Experiential education

Experiential education is a philosophy of education that focuses on the transactive process between teacher and student involved in direct experience with the learning environment and content. The term is mistakenly used interchangeably with experiential learning. The Association for Experiential Education regards experiential education "as a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values. Many will find a relationship between experiential education and Educational progressivism. The former is the philosophy and the latter is the movement it informed (some might suggest it is still a current movement).


John Dewey was the most famous proponent of experiential education, perhaps paving the course for all future activities in his seminal Experience and Education, first published in 1938. Dewey's fame during that period rested on relentlessly critiquing public education and pointing out that the authoritarian, strict, pre-ordained knowledge approach of modern traditional education was too concerned with delivering knowledge, and not enough with understanding students' actual experiences. Dewey's work went on to influence dozens of other influential experiential models and advocates, including Foxfire, service learning, Kurt Hahn and Outward Bound, among others.

Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator and the father of modern critical pedagogy. He is often cited in relationship to experiential education. Freire was largely focused on the active involvement in students in real experience, radical democracy and the creation of praxis among learners.


Experiential education informs many educational practices underway in schools (formal education) and out-of-school (informal education) programs. Each of the following teaching methods relies on experiential education to provide context and frameworks for learning through action.

Outdoor education uses organized learning activities occurring in the outdoors, utilizing environmental experiences as a learning tool. Service learning is a combination of community service with stated learning goals, relying on experience as the foundation to provide meaningful experience in service. Cooperative learning alters heterogeneous grouping in order to support diverse learning styles and needs within a group. Active learning, a term popular in US education circles in the 1980s, places the responsibility of learning on learners themselves, requiring their experience in education to inform their process of learning. Environmental education are efforts to educate learners about relationships within the natural environment and how those relationships are interdependent. The experience of being outdoors and learning through doing makes this learning relevant to students.

Experiential education serves as an umbrella for linking these diverse practices in a coherent whole. Similarly, experiential education is also closely linked to a number of other educational theories, including progressive education, critical pedagogy, youth empowerment, feminist-based education, and constructivism. The development of experiential education as a philosophy is intertwined with the development of these other educational theories and have helped articulate and clarify elements this philosophy.


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."

Journals prove to be very effective in the English classroom. Specifically with Personal and Text-Related Journaling students are able to find significance in their own thoughts as well as concepts learned in class. So what is the difference between personal and text-related journaling? Personal journaling is the recording of past and present personal thoughts and events in your life that can enhance self-awareness, student interest, and learning. Text related journaling is the response to a concept learned in class that can be related to a personal experience to promote understanding for students.

Classroom Journaling Activities

To apply any of the following experiential education activities, just follow the prompts below:

Hampton’s Idea on Homework and Journaling

Propose a reflective journaling question or two to the students. An example of one could be: How does Romeo and Juliet’s love relate to something that you have experienced? Give a specific example of each and give students time to think and write. Allow students to complete it in about three to five minutes. Also do not forget to make sure to link the question(s) to the major objective of the lesson.Lastly, before the bell rings, tell the students to complete it before they come to class the next day.

Personal Journaling Activity

Tell students at the beginning of the semester to buy a notebook (either composition or spiral notebook). Explain to students that teacher will be journaling for the first ten minutes of class too. Let students become aware that the content of their journal must be school appropriate. If students have trouble freely writing you can propose a question like: How did your morning go? Or what is frustrating you in your life right now? The teacher will grade on class participation only and if a student wishes to share they may do so.

Other Option for Students Who Do Not Wish To Journal

If student does not wish to participate in personal journaling, teacher can propose a question and ask the student to draw a picture of what they are thinking or feeling. Teacher will take into consideration that students must sometimes do activities assigned by the teacher, so this is just an alternative.

Another unique idea to get students invested and involoved in journal writing is through the use of Photo Story. Photo Story is a media program that allows you to present a journal topic through a picture or a series of pictures. Visual Journal topics can stimulate writing that is more creative. Types of writing that these types of journal promts can produce are poems, narratives about personal memories and fictional stories.

Hampton’s Assessment of Journaling Ideas

During class, the teacher walks around the classroom to view student responses to the reflective question outlined in the syllabus. Also the teacher may collect the responses for accuracy of content or just for participation. Teachers can also propose a “daily study question” quiz at the beginning or end of class to motivate students to be prepared for class. This question can be from a concept learned in class and should be written in their journal with at least two examples. This one question quiz takes approximately one minute to complete rewarding students who are prepared for class. Also teachers can include journaling questions in exams for effective assessment as well.

From personal journaling students can:

* solve problems
* examine relationships
* reflect on personal goals
* witness personal growth from reading past entries
* clarify and reconcile old issues
* recall difficult memories that evoke vulnerability
* evoke inner therapy by sharing written results.

Other Examples

High school English classes in Rabun Gap, Georgia have published the Foxfire model (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.

An example of service learning 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.

Presidential Classroom, a non-profit civic education organization in Washington D.C. is open to high school students from across the country and abroad, where they meet and interact with government officials, media correspondents, congressman, and key players on the world stage to learn how public policy shapes many aspects of citizens’ lives. This form of experiential education allows students to travel to Washington and spend a week hearing from controversial speakers, meeting with interest group spokesmen and touring the nationals capitol. Students participate in a group project directed by experienced and engaging instructors, and have mediated debates on current issues facing the country. The focus of the week is to give students a hands-on introduction to how real world politics operate, and allow their classroom to come to life.

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.

The New England Literature Program in the English Department at the University of Michigan is a 45-day program where University instructors live and work together with forty UM students in the woods of Maine in early spring. The program involves intensive study of 19th and 20th Century New England Literature, with a strong focus on creative writing in the form of academic journaling, as well as a deep engagement with the landscape of New England. NELP students and staff take hiking trips into the White Mountains and other parts of the New England wilderness each week, integrating their experience of the landscape with writing and discussion of texts.

Another example is Chicago Center for Urban Life and Culture, the only nonprofit and independent experiential educational program for college students in the United States. The Chicago Center is distinguished by its unique experiential seminars characterized by a 'First Voice' pedagogy, its intentional location in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, and relationships with several hundred internship sites in Chicago.
While many of the students who attend Chicago Center grew up in cities, the majority of participants are from suburban, rural and even and farming communities. In addition to its Semester, May Term and Summer Session, which individual students sign up for, the Chicago Center designs and staffs what it calls "LearnChicago!" programs for groups, which promise non-tourist Chicago experiences.

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.

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.

Experiential education uses various tools like games, simulations, role plays, stories in classrooms. The experiential education mindset changes the way the teachers and students view knowledge. Knowledge is no longer just some letters on a page. It becomes active, something that is transacted with in life or life-like situations. It starts to make teachers experience providers, and not just transmitters of the written word.

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. 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

Other university level programs are entirely field-taught on outdoor expeditions. These courses combine traditional academic readings and written assignments with field observations, service projects, open discussions of course material, and meetings with local speakers who are involved with the course subjects. These "hybrid" experiential/traditional programs aim to provide the academic rigor of a classroom course with the breadth and personal connections of experiential education.

Transitions from traditional to experiential

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 may use the philosophy of experiential education in developing team and group skills in both students and adults (Rohnke, 1989). Initially, group 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 then become 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).

See also


  • Calkins, L. (1991). Living between the lines. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, Inc.
  • Carroll, Mary. "Divine Therapy: Teaching Reflective and Meditative Practices." Teaching Theology and Religion 8.Oct 2005 232-238. 27 Jun 2008 .
  • 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.
  • Hampton, Scott E. "Reflective Journaling and Assessment." Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education & Practice 129.Oct 2003 186-189. 27 Jun 2008 .
  • Kelly, Melissa. "Journals in the Classroom." About.com:Secondary Education 2008 27 Jun 2008


  • 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.
  • Kremenitizer, Janet Pickard. "The Emotionally Intelligent Early Childhood Educator: Self-Reflective Journaling." Early Childhood Education Journal 33.August 2005 3-9. 27 Jun 2008 .
  • Nelson, G.Lynn. Writing and Being Embracing your Life through Creative Journaling. Revised and Updated. Maui, Hawaii: Inner Ocean Publishing, Inc, 2004.
  • 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.

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