Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
I am often asked how to get colleagues on board with experiential learning. This is an important question. I taught at an experiential school for 10 years. It was tough when there was a staff member or two that didn't agree with or understand the experiential philosophy.
Experiential learning is a profound and life-changing teaching strategy with a laundry list of benefits attached, but working with those that are resistant to the craft can be draining, leaving you with little choice but to keep on teaching in a way that you don't feel is effective for your students or fulfilling to you.
So how can you work with those that are resistant to experiential learning? What can you do? What can you say?
The Benefits of Experiential Learning
Before getting into the benefits of experiential learning let's do a quick rundown of what experiential learning is anyway. Experiential learning is a teaching strategy that gets students involved in the concepts. Experiential learning can be hands-on, but doesn't have to be. More importantly, it is active learning vs. passive. Some characteristics of experiential learning include personalized, self-directed and reflective.
Experiential learning is authentic, relevant, and real-world. The real-world aspect helps students connect, find meaning, and see the purpose of the experience.
If you're interested in a free video training on experiential learning, head to our experiential learning Facebook community.
So with that said, what are some benefits of teaching this way? What benefits arise from personalizing learning, giving students choice, emphasizing reflection, and getting learners involved in real-world learning experiences? So many benefits!
1. Learning is deep, meaningful, and relevant:
I put this benefit first because I think it is vital. As a teacher myself, I signed up to help students learn. If my approach does not result in real learning that matters then I'm not doing my job.
Worksheets, copying teacher notes, direct instruction, and rote-memorization, while they might have their place (minimally) in a classroom, do not result in deep learning. Students will hear and retain enough of the content to (possibly) pass a test. That isn't learning, in my opinion. I believe those strategies cause more harm than good when those methods dominate the scene.
Experiential learning by nature results in deep, meaningful, and relevant learning because students are involved, invested, and see the bigger picture.
2. Students develop a passion for learning:
Because experiential learning is personalized, students are involved in the learning experiences and invested in the outcomes. Students grow to love learning because the learning experiences are developed around their passions.
If one of my high school literacy teachers had said to me "Choose a book on a topic that is of interest to you" instead of forcing the Alchemist (sorry, not a favorite) down my throat, I might have learned to love reading in my teens vs. my early 30's.
3. Promotes life-long learning:
Experiential learning is a process. It is a craft in itself. Because experiential learning is largely student-directed, students learn how to learn in the process.
Students develop the skills to find credible information, they learn how to communicate and network with stakeholders and community members, they can analytically and critically think, they can create, they can assess the needs of others and develop solutions to solve problems. The list goes on. They develop the skills to learn without me next to them holding their hands.
Students also develop the desire to learn, which they carry with them into adulthood and the world beyond high school. This is what we want for our children in the end, isn't it?
4. Prepares students for life in the real-world:
An important result of experiential learning is preparedness for life. Similar to #3, experiential learning helps students gain the skills and wherewithal to succeed in life beyond classroom walls.
To give you some context, lets say your go-to teaching strategy is direct instruction. While that strategy might be helpful or necessary at times, it is not really preparing your students for life out in the world in a non-school environment.
For example, when your student starts a new job in a career of choice they will not have someone to lecture them through the tasks that are being demanded of them. They will be expected to do the work because that is what they were hired to do. Your student needs to be able to figure it out. Experiential learning would train that student to know how to figure it out.
5. Multidisciplinary/integrates concepts:
Experiential learning activities cross disciplines. Why is this a benefit? Because that is how life is. Life is not broken up into discrete units. I draw from various disciplines in every facet of my life, so why not have students learn the same way?
Let's look at teaching. Let's say it is the end of the quarter and I am putting together learning reports to send home to parents. This one task requires a combination of skills and I draw from a variety of disciplines.
I need to know how to use a spreadsheet. I need to be able to crunch numbers or at a minimum format the spreadsheet to do this for me. I need to be able to structure and write a narrative. I need to know how to effectively communicate with parents. I need to be organized. So many different disciplines are at play here such as technology, math, writing, presenting, and more.
So again, why not offer students learning experiences that mirror life experiences?
6. Irons out common classroom management issues:
Many frustrating classroom behaviors stem from lack of engagement, apathy, boredom, lack of being challenged, being too challenged, etc. Experiential learning is personalized and self-directed so students want to learn, are naturally engaged, and have their personal needs and academic desires understood and met.
Experiential learning is very relational. Because it's personalized, I learn a lot about my students. I have to understand their interests, history, challenges, and more in order to help them develop personalized learning plans. Knowing my students really helps me get to the core of issues they're facing, such as lack of productivity. Because I know them I learn very quickly why they are suddenly unproductive and how to help them work through that issue.
7. Saves you time:
I never plan lessons. Yep you read that right, and let me say it again. I never create lesson plans! Let me clarify. Experiential learning is student-directed. My students design and lead their own learning experiences, so I save a lot of time developing and delivering lessons that don't interest or inspire them.
With that said, my job is not moot. The teacher becomes the facilitator of learning rather than the director of learning. There is still much to organize, plan, assist with, etc., but lesson planning is not one of those things.
I encourage you to go back and read my blog post on what the teacher does in a self-directed classroom.
You can also grab my free facilitation spreadsheet for self-directed project-based learning (my go-to experiential learning activity) to get inspired, use as is, and/or modify to fit your situation. This spreadsheet helps me manage student-directed projects in my classroom, which is one of my biggest jobs as an experiential learning facilitator.
If you have been reading my blog for a while you know that my student teaching experience was tough for me. I worked in a very traditional high school classroom with a very traditional cooperating teacher.
She was a lovely person, just want to put that out there! But this experience really shined light on what I wanted for my career in education. It was not enjoyable, comfortable, inspiring, or fulfilling to watch students complete worksheets and take notes while watching powerpoint lectures day after day after day. I didn't enjoy giving the worksheets nor the lectures and my students didn't enjoy receiving them.
I'm glad I stuck by teaching because I went on to teach in an experiential school for the next ten years. My students taught me so much. They inspired me on a daily basis. Their experiential learning experiences and outcomes were fascinating, innovative, and life-changing, for me and for them.
9. It's fun!
Yes, it's okay for kids to have fun while learning. If you're doing experiential learning right, learning is fun and fun is learning. They're interchangeable.
I occasionally hear comments from educators along the lines of "It's not my job to entertain my students. Learning doesn't have to be fun all the time."
I think this comment stems from exhaustion, fear of chaos or losing control, pressure from the district, and so on. I know there are understandable reasons for this comment. But let me say this...
And there you have it. Experiential learning is the best. Have I convinced you? Will this convince your colleagues? Experiential learning is powerful, life-changing, effective, and inspiring for both students and teachers. Simple as that. Even as I rattle off the benefits of experiential learning, you cannot really understand it until you've experienced it. Tell your resistant colleagues that! Just to give it a try. What is the worst that could happen?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
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.
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.