Experiential Education: A Catalyst for Positive Social Change? PDF Print E-mail
Univetica Staff

Many of us learn best through experiences. Positive experiences, negative experiences, profound and fleeting experiences, all help to shape each and every one of us from the day we draw our first breath to the day we release our last—true cradle-to-grave education.

In the early 20th century, American philosopher John Dewey formulated ways to apply experiential, cradle-to-grave education to the classroom, forevermore establishing it as an innovative alternative to rote learning (memorization) systems. Rather than being simply an unconventional approach to learning, experiential education is based on solid theory and commonsense principles that are hard to ignore. Parents and students everywhere are taking steps to augment traditional learning with experiential learning.

The philosophical underpinnings of experiential education reach back to the dichotomy of rationalism (the theory that reason, rather than experience, is the basis of knowledge) versus empiricism (the theory that we learn best through experience). Although experiential education is often associated with empiricism, the reality is that it merely introduces empirical learning into the mix, encouraging students to rely on both experience and reason to learn new things. In an ideal experiential learning scenario, the cycle works something like this:

  1. A student has an experience.
  2. The student makes observations about the experience and then reflects upon them.
  3. With thought and reason, these observations and reflections lead to new ideas and new ways of thinking.
  4. These new ideas raise questions, which inspire more ideas for new experiences, encouraging the student to have another experience, starting the cycle all over again.

In practice, however, the process usually is not quite so straightforward. Those unfamiliar with experiential education in the classroom might imagine it involving nothing but field trips and hands-on activities, but not a codified system of learning.

Because experiential education is, by nature, an unstructured way of learning, the main challenge for classroom application is making sure that students continue to progress in their studies rather than tread water or become lost. This is particularly difficult given the fact that objectively assessing a student's experiential learning experience can be problematic. The solution may lie in goal-based learning programs where teachers and students set goals, and success is measured by how fully goals are met.

This requires committed teachers who have the time and expertise to sensitively guide students through their own processes of self-discovery and learning. In this learning environment, the student-teacher relationship is not a dichotomy so much as a cooperative unit. The teacher and student share in the learning process, with the teacher often learning and the student often playing the role of teacher. The teacher is still the authority, but the authority is more encouraging than dictatorial. Instead of transmitting rote facts and dogmas, the teacher encourages student discovery of facts and development of personal philosophy.

Experiential education relies primarily on concrete activities. For example, some common experiential education techniques include:

  • Personal journaling, which helps students reflect upon and identify the significance of their experiences;
  • Service learning, which combines academic learning with relevant community service activities;
  • Environmental education, in which students learn about ecosystems and the environment by stepping out of the classroom and experiencing the natural world firsthand;
  • Experimentation, in which students and teachers collaborate on creating experiments to test and develop ideas.


Experiential education and positive social change

Traditional education finds root in the antiquated idea that children are empty vessels to be filled with information so that they may one day become productive workers and engaged citizens. Experiential education, in contrast, places emphasis on the learner's individuality and unique learning potential. Rather than molding a student toward criteria imposed from outside, experiential education encourages the student to build his or her own worldview and to thrive as a one-of-a-kind individual.

This method is a first step toward a more egalitarian society populated by self-actualized citizens who have the knowledge and the confidence to get things done. If students learn at an early age how not only to be active but sometimes to take the reins, then they will more likely grow into conscientious adults who can in turn become positive role models for the next generation.


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