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Shut Your Textbooks. Experience Learning.

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” – Confucius

Imagine your child as a little one – they’ve just started crawling. Occasionally, they do a wobbly standup holding onto the coffee table. You just know in your bones that any day they’re going to take that first successful step on their own.

And now imagine that you prop them up with a picture book of other little babies walking and start explaining to them the physics of gravity and what happens to their muscles and tendons when they take a step.

Pretty silly to imagine, right? We all know that babies and young children wouldn’t understand that – they must learn by doing.

What Is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is an education theory based on the idea that human beings learn through – I’ll give you one guess.

Yep. You got it. Experience.

This education approach comes from that inherent knowledge we all have that we cannot explain walking to our about-to-walk children – we must let them figure it out by doing.

Made popular by educational psychologist John Dewey in the 1930s, the experimental learning approach to education encourages students to do and to reflect on their personal experiences through doing in order to more deeply impress information.

The Association for Experiential Education’s definition is helpful:

Experiential [learning] is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with students in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values.

Sounds simple enough. But notice the word “reflection” in the definition. Focused reflection and analysis are important components of this approach. David Kolb, another educational theorist, elaborated that experiential learning contains four essential elements:

- Concrete experience

- Reflective observation

- Abstract conceptualization

- Active experimentation

It is not enough to simply do – it is essential for students to personalize doing by reflecting on their experience of the action, navigating their own discoveries and challenges with said action, and understanding how to take that information to create something new.

Can You Give Me An Example?

Example A: In a biology lesson on photosynthesis, a teacher asks students to share about a plant that has been significant in their personal lives and discuss what they feel toward it. The teacher then has students plant their favorite green thing on the school grounds and keep an observation log on its growth. An inclusion of a breathwork exercise and having the students sit outdoors, feeling the sensation of breathing, would be another way to personally connect students with the photosynthetic production of oxygen.

Example B: A teacher has a few multilingual students in their class. The teacher encourages all students to share morning greetings in their preferred language, includes multilingual books and media in class, and provides a variation of text-based, image-based, and sound-based learning options. This teacher asks all students to keep a journal about their learning experiences being in a multilingual-friendly classroom. The teacher utilizes different definitions and cultural understandings of certain words to infuse lessons and personalize each students’ experience.

Example C: In a lesson on environment and climate change, a teacher takes their class to a local farm where they discover the interconnectedness of ecosystems through examining microbes, plant health, and dissolved oxygen levels in a pond and how horse manure affects plant health in paddocks. Students experience life on a farm and how the natural world relies on certain cohesion for its health and sustenance.

(Sound familiar? This example is taken straight out of real life from New Jersey Institute of Nature’s L.E.A.F. program series this past summer!)

Why is Experiential Learning a Great Way to Educate?

According to recent studies on student engagement conducted by Gallup, students who are engaged in school are 4.5 more times to have hope about their future. Similar surveys, however, have revealed a concerning, steady decline in student engagement over the last few years.

The word “engage” comes from the French word engagé. The word gained popularity in France in the 19th century as a reference to social or political involvement and now has come to indicate passion about any cause. This degree of passion comes from personal attachment and conviction.

Experiential learning helps students learn information deeply by putting their education hand-in-hand with their personal interests. If students understand that education is directly tied to their personal lives, there is no disconnect between school and life – they are one and the same.

This personalization comes when teachers facilitate learning rather than dictate it. Working with students, asking their opinions, getting their emotions and minds engaged, will develop not just a deeper knowledge but also deeper character qualities as students learn how to interact with their own experience of discovery. They learn how to respond to challenges and what choices they can make in their learning process. In its essence, this approach cares about how students learn – how they take in information, process it, and turn it into something new and personally exciting.

The Farm

What Are the Difficulties Involved?

The challenge with experiential learning is that our education system and our society are not set up to support it. Teachers may find it difficult to undo the conceptions of winning/losing, good student/bad student. They will be challenged to come up with new goals – rather than primarily focusing on students passing their exams, they will need to pivot to also caring about how deeply a student took in a lesson.

For students, experiential learning may be challenging as it requires them to engage with multiple parts of themselves rather than simply complete tasks. They will be asked to connect with emotions, with memory, and with personal experiences. This may be a very new muscle for students to exercise and will take time.

How To Make Experiential Learning Effective

There needs to be an internal shift in educators and students if experiential learning is going to be effective. A shift in mindset may be the most powerful change according to Carol Dweck.

Dweck is an American psychologist, professor, and author who is best known for her research in mindset science and motivation. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she reveals that people’s beliefs about themselves, which are often dictated by mindset, have a very strong effect on their motivation and ability to learn. Dweck claims that there are two mindsets – the fixed mindset and the growth mindset – and depending on which a person has, their motivation levels will either soar or suffer.

A fixed mindset is one that sees intelligence as static which causes a baseline desire to look smart. With this as the driving force, a person tends to see obstacles as too difficult to overcome so they avoid challenges. Because they are overwhelmed with appearing a certain way, failure is an unbearable potential and learning from constructive criticism is almost impossible.

A growth mindset is one that sees intelligence as able to be developed which causes a baseline desire to learn. With this as the driving force, a person sees challenges as helping them to move ahead. They welcome setbacks because they perceive them as opportunities to learn and evolve. Growth mindset individuals are inspired by others’ success and use it as an example for how they can create their own.

A person with fixed mindset will struggle to benefit from experiential learning because it will be a huge challenge for them to get past their desire to look good. Changing mindset so that the real desire is to learn, not to appear as a “winner,” is a really big hurdle to overcome in order to get the most out of experiential learning.

How Can Educators Implement Experiential Learning?

While it may feel overwhelming to think about changing the approach to education, there are lots of simple and practical ways that educators can encourage experiential learning. Here are some ideas:

A. Start having young people go through the 4 elements of experiential learning with any new project.

1. Experience: get them engaged and active in projects

2. Reflect: carve out time for them to journal or reflect with others on their experience

3. Analyze: have them identify how their experience relates to life at large

4. Apply: ask them how they could apply what they’ve learned in the real world

B. Let young people create their own test questions and answers

By encouraging self-quizzing, you engage them more actively with the content and let them identify what they are personally curious about.

C. Have young people make up mnemonic devices

A mnemonic device is a memorization tactic where you take the first letter of whatever information you need to remember and make up a phrase. For instance, in order to remember the order of the planets from the Sun, a popular mnemonic device is “My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets.” In creating their own mnemonic devices, students are able to attach personal significance and interest to a piece of information.

New Jersey Institute of Nature was created out of a desire for students to learn by doing. Our desire is for students to connect personally with the land so that their education about climate issues and environmentalism is living and active. We know that it takes personal conviction + knowledge to really effect innovative solutions to problems.

Interested in having your students take a trip to the farm? Visit our homepage to learn about our immersive farm experiences and incredible programs.



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