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Experiential Education

Brief History of the Role of Experience in Education, Roles for the Teacher and the Student

Although experiential education has come to mean simply "learning by doing" for some, educators utilizing this approach recognize both its distinguished historical and philosophical roots and the complexity of applying what appears to be so elementary. When education is said to be experiential, it means that it is structured in a way that allows the learner to explore the phenomenon under study–to form a direct relationship with the subject matter–rather than merely reading about the phenomenon or encountering it indirectly. Experiential learning, then, requires that the learner play an active role in the experience and that the experience is followed by reflection as a method for processing, understanding, and making sense of it.

Experiential education, most generally, occurs in different kinds of programs that have as their goal the construction of knowledge, skills, and dispositions from direct experience. Service learning, adventure education, outdoor and environmental education, and workplace internships are just a few examples.

Brief History of the Role of Experience in Education

The role of experience in education has a history that connects back to philosophical debates between rationalists and empiricists. Rationalists argued that the information that is gained through one's senses is unreliable, and the only reliable knowledge is that which is gained through reason alone. Empiricists argued that knowledge is derived from empirical sense impressions, and abstract concepts that cannot directly be experienced cannot be known. In 1787 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant resolved the debate by arguing that both rationality and experience have a place in the construction of knowledge. Indeed, the human mind imposes order on the experience of the world in the process of perceiving it. Therefore, all experiences are organized by the actively structuring mind.

John Dewey (1859–1952), perhaps the most prominent American philosopher of the early twentieth century, expanded on the relationship between experience and learning in the publication of his well-known book Experience and Education (1938). He argued that not all experience is educative, noting:

The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative …. Any experience is miseducation that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience …. A given experience may increase a person's automatic skill in a particular direction and yet tend to land him in a groove or rut; the effect again is to narrow the field of further experience. (Dewey, pp. 25–26)

For Dewey, experiences could be judged to be educative if they led to further growth, intellectually and morally; if there was a benefit to the community; and if the experience resulted in affective qualities that led to continued growth, such as curiosity, initiative, and a sense of purpose. Finally, it is important to emphasize that Dewey saw traditional education as hierarchical and inherently undemocratic, and argued that in order to promote the development of a thoughtful and active democratic citizenry, students in schools needed to be able to participate in aspects of the school program democratically.

Kurt Hahn (1886–1974), considered to be one of the foremost educators of the twentieth century, contributed to experiential education as a practitioner worldwide. Hahn established academic schools, such as Salem in Germany and Gordonstoun in Scotland, and the Outward Bound schools, which total twenty-eight in Europe, the United Kingdom, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America. In addition he founded the Duke of Edinburgh Award for involvement in voluntary, noncompetitive practical, cultural, and adventurous activities for young people between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five. For Hahn, the entire school day–including curricula, daily routines, social life, and extracurricular activities–could be used to help young people develop social responsibility and high aspirations. Most important, it could also provide education and practice in the fundamental principles of democratic life.

The work of field theorist Kurt Lewin (1890–1947), genetic epistemologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980), and educator and activist Paulo Freire (1921–1997) also provides theoretical grounding for experiential education.

Roles for the Teacher and the Student

Reports by John Goodlad and Theodore Sizer suggest that most teaching, particularly at the high school level, still involves the teacher as the authority and the dispenser of knowledge and the students as passive recipients. Perhaps the most obvious marker of experiential education is the shift in roles required for both teachers and students. Teachers who utilize experiential education become facilitators and, in doing so, engage their students in some of the decision-making and problem solving that have in the past been the sole responsibility of the teacher. In addition, teachers facilitate the transfer of learning from the experiential activity to the real world, structure the process of reflection for the students in order to derive the most learning from the experience, and ensure that the learning outcomes are reached. Some educators call this shift a move toward student-centered teaching, or a child-centered curriculum. Overall it means that the students are placed at the center and the teacher's role is to develop methods for engaging the students in experiences that provide them with access to knowledge and practice in particular skills and dispositions.

The role of the student is transformed in relation to the role of the teacher. Therefore, the student role becomes more active and involved, with additional responsibility and ownership over the process of learning, whether in an outdoor education program or in a middle school. For example, students, as members of a particular learning community, may be responsible for certain day-to-day activities, may be engaged in some aspects of curriculum development, or may be engaged in service activities in their community as a method for learning about different careers and contributing to their neighborhood. Whether in an outdoor education program or a service-learning program in a school, the student's role is one of engagement and deliberation–a continuous cycle of action and reflection, or praxis, as defined by Paulo Freire.

The Assessment of Student Learning

The assessment of learning outcomes for students has reflected ongoing economic and political debates surrounding the definition of learning. Legislators in the United States, looking for efficient ways of quantifying learning, advocate standardized multiple-choice tests, which can be mass-produced and are inexpensive to score. Unfortunately, the kind of learning that is measured by these tests is merely a matter of recognition–recognizing the one right answer from among four or five possible answers. Proponents of experiential education define learning in a manner that is more reflective of the complexity of both cognitive and affective development: Learning is "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience" (Kolb, p. 41). Central to the process of transformation is reflection.

Reflection. In 1984 David A. Kolb published Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, which outlines a cycle for reflection. The cycle begins with concrete experience, moves to reflective observation, then to abstract conceptualization, and finally to the application stage, active experimentation. Reflection typically includes reconstructing the experience, making connections to prior knowledge or skills, testing understanding, and making decisions about how to apply the knowledge or skills in a new situation. In addition, David Boud, Rosemary Keogh, and David Walker (1985) offered examples of various methods for promoting reflection including oral conversations, such as informal debriefing sessions following experiential activities and written responses to experiences through diaries, journals, portfolios, and student exhibits, which may include text, pictures, and photos.

Assessing student learning. Assessing experiential learning is an ongoing process based upon the learning outcomes defined at the beginning of the experience or program. As an example, Norman Evans argues that student assessment is "a matter of making independent judgments about the level and quality of learning which has been reached by an individual at a particular time" (p. 68). He notes a four-stage sequence for compiling evidence in a portfolio assessment: "(1) Systematic reflection on experience for significant learning; (2) Identification of significant learning, expressed in precise statements, constituting claims to the possession of knowledge and skills; (3) Synthesis of evidence to support the claims made to knowledge and skills; (4) Assessment for accreditation" (p. 71).

For K–16 students, and particular to service learning, Kathryn Cumbo and Jennifer Vadeboncoeur note that service and learning goals should be articulated early in the planning process for an experiential activity. Indeed, the discussion surrounding the reason behind the experience and the way it reflects the curriculum goals may be a learning experience in and of itself between the teacher and his or her students. Finally, the definition of the service goals requires input from the community group or organization that provides the experiential site through partnership with the school. Cumbo and Vadeboncoeur offer examples of scoring rubrics and assessment tools to assess curricular knowledge.

Evidence of Effectiveness

It is important to emphasize that different experiential programs have different learning outcomes, all of which may be assessed using some type of measure, though much of what is learned may not be assessable on a standardized multiple-choice test. Research, which provides evidence for the effectiveness of experiential education, tends to be separated by the type of experiential program. For example, Alan W. Ewert demonstrated effects for outdoor adventure programs, including enhanced self-concept, effectiveness in treating chemical dependency, and a reduction in the rate of recidivism for young people. In addition, John Hattie, H. W. March, James T. Neill, and Garry E. Richards reviewed the literature for adventure education and Outward Bound programs and completed a meta-analysis of ninety-six separate studies. Their work highlights continued gains and longevity of the positive follow-up effects, in particular for programs lasting more than twenty days. Finally, with regard to service learning, in a national study of Learn and Serve America programs completed over three years by Brandeis University, key findings included positive short-term impacts for a range of civic and educational attitudes and behaviors for participants and a positive impact on the community in terms of service performed.

Major Issues

There are several issues that stand in the way of increasing access to experiential education in schools, although programs that exist outside of schools, such as Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership schools, are flourishing. For in-school programs, the cost of engaging in experiential education, including transportation, can be prohibitive, not to mention the time it takes to plan and carry out experiential programs. In addition, even after the prominence of Dewey's work and the commitment of so many experiential educators, legislators and some parents seem to prioritize teacher accountability as measured through student achievement on standardized tests, over and above a more complex view of student learning. As long as the definition of learning is narrowed to rote memorization, quantifiable on multiple-choice tests, teachers will be restricted to covering curriculum and teaching to the test. There should be a continued effort to develop and share assessment tools for measuring student learning from experiential education. In addition, the culture as a whole should play a part in rethinking the definition of learning, taking into account a more broadly conceived view of the role of experience and reflection.


BOUD, DAVID; KEOGH, ROSEMARY; and WALKER, DAVID, eds. 1985. Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. New York: Kogan Page.

CUMBO, KATHRYN B., and VADEBONCOEUR, JENNIFER A. 1999. "What Are Students Learning? Assessing Service Learning and the Curriculum." Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 6:84–96.

DEWEY, JOHN. 1938. Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan.

EVANS, NORMAN. 1992. Experiential Learning: Assessment and Accreditation. New York: Routledge.

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FREIRE, PAULO. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

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HATTIE, JOHN; MARSH, HERBERT W.; NEILL, JAMES T.; and RICHARDS, GARRY E. 1997. "Adventure Education and Outward Bound: Out-of-Class Experiences That Make a Lasting Difference." Review of Educational Research 67 (1):43–87.

JAMES, THOMAS. 1995. "Kurt Hahn and the Aims of Education." In The Theory of Experiential Education, ed. Karen Warren, Mitchell S. Sakofs, and Jasper S. Hunt Jr. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

KOLB, DAVID A. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

LEWIN, KURT. 1952. Field Theory in the Social Sciences: Selected Theoretical Papers. London: Tavistock.

National Evaluation of Learn and Serve America. 1999. Waltham, MA: Center for Human Resources, Brandeis University.

PIAGET, JEAN. 1967. "The Mental Development of the Child." In Six Psychological Studies, ed. David Elkind. New York: Vintage Books.

PRIEST, SIMON, and GASS, MICHAEL A. 1997. Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

SIZER, THEODORE R. 1984. Horace's Compromise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


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