And Why Should You Know About It?
Think back to high school science class. What lessons do you remember the most? What made them stand out? Was it your teacher telling you about chlorophyll and photosynthesis via a slideshow? Or was it visiting a local greenhouse and learning about plant development and growing techniques, and then going home with your own seedling? The latter, when properly planned and executed, is an example of experiential learning (EL), a process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill, and value from a direct experience characterized by a high level of active involvement.
During an EL lesson, instruction is designed to engage learners in direct experiences that are tied to real world problems and situations in which the instructor facilitates rather than directs the learner’s progress—learning from the process is at the heart of experiential learning. Proponents of EL believe that students are more motivated to learn when they have a personal stake in the subject as opposed to simply reading about the subject in a textbook. Rather than the traditional classroom learning experience in which a teacher is telling the student what he or she should be learning, a student participating in EL is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, being creative, and constructing meaning. The product of this method of instruction is a much more authentic learning experience.
It takes more than a quick trip to a museum to successfully integrate EL into knowledge-advancing curriculum. Instructional experiences are carefully constructed and semi-structured so as to require students to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for results, while offering a degree of ﬂexibility that allows the ﬁnal result to not be entirely predictable.
A critical aspect of EL is that the experience is supported by reﬂection, critical analysis, and synthesis of information.
Student discussion and analysis of their experience allows students to relate what they’ve learned to past experiences and apply it to future experiences as well. It is this discussion and analysis that allows students to decipher what happened, determine important takeaways, and decide what comes next in their learning adventure. Experiential learning has been proven to increase higher order thinking skills (Ives and Obenchain, 2006) including prioritizing, analytic perception, analogical and logical reasoning, question posing and going beyond information into discovery, reasoning, organizing, and argumentation.
Higher order thinking stands in contrast to lower order thinking which involves rote memorization and recall of information, as well as other non-complex intellectual work. It is rare for a job application to require applicants to memorize the state capitals, but very typical that it calls for critical thinking and complex problem solving skills. It is important to note that EL’s role in increasing higher order thinking skills does not lead to a loss in lower order thinking skills.
Service learning, a genre of EL, is an especially effective instruction method for students to learn about complex issues of larger environments, and to discover how complex systems are integrated and reliant on each other by studying these issues in real or realistic settings.
Experiential learning has been shown to increase socially responsible behavior
when students learn about social problems outside of a classroom setting, “transforming them into agents of positive social change within their communities” (Caulﬁeld and Woods, 2013). Further research suggests that EL in the form of service learning can help students develop positive attitudes toward life, encourage acceptance of responsibility, and inspire personal growth by developing an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses in real world scenarios (Eyler and Giles, 1999). Organizations seeking to push individuals to make lifestyle changes—whether those be physical or ideological—should consider designing EL experiences for their participants.
It is important that students see the connection between school academics and work.
Pathways Travels, a national network of public schools and experiential learning programs, has developed EL experiences around central themes and activities designed to teach students how to set goals: both as a group and on an individual level, and overcome any obstacle. By ﬁrst getting students excited about learning and then demonstrating to them the link between academic success and career success, Pathways’ EL programs have proven to increase graduation and retention rates, including those among English Language Learner (ELL) students, students living in poverty, and those who are or are at-risk of being homeless.
Keeping students interested in their education can be a difﬁcult task for any teacher, and not all students respond equally to all teaching styles. Experiential learning is a powerful instructional method that can help students re-engage with their schoolwork, connecting them once again to the curiosity that once drove them to love learning.
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