolb, 1984: 51). Benefits of experiential learning are manifold. It is argued that experiential learning develops deeper thinking and reflection (Mälkki and Lindblom-Ylänne, 2012), connects practical knowing and conceptual knowledge (McKim et al., 2017); as well as linking classroom learning to power-relating and political nature of working and difficulties that arise in work experience (Reynolds, 2009). However, experiential learning is not without its critics. • Encourages deeper learning • Connects knowledge and knowing (theoretical and practical) • Often follows Kolb (1984) experiential learning cycle, which in itself is quoted as being based on John Dewey’s ideas of experiential learning Limitations/gaps if literature • Often focuses on in-class simulations, role-playing, case studies and group work, or • Work-based experiences focus on placements, internship, service-learning • The two are usually separated Our contribution: Design that integrates both theory and practice Based on Dewey’s original model of experiential learning (1925, 1934), focusing on experience and reflection (Miettinen, 2000) The Third Sector The choice of the sector was based on the commitment of the lecturers to adding value to the students as well as to the local communities. The Third Sector is traditionally not the focus of the academic curricula of the Business Schools (by definition, the business of the business schools is business). However, the contribution of the Third Sector to the economy and the society is significant – approximately 2.4% of GDP (Ainsworth, 2013) and the ‘Third sector workforce is growing and professionalising’ (Hopkins, 2010: 4). The sector is different to the public and private sectors, and traditional frameworks that have been developed for managing the private and public sectors cannot be simply translated into the Third Sector. Leadership and Change (MBA) This module is core on the Executive MBA course. The students are mid-level managers, with at least 5 years of experience of leading and managing. Working with experienced practitioners provides an opportunity to encourage reflection on their experience and as well as their thinking and understanding of leadership and change. The module is assessed by reflective narratives, discussing the students’ experience of leading and being led, managing and being managed. The brief is simple. The students are required to form small groups (up to 5) and design and deliver 8-hour community project. They then have to submit and individual essay reflecting on the entire process, focusing on issues of leadership, group dynamics and power relations. Colleagues highly praised this ‘innovative assessment design’, but when in introduced to students it has usually been met with scepticism and uncertainty. The comments like ‘what does community work have to do with leadership?’, and ‘we don’t have time for this’, have arisen repeatedly since the introduction of this component. In reflecting on their experience and writing their narratives the students come to understand the importance of the project to their learning ‘(t)he community project (planting trees for ‘The Woodland Trust’), which at one stage, I thought was a waste of our time, actually has had a considerable impact on me and on my learning journey’, and their development as leaders and followers ‘I found that the community group experience extremely positive and has given me further insight into my own strengths and weaknesses within group and social activities’. Furthermore, they come to appreciate leadership and ethics as arising in continuous interaction between people ‘(i)t is my belief that the leadership was shifting at different times and was being transferred around the group members at different points during the community projects’. They also find taking part in supporting their community gratifying ‘planning and undertaking this group task was a refreshing and rewarding experience’. References Ainsworth, D. (2013) Sector’s Contribution to the Economy ‘Could BE Four Times Larger than Thought’ Third Sector Online (March 20, 2013) http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/Finance/article/1175239/sectors-contribution-economy-could-four-times-larger-thought/ [Accessed Jan 12, 2014] Hopkins, L. (2010) Mapping the Third Sector: A Context for Social Leadership, The Clore Social Leadership Programme, London: The Work Foundation KOLB, D. A. 1984. Experiential Learning Experience as the source of learing and devolopment. MÄLKKI, K. & LINDBLOM-YLÄNNE, S. 2012. From reflection to action? Barriers and bridges between higher education teachers’ thoughts and actions. Studies in Higher Education, 37, 33-50. MCKIM, A. J., VELEZ, J. J., STEWART, J. & STRAWN, K. 2017. Exploring Leadership Development Through Community‐Based Experiences. Journal of Leadership Studies, 10, 6-16. MILLER, R. J. & MAELLARO, R. 2016. Getting to the root of the problem in experiential learning: Using problem solving and collective reflection to improve learning outcomes. Journal of Management Education, 40, 170-193. REYNOLDS, M. 2009. Wild frontiers—Reflections on experiential learning. Management Learning, 40, 387-392. TOMKINS, L. & ULUS, E. 2016. ‘Oh, was that “experiential learning”?!’Spaces, synergies and surprises with Kolb’s learning cycle. Management Learning, 47, 158-178.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 1 Sept 2019


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