Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Experiential education is taking the world by storm, especially our post-pandemic world.
If you are an aspiring or even practicing experiential educator looking for more information about experiential learning or could use a boost of inspiration, I highly recommend that you start by reading some books about experiential education written by the experiential learning greats!
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Right now is a great time to start. It’s the beginning of summer (for many of us), so head to the library, grab a few books about experiential education, and hit the beach or the park to get your experiential reading on!
But where to start? There are a ton of books out there about experiential education and not all are created equal. How do you know which ones to read?
I’ve compiled a list of 10 experiential education books to start with. These books are just a few of my favorites, written by some of my personal heroes, all of which have paved the way for what it means to be an experiential educator in the 21st-century.
Educators are looking for a change. They’re tired of the industrial model of teaching that is no longer relevant to 21st-century learners. I would venture to guess that is one of the reasons you are here reading this right now.
The concept of incorporating experience into education has been around for close to a century, and today, experiential education is more relevant and in-demand than ever before.
But what does it mean to be an experiential educator? What is experiential learning? What is experiential learning theory and how did it come to be? What experiential ideas have been brought together and by whom? How can we combine the ideas of experiential education pioneers with the ideas of modern-day experiential educators to better serve 21st-century learners?
The experiential education book list that I’ve compiled here includes books written by both old-school and modern-day experiential educators and theorists as well as descriptions of those books and how they’re relevant to today’s experiential educator.
Before reading on, download my free experiential education program checklist.
I recommend reading all of the books if you can. Take the summer to chip away at one book at a time. You can also head to Experiential Learning Depot’s Facebook group to join in the conversation about many of these books.
If you read a good chunk of them you’ll notice that they are all interconnected.
All of the books written in the past couple of decades piggyback off of the ideas of great educational theorists such as John Dewey, Mary Parker Follett, and Paulo Friere.
Some books are more directly related to each other than others such as Culturally Responsive Teaching and Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
But every book on this list shares one theme in common: experiential education.
Let’s get started!
10 Books About Experiential Education
BONUS: An Ethic of Excellence
“I believe that work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same.”
This book, An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger, is about creating and maintaining a culture of quality work in the classroom. If you're struggling with students producing great and meaningful work, you have to get your hands on this book.
“The experiential educator is a unique person in relationship with equally unique students, influenced by a wide variety of contexts.”
When you look up experiential learning, Kolb is often the first name that appears in the search. David Kolb is responsible for experiential learning theory (ELT).
In The Experiential Educator, Alice and David Kolb discuss pioneers of experiential learning, all of whom were highly influential in the development of ELT. Several of the theorists and practitioners mentioned in this section of the book have their own books, which are included in this blog post as well.
Alice and David also get into detail on ELT and Kolb’s cycle of experiential learning. The cycle emphasizes the continuity of experiences. Learners have an experience. They transform that experience through reflection and action and repeat the cycle again and again.
The Kolbs thoroughly walk readers through experiential learning theory in the first chunk of the book. The latter half is dedicated to case studies and examples of experiential learning theory at play in an educational context. They also offer practical ways for the experiential educator to apply the ideas to any learning environment with any and all learners.
“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative...any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.”
I reference John Dewey in my blog posts and in conversations on a regular basis. I have quotes of his all over my physical and digital workspaces.
I first learned about John Dewey in one of my college courses. I was intrigued right off the bat and went on to base my own teaching philosophy and path on Dewey’s ideas.
John Dewey’s name is associated with experiential learning and his ideas have been an enormous influence on experiential educators of today including Alice Kolb and David Kolb who authored the Experiential Educator.
The book, Experience and Education, summarizes Dewey’s theories in less than 100 pages. So, while it is very theoretical and a little heavy, it is condensed and concise.
Experiential learning is often casually defined as learning through experience. But this definition alone is misleading.
Dewey explains in the book that we can label anything an experience. Taking notes while my instructor lectures is an experience technically.
But is the experience experiential? Is it an experience of quality? Is the experience relevant or meaningful to those having the experience? Is it an experience that ends abruptly or is it an experience that influences a later experience? Is there continuity between experiences?
Those are some of the questions Dewey challenges you to ask yourself as an experiential educator.
“As an individual passes from one situation to another, his world, his environment, expands or contracts. He does not find himself living in another world but in a different part or aspect of one and the same world.”
“What we chiefly need I believe is… for all of us to acquire the scientific attitude of mind, to base our life on actual experience, of my own plus that of others, rather than on preconceived notions.”
This book, Creative Experience is old. It was published in 1924 and it shows. It shows by the smell of the pages and in the style of writing.
If I’m being honest, this book was hard to follow the first time I read it, but I pushed through because Mary Parker Follett is an important figure as it relates to pioneering organizational theories such as experiential learning.
The second time I read the book was easier and I picked up on things I didn’t see or understand the first time.
If you are on the fence about whether to read this book or not, I suggest reading it at least for the chapter “Experience as Creating”. It really gets into the nitty-gritty of “integration”, which is the name Mary gives to integrating ideas to build a creative experience.
Those invested in the experience cooperate rather than compromise. They work together, taking all needs, ideas, and experiences into account. That experience is experiential in itself.
The concept of creative integration can 100% be applied directly to the classroom and homeschool experiences, committees, and even staff meetings!
“In the end, they grasp and retain what they find important to them. And they certainly do not apply anything until they see where in their real-world it is useful and meaningful, where it adds value to their lives.”
When anyone asks me for book recommendations on student-led project-based learning, Passion for Learning is the first book that I recommend.
The name of the book is very fitting. When students are not personally and meaningfully engaged in learning experiences that are relevant, real-world, and interest-based, learning becomes more of a chore than an exciting opportunity.
Ronald J Newell, the author of Passion for Learning, explains that project-based learning instills in children the desire to learn. A passion for learning is ignited deep down inside because every learner is personally invested in the experience topic, process, and outcome.
Passion for Learning uses Minnesota New Country School as an example of a project-based school, and it is quite inspiring.
“As I see it, the aims of education are to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate, citizens.”
I love a good Ken Robinson book.
I first learned of Ken Robinson from his infamous TED Talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, which has gone on to be the most-watched TED Talk of all time (this is another great TED Talk by Ken Robinson).
The title of this talk alone got my attention, as it did 80 million other viewers, and for good reason. Education is a hot-button topic and Ken Robinson knows education.
As this TED Talk and almost all of Ken Robinson’s books allude to, the world is changing at a rapid pace and our schools don’t seem to be keeping up or adapting to the changes in a way that effectively serves 21st-century learners.
In his book, “Creative Schools”, Ken Robinson urges educators to examine current models of education, challenge a one-size-fits-all model, and move toward personalized learning that allows students the freedom to discover their “elements” and use their creativity.
Experiential learning is one model that encourages student-led, interest-based, and personalized learning. Experiential learning gives students the platform and the path for inquiry and self-discovery, which is essential in 21st-century life.
Ken Robinson also wrote “The Element”, “Finding Your Element”, and “Out of Our Minds”, all of which are awesome and revolve around the theme of creativity.
“Those bright shiny faces aren’t sitting behind desks - they are all around the school, and out in the schoolyard and the community, learning in a whole new way.”
Place-Based Education really helps wrap the mind around the community aspect of experiential learning, which is so essential to the philosophy and the practice.
The book looks at the world as the classroom and the community as the teacher. The “place” sets the context for constructing knowledge and making sense of concepts, so the book really emphasizes using the world around us to set the stage for learning.
For example, if you’re an environmental science teacher and you want to focus on water pollution, you could have students learn about the concepts from textbooks, lectures, documentaries, computer games, or even with lab experiments using water samples from the wetland in the school’s backyard.
But place-based learning isn’t limited to utilizing a physical space such as the classroom or the school’s backyard. It is the immersion of students in the elements of that physical space including the culture, heritage, natural environment, community issues, and other experiences.
This approach uses the physical space as a resource, a partner, a collaborator, and a lab for deep, authentic, and meaningful learning experiences.
A place-based learning experience on the topic of water pollution, then, would include not just using the natural environment as a laboratory, but talking and working alongside local residents, working with local legislators, and partnering up with local environmental scientists to co-design and develop citizen science projects, etc.
The list of learning opportunities that involve the place goes on.
David Sobel does a splendid job of explaining the why, the what, and the how of place-based learning in his book. I highly recommend it, especially if you are interested in project-based learning.
David Sobel also wrote, “Beyond Ecophobia”, another great read for educators and parents.
“One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people.”
This is a really important book. While Pedagogy of the Oppressed is not about experiential learning directly, it is closely tied to it, so much so that David Kolb mentions Paulo Freire in his own book (The Experiential Educator) as one of several important figures associated with experiential learning theory.
The book is summarized in the name. There is a pedagogy that dehumanizes children and a pedagogy that does not. In short, in a humanizing pedagogy, education is “cointentional”. Teachers and students work together to ask questions, reflect on experiences, and take action that’s determined through open dialogue.
And that, my friend is experiential learning in a nutshell.
This book is inspiring and thought-provoking, and I highly recommend it to ALL educators, not just those on an experiential path. I also recommend pairing this book with the next one on this list, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain”.
“Your brain, and the brains of your students, can and do change. Unlike your actual fingerprints, your brain’s ‘fingerprint’ is different than it was yesterday. What is even more exciting is knowing how to purposefully influence these factors to help us better serve our students.”
I love this book for many reasons, but one is simply who the authors are and that they are powerhouses of information on brain-based learning.
If you want to learn more about brain-based education and how to incorporate it into your teaching strategy, you turn to Eric Jensen. He is the big name behind the concept.
I also love that he co-wrote this book with Liesl McConchie who has been on the front lines in the education world, so she gets it. She has been a teacher and trainer and has played a role in developing schools based on decades of direct experience with children and global research.
So what is brain-based education? In a nutshell, it is setting the stage and nurturing a learning environment that is based on how the brain learns and what is good for the brain.
This book, then, describes how the brain works, explains what the brain needs, and offers concrete and tangible ways to teach learners in a way that gives the brain what it needs.
For example, we know from brain-based research that brains that are stressed can’t perform to their full potential. What does the brain of a child that brings stress into the classroom need?
Eric and Liesl explain that the brain needs voice and choice, which is the foundation of experiential learning. I talk a lot about self-directed learning, which can be summarized as learning that students lead through a series of personal choices.
If you’re looking for more on brain-based learning, Eric Jensen also wrote “Teaching with the Brain in Mind”, another great read.
“Culturally responsive teaching is also about empowerment and interrupting teaching practices that keep certain students dependent learners.”
Zaretta Hammond combines both the ideas and principles in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Brain-Based Learning in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.
Again, the title is the book in a nutshell. It is about using what we know about the brain, what it needs, and how it learns to teach and serve our students in a culturally responsive way.
But what does it mean to be culturally responsive?
In short, culturally responsive teaching is nurturing the conditions for students to tap into what is personally meaningful and relevant, both of which are based on the student’s “cultural frame of reference.”
We shouldn’t presume to know what is culturally relevant to any student, but rather guide and work alongside learners to help them identify and utilize the culture that is naturally rooted in every child’s brain.
The book goes into detail not only about what culturally responsive teaching means but offers practical ways to work toward culturally responsive teaching right now.
In experiential learning, students discover cultural relevance for themselves and the teachers are there to guide and support them in that discovery. They identify topics that are relevant and meaningful and build knowledge and experiences around cultural relevance.
“Who benefits?—is always a useful question to ask about a deeply entrenched and widely accepted practice.”
Punished by Rewards is not strictly related to or written about experiential learning. The concept of rewarding children at home or in the classroom is connected to experiential learning, however, in the sense that experiential learning negates the “need” for rewards.
Alfie Kohn explains that rewards are given to change behaviors, or in Kohn’s words, control behaviors. He doesn’t frame it as a judgment.
Sometimes as educators and parents we feel desperate for a learning day that is not filled with chaos. Understandably. Sometimes we just need to get through the day in one piece, so we offer rewards to get us there. I’ve absolutely done this.
The problem with that, Alfie argues (and I’ve experienced), is that not only does study after study after study show that this approach is not effective long-term, but it could be damaging for both you, the classroom/homeschool culture, and your students/children in a variety of ways.
On the upside, Alfie Kohn offers suggestions in the book for moving away from rewards. Experiential learning is one such method of pivoting away from rewards as it instills an intrinsic motivation to learn rather than an extrinsic one.
There are so many other great books, but these ten are the ones I recommend to get you started especially if you are a new or aspiring experiential educator. If you’ve read the books here and you’re still on the path for more books about experiential education, I also recommend the following:
Each of the experiential education books that I’ve mentioned in this blog offers practical methods of applying the ideas to your school, classroom, homeschool, and beyond.
It all may seem like quite a bit of information, but the overarching theme is the incorporation of relevant and meaningful learning experiences acquired through personalization, inquiry, reflection, and action.
If you’re looking for concrete actionable steps to take from here, start by downloading the free experiential education checklist mentioned above. Then browse my experiential learning resources for experiential educators.
All of my learning resources and blog posts reflect the ideas of the books mentioned in this post as well as the decade of putting those ideas into practice with my own high school students and children at home.
Resources for Experiential Educators
Related Blog Posts on Experiential Education
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Did you know there is an experiential learning Facebook group? Check that out - Experiential Learning Community for K12 Teachers - and join in the discussion about experiential learning ideas such as real world learning in the classroom.
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
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.