I talk about experiential learning a lot in my life. It's in the name of my blog and my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I consider "experiential educator" to be my job title and path of focus. "Experiential learning" is strongly built into my daily lexicon and philosophy of education. I find people asking me on a regular basis to explain what I do as an experiential educator. A lot of people come wanting to know more about experiential learning and how they can work it into their curriculum. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all backgrounds, learning styles, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components. There isn't really any bad news other than there are some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
Based on Instagram alone, I have noticed that experiential learning is often associated with outdoor education. The Instagram hashtag, #experientiallearning, is loaded with photos of students hiking, traveling, and getting their hands dirty. This can be experiential learning, but isn't always, and outdoor education is certainly not the only form of experiential learning. So let's iron out what it is exactly and how you can utilize it with your students.
In short experiential learning is learning through experience. It's getting actively involved in learning. Hands-on activities aren't necessarily experiential learning activities, however. There are specific elements that make is different. Project-based learning can be experiential, as can inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, community learning, service learning, and simple hands-on activities, just as long as the following characteristics of experiential learning are utilized:
What is Experiential Learning?
1. Students are actively involved -
Students should be actively, not passively, learning through the learning experience at hand. What experiential learning IS NOT is lecture-based. Students should be involved.
2. Students have the freedom and support to make mistakes, and outright fail at times -
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process, not just from the outcome or final grade. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages an attitude of willingness to improve. This is an important competency to have in life-long learners.
3. The experience is personalized -
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, learning styles, and skill levels of each student.
4. Students see a connection between the content and the real world -
Connecting an activity with real-world context helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information.
5. Students can see purpose in the activity -
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes an intrinsic motivation to learn.
6. Student-directed -
Student's should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered.
7. Reflection -
Reflection is a big one. I believe that reflection should be a key component to any instructional approach, not just experiential learning. Students should have ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures (which there will be in experiential learning). They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement through life.
Bonus: use the community as a resource -
Community outreach is a huge plus when it comes to experiential learning. It might mean bringing students out of the classroom to utilize a community resource, or bring community resources into your classroom. You could bring community experts in as speakers, helpers, or teachers. Utilizing community experts in an important part of project-based learning, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Now, here is an example. I am technically a biology teacher. I teach the basics of neurology, and when I do, I invite someone from the University of Minnesota neurology department to come in to talk about their research. In the past they have brought with them an actual human brain, a resource I am personally unable to get my hands on. That is a valuable resource that brings out some of the elements of experiential learning listed above.
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for. For example, you might have your students doing a lab in chemistry. It's hands-on learning. It's not a worksheet, so that's experiential learning right? Not necessarily. If it's a prescribed recipe then students are missing the personalized learning component. The experience isn't student-directed. It may not connect with the students' reality or the real-world. It is not active learning, it's passive. Just because it's hands-on does not make it experiential. Go through the checklist with a favorite activity to see if it's experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential. The outcome is a student that has a lifelong passion for learning and actually understands and absorbs the content.
For experiential learning resources check out my TpT store Experiential Learning Depot.
I like the article below on experiential learning. It's a long one, but it would act as a great manual for educators new to experiential learning. I also give it credit for helping me out with this blog post. "Best Practices in Experiential Learning" - prepared by Michelle Schwartz
Happy holidays everyone, and a great final week before break if you're still working!
Student Activism with Community Action Projects
My entire teaching career was at one school, Jennings Community School. The philosophy is written right there in the name. Wayne Jennings started the school with "community" as the foundation for learning. In nine years teaching there I developed a deep appreciation for student involvement in the community.
Students have the capacity to make massive waves of change because they are young, technologically savvy, and many injustices happening in the world today are happening to them, impacting them directly. What they need from us are the tools, skills, and knowledge to have their voices heard. They have opinions, they have ideas. They just need a nudge and some guidance.
I designed a project that gives students the tools, skills and knowledge they need for a lifetime of community activism. Check out Community Action Projects at Experiential Learning Depot. Community Action Projects teach many important social-emotional skills such as empathy and self-reliance. They help students develop essential life and career skills such as networking and responsible citizenship. Most importantly, action in the community gives students the tools to make a positive impact long after they have completed the project, finished the class, or graduated from school.
There are many ways students can take action in the community! Here are four such ways:
1) Giving Time/Volunteering/Community Service:
Service learning is one way students can be active in the community. Encourage students to give thanks this holiday season by giving back! Help them organize a community involvement club, have a weekly community clean-up day, regular visits to a food shelf and so on. Inspire students to identify community issues that matter to them, and give their time to that cause.
Students love fundraising! Encourage them to direct that spirit toward a cause that is meaningful or relevant in their lives. Many people don't have the means to donate money from their own pockets, especially students. They can plan and host a fundraiser for a specific cause and donate money to a worthy cause that way.
3) Advocating for Legislation:
This is a really important learning experience for students to have in my opinion. In many cases it is the most effective course of action one could take. The Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) coordinates an annual "Legislative Day", where students from across the state come to the capital to speak with their legislators. This is a powerful way for students to be heard. This type of action also teaches students important citizenship concepts, among other things. I had a student who personally contacted her legislator, who traveled all the way to Jennings to meet with this student. They met one-on-one to discuss a bill that would help ex-convicts get jobs, an important and personal issue to this particular student.
4) Education/Raising Awareness:
Education is the most effective course of action in making long-term change. Say what you will about social media, but in this case it is a huge ally. Information travels fast, far and wide when shared on social media platforms. Students are especially competent with technology. A simple awareness campaign poster posted on social media will reach more people in 5 minutes than a flier would in weeks, for example. Encourage your students to utilize these 21st C. communication skills to their benefit and the benefit of the community.
There are so many ways students can be active members of their communities. They don't even have to get radical if you're not up for that. What seems like a small and simple gesture may not be small and simple for some. I had a student who wanted to get a crosswalk put into a high traffic area near the school. Getting a crosswalk put in may not bring world peace, but it's something, and an important something to that student and her community.
Change the world one project at a time! Have a great school week everyone.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.