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Kindling a Fire: What is Experiential Learning?

Kindling a Fire: What is Experiential Learning?

“Experiential learning” is an increasingly popular term in education these days. Parents are curious about it, schools are experimenting with it, and students are doing more of it. But what exactly is experiential learning?

In simple terms, experiential learning is an engaged learning process where students “learn by doing” and by reflecting on the experience. David Kolb, one of its earliest proponents, formulated a cycle of experiential learning:

  • knowledge—the concepts, facts, and information acquired through formal learning and past experience;
  • activity—the application of knowledge to a “real world” setting; and
  • reflection—the analysis and synthesis of knowledge and activity to create new knowledge.

Experiential learning is related to (and sometimes conflated with) concepts such as project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and community-based learning. Each has its own unique characteristics, but all seek a more immersive, interdisciplinary, and student-led learning experience for the student.

Examples of experiential learning at Country Day include Upper School students working to develop and patent new bike safety technology and then presenting at an MIT inventorship conference; an entrepreneurship class at a local consulting firm culminating in a Shark Tank business pitch competition; and a Lower School division-wide project to grow and sell organic produce.

When done well, experiential learning delivers classic content in a more engaging and innovative way by authentically connecting students to their learning. It results in fewer questions like “Why do we need to learn this?” and more questions like “Can we keep going?” And that means more students develop a lifetime commitment to learning and intellectual curiosity.

Because of its student-centered, hands-on, and team-based approach, experiential learning can also develop durable skills such as collaboration, communication, creative problem-solving, critical thinking, leadership, and resilience. These skills are ever-more important as the rapid pace of technological change renders it increasingly difficult to anticipate the “hard skills” necessary to find success in an evolving job market.

But for all its merits, experiential learning can be a misunderstood concept. So perhaps it is worthwhile to dispel a few common misconceptions. First, experiential learning is not a free-for-all with no teacher leadership. In fact, direct instruction from expert teachers remains an essential component of the learning process. Students need background knowledge and purposeful framing of experiences, along with robust structure to progress their work. As a result, a school still needs great teachers to deliver great experiential education.

Experiential learning is also not “just for fun.” True, it should be joyful and can often involve off-campus trips or hands-on projects. But substantive learning remains at the center, and students develop mastery of important concepts through iterative work. Often that work can be difficult or even frustrating; sometimes that is the point. We want our students to wrestle with big ideas, encounter failure, and push through to find new knowledge on the other side.

Finally, high-quality experiential learning does not sacrifice academic rigor. In fact, two recent studies demonstrate that immersive learning can actually lead to better academic outcomes in traditional settings. In one study, high school students taking AP environmental science and AP US government courses scored higher on national AP exams after a project-based approach compared to students using a traditional pedagogical approach. And a study of third-grade classrooms reached similar conclusions, with project-based curricula delivering higher test scores than standard methods.

Country Day’s new strategic plan calls for more investments in programs, people, and places to facilitate immersive learning that connects students to their communities and their own learning. So don’t be surprised if you see our students out in the community more. But remember, it won’t just be a field trip; it might also be a stop on the road to even higher test scores.

"Kindling a Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98. This ran in the November 2023 edition of the publication.