Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
What is experiential learning anyway? How is experiential learning defined? What does K12 classroom experiential learning look like? What are the characteristics of experiential learning? What are examples of experiential learning? What are experiential learning activities? Why is experiential learning important and what are the benefits? I get these questions a lot.
Most of the inquiries that I get from educators, however, are about how experiential learning can be worked into K12 curriculum. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components.
Blog Post: Why I Became an Experiential Learning Educator
There are, however, some misunderstandings floating around about what experiential learning is, how experiential learning is defined and applied in a classroom or homeschool stetting, and who can benefit from it.
1. Myth: Experiential learning takes place outdoors.
One common misconception is that outdoor learning and experiential learning are interchangeable. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be.
Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors. With that said, experiential learning activities implemented in the great outdoors is always my goal.
2. Myth: Experiential learning is only for corporate team-building.
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term "experiential learning" is in association with corporate team-building activities. Experiential learning in the world of K12 education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students, and the application to learning doesn't stop at team-building.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly as it relates to K12 education, and how you can have an experiential learning classroom or home learning environment today.
Before getting into the nitty gritty of experiential learning, I encourage you to grab my free experiential learning activity tools and have them handy while reading the rest of this post.
The free mini-bundle includes:
I highly encourage you to check out some of my experiential learning resources for examples, inspiration, and tools.
I also encourage you to check out my Experiential Learning Community for K12 Teachers Facebook group. Members have exclusive access to a free experiential learning video training that goes along well with the mind map included in the free bundle.
Experiential Learning Defined: What Does Classroom Experiential Learning Entail?
1. Students are Actively Involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as science labs that include precise recipes to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean students are involved in or experiencing the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student. Learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, embrace failure, and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Experiential learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-directed.
2. Students Have the Freedom and Support to Make Mistakes:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners.
STEM and design thinking projects are examples of experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these experiences can be implemented in any learning environment, inside or out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting or alternative setting.
Check out some of my project-based learning resources with a design thinking twist for experiential learning activities that welcome mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The Experience is Personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse needs, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student. Doing so, developing learning experiences around students' unique selves is personalized learning. And experiential learning is just that.
I use personal learning plans as the framework for personalizing learning in my high school classroom.
4. Students See a Connection Between Content and the Real World:
Connecting an activity with real-world problems or ideas helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what they're learning applies to the world and life itself.
That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions, for example. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help 21st century learners develop essential 21st-century skills, or soft skills if you will.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. Check out some of my problem-based learning lesson plans for more info and to save time.
5. Students Can See Purpose in the Activity:
Do you ever hear "Why do I need to know this?" You will never hear an experiential educator respond to that question with "you just do" or "sometimes we need to do things we don't like".
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing.
With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement, as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The Experience is Student-Directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Students design and lead their own learning experiences while you facilitate. Check out my blog post on what the teacher does in a student-directed learning environment for details.
The bulk of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed, or at a minimum. Most of them are high school project based learning lesson plans, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT for new resource alerts.
7. Reflect on the Experience:
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning.
Students should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
Click here for a Learning Reflection Template: Editable Google Slides Slideshow
8. Authentic Learning Experiences:
Make learning authentic by adding experiences that are real and relevant to students. If students are studying the brain, for example, connect with the neurology department of a local university to arrange for a speaker, class visit, to borrow resources, etc.
Utilizing community experts and community resources in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY experiential learning activity and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students and apply the above elements to make it more experiential. Use the free mind map mentioned above to do so! Send me a message when you're done and tell me all about it!
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences.
Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences.
But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners. Start with any student-directed learning activity.
Check out these experiential learning activity tool kits bundle for middle and high school students that can be applied in a classroom and beyond. The tool kits apply to all subjects.
Join our experiential learning Facebook group!
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!
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Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my shop for experiential learning resources.
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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.