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A child learning the countries of Asia by experience rather than by rote learning.

Experiential education (or "learning by doing") is a teaching method, the process of actively engaging students in an authentic experience that will have benefits and consequences. Students make discoveries and experiment with knowledge themselves instead of hearing or reading about the experiences of others. Students also reflect on their experiences, thus developing new skills, new attitudes, and new theories or ways of thinking (Kraft & Sakofs, 1988). Experiential education is related to the constructivist learning theory.

Historical development

John Dewey, an American educational philosopher, was an early twentieth century promoter of the idea of learning through direct experience (action and reflection). Experiential education differs from much traditional education in that teachers first immerse students in action and then ask them to reflect on the experience.

In traditional education, teachers set the knowledge to be learnt (including analysis and synthesis) before students. They hope students will subsequently find ways to apply the knowledge.

Despite the efforts of many efforts at progressive educational reform, reports by researchers such as Goodlad (1984) and Sizer (1984) suggest that most teaching, particularly at the high school level, still involves the teacher as purveyor of knowledge and the student as passive recipient.

Kolb's experential learning model

In the early 1970s, David A. Kolb and Ron Fry (now both at the Weatherhead School of Management) developed the Experiential Learning Model (ELM),[1] composed of four elements:

  • concrete experience,
  • observation of and reflection on that experience,
  • formation of abstract concepts based upon the reflection,
  • testing the new concepts,
  • (repeat).

These four elements are the essence of a spiral of learning that can begin with any one of the four elements, but typically begins with a concrete experience. He named his model to emphasize its links to ideas from John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, and other writers of the experiential learning paradigm. His model was developed predominantly for use with adult education, but has found widespread pedagogical implications in higher education.


Examples of experiential education abound in all disciplines. In her 1991 book Living Between the Lines, Lucy Calkins states, "If we asked our students for the highlight of their school careers, most would choose a time when they dedicated themselves to an endeavor of great importance...I am thinking of youngsters from P.S. 321, who have launched a save-the-tree campaign to prevent the oaks outside their school from being cut down. I am thinking of children who write the school newspaper, act in the school play, organize the playground building committee.... On projects such as these, youngsters will work before school, after school, during lunch. Our youngsters want to work hard on endeavors they deem significant."

There are other examples. High school English classes in Rabun Gap, Georgia have published the Foxfire books and magazines for over 25 years (Wigginton, 1985). Students research the culture of the Appalachian mountains through taped interviews and then write and edit articles based upon their interviews. Foxfire has inspired hundreds of similar cultural journalism projects around the country.

One widely adopted form of experiential education is learning through service to others (Kielsmeier & Willits, 1989). An example is Project OASES (Occupational and Academic Skills for the Employment of Students) in the Pittsburgh public schools. Eighth graders, identified as potential dropouts, spend three periods a day involved in renovating a homeless shelter as part of a service project carried out within their industrial arts class. Students in programs such as these learn enduring skills such as planning, communicating with a variety of age groups and types of people, and group decisionmaking. In carrying out their activities and in the reflection component afterward, they come to new insights and integrate diverse knowledge from fields such as English, political science, mathematics, and sociology.

Other approaches at the university level include laboratory courses in social sciences and humanities that seek to parallel laboratory courses in the natural sciences. In social science laboratory courses, students combine theory with tests of the theory in field settings and often develop their own social models in disciplines as far ranging as history and philosophy to economics, political science and anthropology (Lempert, 1996).

Friends World Program, a four-year international study program operating out of Long Island University, operates entirely around self-guided, experiential learning while immersed in foreign cultures. Regional centers employ mostly advisors rather than teaching faculty; these advisors guide the individual students in preparing a "portfolio of learning" each semester to display the results of their experiences and projects.

Other projects and "capstone" programs have included everything from student teams writing their own international development plans and presenting them to Presidents and foreign media and publishing their studies as textbooks, in development studies, to running their own businesses, NGOs, or community development banks (Lempert, 1996).

At the professional school level, experiential education is often integrated into curricula in "clinical" courses following the medical school model of "See one, Do one, Teach one" in which students learn by practicing medicine. This approach is now being introduced in other professions in which skills are directly worked into courses to teach every concept (starting with interviewing, listening skills, negotiation, contract writing and advocacy, for example) to larger scale projects in which students run legal aid clinics or community loan programs, write legislation or community development plans.

Change in Roles and Structures

Whether teachers employ experiential education in cultural journalism, service learning, environmental education, or more traditional school subjects, its key idea involves engaging student voice in active roles for the purpose of learning. Students participate in a real activity with real consequences for the purpose of meeting learning objectives.

Some experts in the field make the distinction between "democratic experiential education" in which students help design curricula and run their own projects and even do their own grading (through objective contracted standards) and other forms of "experiential education" that put students in existing organizations in inferior roles (such as service learning and internships) or in which faculty design the field work (Lempert, 1996).

Besides changing student roles, experiential education requires a change in the role of teachers. When students are active learners, their endeavors often take them outside the classroom walls. Because action precedes attempts to synthesize knowledge, teachers generally cannot plan a curriculum unit as a neat, predictable package. Teachers become active learners, too, experimenting together with their students, reflecting upon the learning activities they have designed, and responding to their students' reactions to the activities. In this way, teachers themselves become more active; they come to view themselves as more than just recipients of school district policy and curriculum decisions.

As students and teachers take on new roles, the traditional organizational structures of the school also may meet challenges (Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde, 1998). For example, at the Challenger Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, service activities are an integral part of the academic program. Such nontraditional activities require teachers and administrators to look at traditional practices in new ways. For instance, they may consider reorganizing time blocks. They may also teach research methods by involving students in investigations of the community, rather than restricting research activities to the library (Rolzinski, 1990). At the University Heights Alternative School in the Bronx, the Project Adventure experiential learning program has led the faculty to adopt an all-day time block as an alternative to the traditional 45-minute periods. The faculty now organizes the curriculum by project instead of by separate disciplines. Schools that promote meaningful student involvement actively engage students as partners in education improvement activities. These young people learn while planning, researching, teaching, and making decisions that affect the entire education system.

At the university level, including universities like Stanford and the University of California Berkeley, students are often the initiators of courses and demand more role in changing the curriculum and making it truly responsive to their needs. In some cases, universities have offered alternatives for student-designed faculty approved courses. In other cases, students have formed movements or even their own NGOs like Unseen America Projects, Inc., to promote democratic experiential learning and to design and accredit their own alternative curricula (Lempert, 1996).

Helping with the transition

At first, these new roles and structures may seem unfamiliar and uncomfortable to both students and adults in the school. Traditionally, students have most often been rewarded for competing rather than cooperating with one another. Teachers are not often called upon for collaborative work either. Teaching has traditionally been an activity carried out in isolation from one's peers, behind closed doors. Principals, used to the traditional hierarchical structure of schools, often do not know how to help their teachers constitute self-managed work teams or how to help teachers coach students to work in cooperative teams. The techniques of experiential education can help students and staff adjust to teamwork, an important part of the process of reforming schools.

Adventure education is one form of experiential education that is highly effective in developing team and group skills in both students and adults (Rohnke, 1989). Initially, groups work to solve problems that are unrelated to the problems in their actual school environment. For example, in a ropes course designed to build the skills required by teamwork, a faculty or student team might work together to get the entire group over a 12-foot wall or through an intricate web of rope. After each challenge in a series of this kind, the group looks at how it functioned as a team. Who took the leadership roles? Did the planning process help or hinder progress? Did people listen to one another in the group and use the strengths of all group members? Did everyone feel that the group was a supportive environment in which they felt comfortable making a contribution and taking risks?

The wall or web of rope can becomes a metaphor for the classroom or school environment. While the problems and challenges of the classroom or school are different from the physical challenges of the adventure activity, many skills needed to respond successfully as a team are the same in both settings.

These skills — listening, recognizing each other's strengths, and supporting each other through difficulties — can apply equally well to academic problem-solving or to schoolwide improvement efforts.

For example, the Kane School in Lawrence, Massachusetts has been using adventure as a tool for school restructuring. The entire faculty — particularly the Faculty Advisory Council, which shares the decisionmaking responsibilities with the principal — has honed group skills through experiential education activities developed by Project Adventure. These skills include open communication, methods of conflict resolution, and mechanisms for decision making (High Strides, 1990).


Experiential education can change schools because it requires new roles of students, teachers, and administrators. It can provide a different, more engaging way of treating academic content through the combination of action and reflection. Experiential education empowers students to take responsibility for their own learning. Experiential education can also provide a process for helping all those involved in schooling become more comfortable with the unfamiliar roles commonly proposed for restructured schools.

See also


  1. Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. in C. Cooper (ed.), Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley.

Further reading

  • Calkins, L. (1991). Living between the lines. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, Inc.
  • Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.
  • Educational Writers Association. (1990). Lawrence grows its own leaders. High Strides: Bimonthly Report on Urban Middle Grades, 2 (12). Washington, DC: Author.
  • Fletcher, A. (2005). Meaningful student involvement: Students as partners in school change. Olympia, WA: HumanLinks Foundation.
  • Freire, P. (1971). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY: Continuum.
  • Goodlad, J. (1984). A place called school: Prospects for the future. NY: McGraw Hill.
  • Kielsmeier, J., & Willits, R. (1989). Growing hope: A sourcebook on integrating youth service into the curriculum. St. Paul, MN: National Youth Leadership Council, University of Minnesota.
  • Kraft, D., & Sakofs, M. (Eds.). (1988). The theory of experiential education. Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.
  • Lempert, D. and others (1996). Escape from the ivory tower: Student adventures in democratic experiential education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  • Rohnke, K. (1989). Cowstails and cobras II. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
  • Rolzinski, C. (1990). The adventure of adolescence: Middle school students and community service. Washington, DC: Youth Service America.
  • Sizer, T. (1984). Horace's compromise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Wigginton, E. (1985). Sometimes a shining moment: The Foxfire experience. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.
  • Zemelman, S., Daniels, H. & Hyde, A. (1998). Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America's Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

External links

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