As the old saying goes, nothing teaches like experience.Long before there were classrooms, there was experiential learning. Children watched their parents craft tools from flint or weave baskets from reeds. Now, this most basic form of instruction is enjoying a resurgence among educators and students alike.
Experiential learning, which in very general terms refers to acquiring knowledge through personal experiences, is one of the most fun, engaging, and effective ways to understand new concepts. Many people see it as a welcome alternative to — though not an outright replacement for — rote memorization and other forms of academic learning that seldom take students outside the classroom.
This approach to learning can be taught to children as young as preschool age — think of the water table or sandbox — and extend well into enrichment programs for professional adults. There are many types of experiential learning, all of which use real-world applications to enable students to think critically about abstract concepts.
Programs of study for older students that have an experiential learning component include internships, job shadowing, trade programs, such as cooking and auto repair, study abroad programs, and wilderness or adventure schools.
Experiential learning for high school and college students began to regain popularity during the economic downturn as an avenue for professional development. The job market was shrinking, making competition and prior experience that much more important for candidates who were looking for work. “It was no longer acceptable for students to have a college degree and that’s it,” says Ron Kovach, a past president of the National Society of Experiential Education (NSEE) and currently part of Transnational Learning Consulting. He explained that “students have to have done things;” they needed on the job experience in the form of internships or job shadowing. Authenticity is a great teacher, says Kovach.
“A lot of schools say they have experiential learning,” says Kovach. But this approach to learning is more than just experiencing something that is being taught; structure and reflection are essential to getting the most out of the process. This type of learning requires a “metacognitive approach,” says Kovach, whereby students are thinking about thinking.
Deep thoughts, right? “Think about going to the Louvre and looking at pictures,” offered Kovach. Sure, people can visit the great art museum in Paris, look at the art, and enjoy it. But they would get more out of the experience if they prepared and studied ahead, had some learning objectives, and asked pointed questions of themselves as they observed the art. Kovach calls good experiential experiences a “portfolio” way of learning, akin to how textbooks are often organized: A chapter may start with what students will learn and conclude with chapter recaps.
“You have to give them a structure so that they know what they should be learning,” says Kovach, who recommends study abroad programs that seek to engage students more deeply than simply exposing them to a new language. Students learn about a culture, travel, logistics, meeting new people, and navigating day-to-day experiences that were once familiar in a foreign environment.
“It is more than just an acquisition of language skills,” says Kovach.
At the Giddens School in Seattle, students were asked to deliver food to homebound seniors. It went well for the first few weeks, but students soon started to complain about what they considered to be a chore.
To get kids to reflect on their attitude, teachers set up stations to simulate the experience of being an older person with physical limitations. They tied sandbags to the kids to impede movement, put earmuffs on them to muffle sound, and put glasses on them to obscure vision. Teachers wrote down what the students said as they experienced how it felt to have physical limitations.
After the simulations, teachers asked the students how they felt about delivering food. The kids had a new perspective on their service mission through the experiential nature of the lesson.
Outings and field trips are great examples of experiential lessons. Before a trip, prepare learning objectives, and ask your students open-ended questions about what they expect to see. Once there, keep asking questions and encouraging close observation. Afterwards, ask your students to reflect upon their experiences and how they compared to their expectations.
Many school administrators struggle to find ways to end bullying and build a more supportive learning environment. Simply telling kids to be nice to one another can fall on deaf ears.
Enter a Canadian program called Roots of Empathy (ROE), which aims to foster empathy among school children by having a mother and her infant child visit a classroom every three weeks. With each visit, the class observes the baby’s development, specifically focusing on what her feelings are. There is something about observing the baby that teaches children to be kinder, explained Alison Bower, a trained ROE instructor. The baby reminds them that all people were once babies, and this reflection in turn fosters kindness in the children.
She said she has gone up to kids on the playground to point out someone who was being left out. “I asked, ‘How would you feel if Baby Marigold were being left out of the group?’” Once reminded of the baby, the kids would scramble to include the student who had been left out.
“It is amazing how they will be able to talk about things through a baby. They really felt they were in the presence of something special,” she said. “Without a doubt, it was their favorite class.”
While babies are natural teachers, so too is Mother Nature.
Among the more popular experiential learning experiences are outdoor and adventure courses, such as those taught by Outward Bound or NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. More intense than a routine camping trip, both organizations focus on cultivating leadership, character, and a sense of service in unfamiliar and challenging settings. The problem-solving and collaborative skills that participants develop are eagerly sought in prospective employees at many of the big technology companies and Wall Street firms.
“[Young people] have kind of gotten used to not dealing with people,” says Bruce Palmer, the head of NOLS admissions and marketing, who has been with the company since 1990. NOLS has contracts with many top MBA programs, the U.S. Naval Academy, and NASA. Individuals learn to work as a team in order to survive.
“Over time, we have become more risk-averse as a society,” says Palmer. “Many of our students find themselves in a situation where they have real risk. They are making decisions where there are real consequences to what they are doing.” He agreed that it sounded a little bit like the U.S. Army, but “without gunfire.”
“Both the military and NOLS provide young people with the chance to step into a leadership role that has some consequence.”
Designed to be “intentionally challenging,” says Peter Steinhauser, head of Outward Bound, the trips push people to learn how to learn in unfamiliar settings, often in high-stakes wilderness locations. They learn to rely on their group, and to understand its strengths and weaknesses. He said the strongest individuals were often humbled.
“They use failure as one of the steps to success. They learn how to learn, and they do so in a group setting. We believe students develop tenacity, persistence, and creativity in problem solving.”
Helen (not her real name), a NOLS and Outward Bound graduate of several trips, said that three weeks of backpacking taught her independence, teamwork, and how to push herself.
“I never again complained to my mom about a bad meal, nor did I ever take hot water and washing machines for granted,” she said after her three-week backpacking trip on Wyoming’s Wind River. Helen cried the first night in her sleeping bag, but she got through it and vows her own children — when old enough — will have the same experience.
“Lori,” also a NOLS graduate, ran into a huge challenge on a mountaineering trip when bad weather thwarted her group’s attempt to reach the summit. Before even joining the course, Lori was accomplished. She had graduated high school and college early, and by age 22 was in charge of 19 people working for AmeriCorps. Still, it was her experience being on a mountaineering rope team, maneuvering past dangerous crevasses and meeting other challenges as they arose, that taught her that each of her steps had implications.
“It’s easy to get caught up in just doing a million different things. Am I moving with intention every step of the way? I am still practicing what I learned on my NOLS course.”
Not everybody is cut out for backcountry group trips. Sometimes, there are people who would just rather be alone. Experiential adventure is somewhat self-selecting, says Outward Bound’s Steinhauser. “Nobody is forced to go on an Outward Bound trip,” but the lone wolf types, he pointed out, are a “kind of dynamic that takes place in the workplace and families. It’s part of a learning skill, how you handle that.”
By engaging in real-world scenarios, experiential learning prepares students for the challenges and issues they face outside the classroom.