Teachers often have an interest in experiential learning theory not because of what it is, but because of what it does. Experiential learning theory is an umbrella term for a collection of similar theories rather than one singular theory, but there are some commonalities. Most important is the idea that learning through experience is better or more effective than learning through pure observation or studying theory on its own.
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The thinking behind experiential learning theory has been around since at least the time of Aristotle, who, in 350 BC wrote that “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” More recently, a well-known proponent of this theory was John Dewey. In his 1916 book Democracy and Education (ad) he said:
“How does one get to know anything? … For the answer let us go to the activities where knowing is a factor. There we find that, as children grow up, things are not merely labeled as this or that and put down on paper in such symbols as may aid memory; they are dealt with as the materials out of which a learner must make his own organized experience.”
His ideas influenced other theorists to focus their attention on the idea that classroom settings should be based on one’s personal experiences and reflective observation. Experiential learning theory has continued to influence educational reform since then, with the most recent being Carol Dweck’s Mindset theory.
What is Experiential Learning Theory?
The general idea behind experiential learning is that people learn by doing things and having new experiences, whether it is practical skills or understanding abstract ideas. Concrete experience plays the biggest role in our development, whether or not it is intended.
Theorists who are interested in the experiential learning cycle study how experiences affect behavior. These types of theorists are especially interested in how experience can inform individuals about some facet of life they may not have had any knowledge about before- for example, a student attending a lecture on historical events may come away from the experience with a better understanding of the subject, but the student may be missing any real emotional connection to what they have learned due to a lack of an active learning experience.
Theorists who support experiential learning theory suggest that experiences also play a pivotal role in how we learn and develop as individuals. In this view, an individual’s understanding of how to act or behave in a specific situation is not only based on prior knowledge but also on their direct experience in similar situations.
The Interpretation of Experiential Learning Theory
It is important to note that experiential learning theory has many different facets and interpretations. Some theorists like Jean Piaget believe that there are stages of development where children will develop certain skills based on their own experience; other theorists like John Dewey believe that children become more reflective thinkers when they are given real-world experiences.
Building on Piaget’s work, psychologists William Perry and Lisa Delpit claim that there are two stages in college where students will develop skills through experience– the first stage being less transformative because of the reliance on others for interpretation and the source of learning, but then later on graduating students will develop skills through experience after they leave college.
Another theorist, Carl Rogers, believes that the highest form of learning is self-realization and applying one’s present experiences to their own life in order to better understand themselves.
The Benefits of Experiential Learning Theory to our Students
According to experiential learning theory, students learn better when they are allowed to participate in an activity firsthand (think: service learning or inquiry-based projects). By being active participants in their own learning, they are more likely to retain the information they have learned, which we can argue is much more effective learning for the student.
Theorists who support this perspective on learning argue that too much reliance on textbooks, lectures, and similar methods of education can stifle creativity and self-expression. In more recent years, this has been especially prevalent.
As an example, many of our younger generations are beginning to rely too heavily on electronic devices and the internet. Nowadays, students are so quick to Google something or use a search engine instead of doing more extensive research through books or by talking to their peers about their understanding.
We need to model and craft assignments so an answer cannot just be researched (especially as we enter the age of AI).
Students who have not been taught how to learn effectively will not know how to seek out knowledge in other ways when they do not understand something and also lean on their own previous experiences to determine how to move forward. Through experiential learning, students are given the tools (i.e., self-reflection) to be able to reflect on their experiences and learn from them instead of relying on others for an explanation about what they may or may not have learned. This is a more inclusive cycle of learning that pays dividends long-term.
The Challenges of Experiential Learning Theory for our Students
A major challenge with experiential learning theory is that it can be difficult to implement in the current educational system. The theory itself is not problematic; however, the way culture views success definitely plays a role in how students are taught and what they are actually expected to learn.
In the current system, students (younger generations in particular) are not held accountable for their learning if it is being done through experiential means. If a student has a bad experience in a class or does not have much of an interest in a subject, they could easily just give up and walk away from that educational opportunity completely- earning them the label of “a bad student” or someone who just isn’t cut out for school.
The challenge with experiential learning theory is that it challenges our current beliefs about how students should learn and what they should be learning. When we think of traditionally successful students, many times they are those who have gone to college, earned a degree, and have a good job.
However, experiential learning theory would challenge those students by asking them to broaden their horizons and learn about the world around them. Just because someone has earned a degree does not mean that they know everything there is to know about what they studied at school- nor does it mean that they should stop learning simply because they have a degree.
Unfortunately, we have several middle-aged generations that were taught that this was the path to success (though our Generation Z and Generation Alpha students are beginning to see a larger picture.)
Implications for our Classrooms
As the world around us continues to evolve, we cannot afford to continue teaching students in old ways. We need to prepare them not only for college but also for the real world and all of its obstacles- which can be challenging since people tend to fall back on old habits.
For example, say a student has been assigned a research paper to complete for their world history class. In the past, they may have been told that they cannot start writing until they first read over the material and outline their paper. While this method is helpful for some students, other students could benefit more from learning how to be active participants in their own learning.
Now, say that this same student is given the option to first engage with the material before beginning on the assignment- something they may not have been taught how to do in a traditional classroom setting. By first engaging with the material, this student may be able to learn more through this transformation of experience about what they are studying and begin thinking about how they would approach the assignment.
Instead of being told to spend several hours reading over written material, this student has just spent 30 minutes learning something new about their topic via active experimentation- all because they were able to choose how they wanted to learn it. For some students, this experience may feel more rewarding than simply doing something that they have been told to do (and this outdated method is why so many of our students are currently apathetic).
For these students, experiential learning theory would prove to be beneficial- especially if the student is able to learn about what they are studying in a way that makes the most sense to them. In doing so, students will not only develop a better understanding of the material but also learn how to take their experiences and apply them to other areas in their lives– giving them a leg up as they move forward to new situations.
Experiential Learning Activities
There is no one-size-fits-all in experience-based learning. It’s all about finding something that fits your students and diving into these research-based strategies and best practices to tap into those higher levels of learning. Here are some examples:
An experiential learning activity for a second grader could be a nature walk for your science unit, adding real life to classroom knowledge. You could take the student to a nearby park or nature reserve and encourage them to observe and interact with the natural environment.
During the walk, you could ask the student to identify different types of plants, animals, and insects. You could also encourage them to use their senses to explore and describe the textures, smells, and sounds of the natural environment.
After the walk, you could ask the student to draw or write about their experience, reflecting on what they learned and what they found most interesting. This type of activity not only engages the student’s senses but also promotes curiosity, student engagement, and critical thinking skills.
An experiential learning activity for a sixth grader could be a community service project. This type of active participation activity allows the student to make a meaningful contribution to their community while also learning important life skills and values.
You could work with the student to identify a need in their community, such as cleaning up a park or collecting donations for a local food bank. You could then help them plan and execute the project while tying it into the curriculum (social studies? Reading? Math?), giving them opportunities to develop leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving skills.
Throughout the project, you could encourage the student to reflect on their experiences and what they have learned. You could also ask them to consider how their actions are impacting others and how they can continue to make a positive difference in their community.
This type of activity not only promotes civic engagement and social responsibility, but also fosters empathy, self-confidence, and a sense of purpose in the student.
An experiential learning activity for an eleventh grader could be a mock trial (which can be utilized in SO many subject areas). This activity allows the student to explore the legal system and develop important critical thinking, public speaking, and analytical skills while honing in on academic activities for your unit.
You could work with the student to select a case and divide the class into teams representing the prosecution and defense. Each team would then be responsible for conducting research, gathering evidence, and preparing arguments for the trial.
During the trial, the student would have the opportunity to play the role of a lawyer, witness, or juror, allowing them to experience firsthand the dynamics of a courtroom and the legal process. They would also have to think on their feet and adapt to new information as it arises.
After the trial, you could ask the student to reflect on their experience and what they have learned about the legal system, as well as how they have developed skills such as critical thinking, communication, and teamwork.
This type of activity not only engages the student’s intellect and creativity but also promotes confidence, leadership, and the ability to think critically and analytically under pressure.
Paving the Way for Experiential Learning Theory Sucess
In order for the experiential learning process to truly be effective, we need to reevaluate how we view success within our education system. Students are not always given the opportunity to learn about what they are passionate about- especially if that is not considered “traditional” or “marketable.”
At the same time, teachers need to be open to embracing new ideas and not be afraid of failing at something new. We stress to our students that it’s okay to try something new, but we are hesitant to do it ourselves within the expectations of our educational institutions. Ultimately, it will take a collaborative effort in order to make the most of experiential learning programs- but it will all be worth it in the end.
With experiential education, students are able to gain a better understanding of their world by taking what they have learned and applying it to their own lives. While this may involve some trial and error, these experiences can ultimately help students develop a better understanding of what they are studying and how it can be applied to their own lives.
By allowing students to choose how they learn instead of following a strict list of guidelines, students will not only feel more engaged in the material but also feel as though they have a deeper connection to the lessons being taught. This type of learning can benefit students throughout their lives- even if they may not realize it at first.
The more that learning can be personalized, the more beneficial it will be for everyone involved. It is time to change how we teach our students so that they are able to take on the world with confidence!
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This article was originally published on November 9, 2021