Some misconceptions about experiential learning perpetuate the myth that it is expensive. One misconception is that experiential learning has to be outdoors. Another is that it is limited to company team-building sessions. You do not need to take your students on elaborate excursions or hire out a team-building company. Those things aren't bad in and of themselves, they're great, actually, but they can get pricey and they aren't a necessity.
So, what do you need for experiential learning? You need a stimulating learning environment and an open-minded educator to guide the journey. Experiential education is hands-on learning through experience. It is also student-led, and personal, based on the interests, skills, and backgrounds of learners. If you keep these things in mind, it's really all you need. You won't need much more.
One of my favorite memories in my career as a teacher was an entrepreneurial project that a group of students did. This group learned how to screen print, set up their own screen printing workshop in the school, started a skateboard clothing company that used their new screen printing skills and workshop, wrote a business plan, created a marketing plan, made a business website, and organized and hosted a launch party for their business. This entire experience was free. This project was experiential learning at its finest without costing the students or a school a dime.
Check out these experiential learning cost-cutting tricks that I've learned over the course of my 12 years as an experiential educator.
Experiential Learning on the Cheap
1. Work With What You Have
Working with what is available is a great skill to have and it adds a challenge to any learning experience. Many of the resources in my TpT store revolve around this concept to encourage experiential education without breaking the bank. When I first began my career as an experiential educator, my school went through a financial setback. There were holdbacks from the state, and public education suffered the consequences. As difficult as this was at the time, this experience was important for me because I had no option but to work with what I had, and when I say "what I had", that literally boiled down to pencils. There were times that we didn't have paper.
This was about the time I started implementing maker education in my classroom. The challenge was often to design and make something with trash or with common household items. Even though finances improved the very next year, I held onto this philosophy because there was no need to spend a ton of money, regardless of whether there was more to go around. A free learning experience is not less valuable than an expensive one.
2. Place-Based Learning:
Place-based learning involves engaging with the "place", taking advantage of the world as a resource. That doesn't necessarily mean taking a field trip to the local zoo. As fun as that might be, it's costly, and doesn't necessarily involve the learner. Experiential learning, again, is to EXPERIENCE the concepts. To get involved. Place-based learning, then, is not only getting out in the community, but utilizing it for the benefit of everyone involved.
Taking your students to the zoo could be turned into an experiential, place-based activity. For example, rather than take students on a tour of the zoo, contact a volunteer coordinator to help students design and create enrichment activities for their captive animals. Students could get behind the scenes, work alongside scientists, and design and create stimulating toys for otherwise restless animals. This is a collaboration benefiting everyone involved. Lower the cost by challenging students to create enrichment activities on a budget, such as upcycling materials. This is one example of working within in the community, taking advantage of the "place", while learning and impacting the community. Win, win, win, win, win.
The skateboarding company students took full advantage of this concept. They sought out a screen printing company that offered to teach them how to screen print and set up their own shop free of charge.
3. Community Experts:
One of the best resources you can have is a portfolio of community connections. The world is the classroom and the real-people living in it will be your students' most important and credible sources of information. Project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry, service learning, etc. etc. etc. are all enhanced by community experts. Not only are community members your best resource, but they're generally free, especially if you're creating relationships with community members that are mutually beneficial. They WANT to help. You don't need to spend hundreds of dollars on a professional speaker. Bring in local business owners, researchers, city officials, medical professionals, NGO's, etc. to work with your students. These are the most authentic learning experiences kids can have, and it won't cost you a dime.
The skateboarding co. students wrote a grant proposal to a local software company that was looking to fund youth entrepreneurial projects in the city. This company paid for every single material including t-shirts and skate decks, all of the equipment to build a screen printing shop in the school, and the launch party. This company's marketing director also worked side-by-side with our students on branding.
4. Free Resources from Experiential Learning Depot:
I have many free experiential learning resources in my TpT store, which were all created to inspire and guide you through this style of learning. Some educators are hesitant to take on experiential learning, one of which is the expense. Hopefully we've ironed that out by this point. Another is a lack of confidence. These materials will help you feel comfortable facilitating experiential learning activities and allow you to try them out for free before investing too much time and money into the philosophy.
5. Student-Led Fundraising:
I've always been an advocate for student travel experiences. Traveling is life-changing, and there is nothing more experiential than getting right out into the thick of it. With that said, travel is not cheap, especially when you're talking about a large group experience. One way we are able to afford to take school trips is with fundraising. Some of my favorite projects to do with kids are student-organized and directed fundraisers because of the skills gained in the process. They learn how to create spreadsheets, make graphs, manage money, balance a budget, market their products or ideas, and so on. They also raise money for learning experiences that may not be free such as traveling, field trips, STEM materials, technology for the classroom, and more.
Check out a previous blog post for great student-led fundraiser ideas. You can also head to my TpT store for free travel resources and fundraising resources.
6. Learning Activities with Few Materials
This cost-cutting trick is a combination of the others. Some learning activities simply require fewer materials or less expensive materials than others. Student-directed project-based learning, for example, only requires a computer and internet access for information, communication, and community outreach. Any additional materials would be on a student-by-student basis. If you don't want to spend money on materials, ask that students design their material free. This is much easier than it sounds. If you already do project-based learning or are interested in starting it, make budgeting a part of the experience from the beginning. Slip into that mindset from the start. Make it an expectation. Make it part of your classroom culture.
The interesting thing about experiential learning is that it isn't expensive by nature. Reducing costs also tends to enhance the learning experience, not hinder it. How do you provide interesting and effective learning experiences for learners on the cheap? I'd love to hear your tricks!
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In short, inquiry-based learning is a student-centered instructional method that promotes learning through discovery. Rather than have "correct answers" delivered directly from teacher to student, the learner explores the world around them, asks questions, and investigates.
Inquiry-based learning exists on a spectrum from teacher-directed to entirely student-directed. If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know which end of the spectrum I stick to. If you're new here, I believe student-directed learning is where it's at! An example of teacher-centered inquiry would be a recipe science lab where students follow prepared instructions and the outcome is predictable and uniform. Student-directed inquiry-based learning, on the other hand (open inquiry) gives learners the freedom to make choices in question, experimental design, etc. The student leads the experiment, they do not follow one created for them.
In my opinion, teacher-centered should only be a starting point, not the norm. It's an okay place for beginners to start, but in time, learners should gain the confidence and skills to direct their own inquiry learning experiences. When the activity is student-led, learners gain content knowledge in addition to a hefty portfolio of skills essential for life in the 21st-century.
The role of the educator changes in student-directed inquiry (or anything child-led for that matter), from director of learning to facilitator of learning. You have an important job, which is to scaffold and guide. Use the questions on the graphic below to encourage students to come to conclusions on their own. There are so many other questions you can use to scaffold. The idea is to help learners lead their own quest for knowledge.
Check out the list of inquiry-based learning resources from Experiential Learning Depot below, and use the questions in the graphic to help with implementation. You can also look back at some of my other blog posts on inquiry-based learning for more implementation tips and inquiry details.
Inquiry-Based Learning Resources for 21st-Century Learners
**Note: The resources below were designed with high school students in mind.***
1. Inquiry Bingo
Inquiry bingo is basically trivia, but the questions are obscure; they cannot be answered with one Google Search. It's an exciting way to practice a plethora of 21st-century skills. Students have to think outside of the box, dig in obscure places for information, and potentially communicate with experts. They also gain a portfolio of resources that they may not have been aware of prior to this experience. Click on the photos below for links to inquiry bingo.
2) Ocean and Climate Inquiry Stations
How does climate work? There are so many variables at play when it comes to what influences climate, making this topic fairly complex. It would be difficult to make complete sense of the role that the ocean plays in global climate if conveyed through lecture. This resource encourages learners to make discoveries on their own by connecting their experiences, observations, and background knowledge to real-world scenarios. This particular resource is a series of mapping stations. Click the photo to get to this resource. This activity is also included in a bigger bundle on the science of climate change.
3. Scientific Open Inquiry:
Scientific open inquiry is experimentation that is entirely led by the child. The student asks the question, makes a prediction, designs an experiment, and conducts the experiment. You can start with a specific topic or theme and let students develop questions and experiments around that theme, or you can leave it completely open-ended, similar to a science fair project.
STEM, project-based learning, problem-based learning, and maker education are all forms of inquiry as well. Students start with a driving question and interview experts, collaborate with community members, line up authentic learning experiences, conduct experiments, and so on to answer that question. Find these resources at Experiential Learning Depot on TpT.
You also don't have to be a science teacher to do inquiry-based learning with your students. Most of the resources listed above are scientific in nature because I am a science teacher. But inquiry crosses-disciplines. It doesn't matter if your students are learning about climate or economics; if they are exploring and examining the world by asking their own questions and coming to conclusions on their own, then it is inquiry, regardless of the topic.
This list is always growing, so check back with Experiential Learning Depot on TpT occasionally. I will also try to keep this post updated as more resources are added to my store. For free tips and resources on inquiry-based learning continue to follow along right here.
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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.