Let Your Experiences Teach You, Not Define You

Earlier today, Obama gave a speech to America’s schoolchildren. My kid isn’t old enough for Obama’s words to be inspirational (unless Obama happens to be driving a trash truck and happily honking at toddlers while passing out balloons, bubbles, and chocolate milk), but I am. And even though Obama’s speech is geared toward children, there is a lot about it that applies to adult learners as well. Taking responsibility for our learning, setting goals, asking questions, asking for help — these are all mantras that my colleagues and I yawp each and every day.

There is one other mantra that I am particularly known for around these parts, and Obama touches on this as well: that is, the great value of learning from our experiences. Obama cites several examples of successful learners, and then he says:

These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time.

This is, in many ways, what our PLA program is about. This is, in fact, what LEARNING is about (though not only “failures” create learning opportunities, of course). And this is what is so totally cool about Obama. He gets it! But I digress. . .

Lindeman (1961) claimed that experience is the adult learner’s “living textbook,” yet Fenwick (2001) points out the obvious: “Experience alone does not teach” (p. 11). The question then becomes HOW? How do we learn from our experiences — how do we “get them to show us” what to do differently next time? Well, let me share one of my favorite ideas:

Reflection is the process by which experience is turned into learning. ~ Boud, Keogh, & Walker (1985)

We reflect. We ask questions of our experiences, our observations, ourselves, our actions. We ask questions that have no easy answers. We think. We think critically. We become aware. A.W.A.R.E.

Obama is not only asking kids to take responsibility for their learning and education; he is not only suggesting that they not let their circumstances dictate their potential; he is not only attempting to inspire them to be good students, good learners. He is also asking them to think. To reflect. To become aware.

And really – the speech is really not just aimed at school children. He is, in fact, asking this of all of us.


Ask questions.

Become aware.



And act differently.

As Obama said to the kids this morning, “There is no excuse for not trying.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. Kogan Page: London.

Fenwick, T. (2001). Experiential learning: A theoretical critique from five perspectives. Information Series No. 385. Columbus, OH: Center on Education and Training for Employment. Eric # ED454418.

Lindeman, E. C. (1961). The meaning of adult education. Norman, OK: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education and Harvest House Ltd. (Canada). (Original work published 1926)

And for a fun look at the President’s speech, you might also enjoy reading this: The Secret Agenda — Found!


3 thoughts on “Let Your Experiences Teach You, Not Define You

  1. Pingback: How To Be Less Bitter « PrattleNog

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