Your Quick Guide to Experiential Learning
Johnny has learned that 2 + 2 = 4. With the help of his teacher and his brightly-colored textbook, he has memorized this fact. Billy has learned that 4 – 2 = 2. With the help of the bully who grabbed two of his 4 cookies, he has learned this fact. And, in the tussle with the bully, one of his remaining cookies broke into two pieces. Billy wondered if 2 might be halves of 1 and decided to ask his teacher about that. This simple anecdote explains the difference between rote and experiential learning.
And, in the end, the experiential learning experience caused Billy to engage is some critical thinking that expanded on that learning. This is just one of the side benefits when kids are fully engaged in hands-on learning experiences.
What is Experiential Learning
The simple definition is obvious: it is learning that occurs through actual experiences, either in or out of the classroom. Experiential learning also often comes under the name of “ learner-centered education”.
This learning model is based on what is known as experiential learning theory, most associated with D.A. Kolb, psychologist and educational theorist. According to Kolb, “knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it.” Based on research, he states that mastering anything results from a continuous process, which he calls the experiential learning cycle.
That cycle is continuous and occurs in four stages:
- The Experience: Life is full of experiences, some of them more memorable than others. But every experience results in learning, as we try something new – a recipe, a sport, riding a bike, for example.
- The Reflection: Next, we think about what was successful and what was not. Or we build on the experience by asking new questions. We made a meatloaf, according to a recipe and it was pretty good. But maybe it would be better if we added a bit of hot sauce? This brings us to what Kolb calls “abstract conceptualization.”
- The Conceptualization: What planning might we make for the next time? We could brainstorm and strategize here.
- The Experimentation: Now we are ready to engage in further “tests” to see what will work and what will not? What went wrong with that science experiment and how can we use our reflection on that and our brainstorming over it to change that experiment? This takes us back to step 1 in the cycle – a new experience.
Some Classroom Examples of Experiential Learning
“Learning by doing” – this is the basis for experiential education. And the more it can be incorporated into the classroom, the more students will cement their learning. Consider just a few examples of experiential learning in various curricular areas:
- Take students outside with specific activities – have a scavenger hunt, for example, of types of plants, rocks, etc.
- Have students create plant or animal cells out of edible materials (they get to eat at the end)
- Simple or complex science experimentation with reflection afterward
- Virtual dissections
The key here is to show students how basic math, algebra and geometry apply to real life. Here’s a few examples of how it can be done.
- Students have a “store” and run sales with percent discounts
- They can measure various rooms in the school and determine how much flooring must be bought to cover them. (can be done with walls as well, and include oddly-shaped rooms for more complex calculations
- Students establish budgets, given fixed income amounts and specific financial obligations. This can be expanded into exploration of grocery ads, interest rates on loans and savings, etc.
- At the high school level, Junior Achievement provides students the opportunity to set up a company, produce a product, sell that product, realize and distribute profits, and then reflect on their experience to determine what was successful or not and how to improve what they did.
- Field trips to court, to city council meetings, even to the state legislature
- Mock elections, court cases, UN assembly issues debates, etc.
- Student newspapers – both school news and editorials
- Community service-learning projects
- Shadowing local politicians
English must be more than just reading and the study of grammar. These are teacher-directed and passive learning activities. There are some engaging experiential activities here too:
- Students can “play” parts of speech and physically put together sentences
- One of the students can teach a lesson to the rest of the class
- Small groups can create stories and poems, emulating the style of an author they have studied
- Students should be required, or at least encouraged, to participate in writing contests.
Note: There is an important aspect of learning that has been traditionally ignored in the classic classroom approach – the honoring of learning styles. In the traditional classroom, the needs of auditory and visual learners are typically addressed. The read, they listen, and often see. But the tactile-kinesthetic learner, that kid who must be actively involved in his learning, has been woefully neglected.
It’s great to come up with experiential learning activities for students. But just the experience is not enough. As those experiences are completed, there must be a reflection on how they went:
- What was great and what was not so great?
- What did I learn/not learn and want to learn?
- If I have another similar experience, what will I change to make it better?
All of these aspects of experiential learning must be in place, or the experience falls flat on the learner. Don’t let any experience fall flat. (And don’t forget that, at least at the elementary level, kids need recognition for jobs well done, and you should have concrete rewards for them e.g. a certificate.
Just Why Experiential Learning is So Powerful
Richard Branson once said, “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” But once you do learn how to walk, your world becomes a much bigger place.
And so it is with experiential learning. Kids don’t learn by being “told” stuff. They learn by doing stuff. Here are among the many benefits:
- Students have “real world” experiences. From field trips to simulations, students come to understand how the world works. And, as they interact with their fellow students who may have different perspectives, they also come to understand the diversity “out there.”
- It stimulates creative/critical thinking. As they reflect on their experiences, they engage those parts of their brains that look for solutions and how to improve those experiences the next time. Billy had such an experience with his cookies.
- It fosters reflection. When students have the chance to think about their experiences and the outcomes of those experiences, they will establish more brain connections with the content. The more brain connections, the more the learning is retained.
- Mistakes are not frowned upon; they become valuable. Experiential learning encourages risk-taking and experimentation. Students learn that trying something, realizing that it doesn’t work and then going on to try something else the next time is a learning experience in itself and actually has value It’s the old Thomas Edison approach. Mistakes are nothing to fear.
- Improved Attitudes. Engaging students in their own learning is powerful. They feel they are in control; they are participating; and they are having a good time. This improved attitude toward school and what goes on there will translate to higher achievement.
- Development of Leadership and “Team Player” skills. The world of work involves leadership and the ability to be a team player when necessary. Because many experiential learning activities involve groups, the dynamics of those interactions are great training for the future.
Strategies for Incorporating Experiential Learning
You are probably already engaging your students in experiential learning, certainly at the elementary level. Sometimes you may even call it “discovery learning.” And you probably have worked many small group activities and projects into your curriculum. To increase the amount of experiential learning, spend some time doing the following:
- Look at the concepts that are critical to each content area. Where are you already using experiential activities, and where are you not? Do some brainstorming, even with colleagues, and see how more can be added.
- Engage in experiential learning yourself, as you plan your lessons. Each lesson presented to students is an experience for them, but also an experience for you. Reflect on that experience, identify what went well and what did not and why? This will provide you with great insights as you plan future learning activities.
- Ask yourself always: “What do I want my students to be able to do after this learning experience?” instead of, “What do I want my students to know?” If you focus always on the “doing,” then you will be planning experiential learning.
Someone once said that elementary teachers teach children but secondary teachers teach “stuff.” It’s easy for secondary teachers to fall into this mindset, but it must go.
Think like a coach instead of a professor. Plan learning activities in which they must participate and that force them to practice in real-world environments, even those you contrive in the classroom. At the end of every game, a coach sits down with his players, and they reflect on what they did well and what they did not. They then discuss what can be done differently next time – experiential learning on the football field!
Project work, especially that involving pairs or small groups fosters all of those great benefits spoken about above.
Giving students options to demonstrate mastery will honor their learning styles as well as give them control over their learning. They are far more willing to experiment and keep trying when they feel motivated.
Experiential learning can be a very powerful method for both kids and adults, as it helps them put new skills in context and better understand how to implement those skills in real life settings. It also facilitates students with exploring their own strengths when learning new things.
We hope that this guide has helped you get a better sense of what is experiential learning, as well as develop an idea or two about how to use it in the classroom.
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