Making Experiential Learning a Central Part of Your School Program
Experiential learning… it isn’t new. It’s taught to all educators at some point in their training. But it is probably one of the best ways traditional schools can help prepare students for the non-traditional workplace and economy of today.
As Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro describes it, “learners able to apply the cycle to a wide range of experiences become masters of their own destiny.”
Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota. She retired in 2017.
MAKING EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING A CENTRAL PART OF YOUR SCHOOL PROGRAM
By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro
How do you teach a five-year-old to ride a bike? Would you show her pictures of a bike, make sure she learned how to spell the word “bike,” then have her color a bike, cut it out, and paste it to a piece of brightly colored construction paper and call it done? Probably not. At some point, she needs to get on the bike. I can’t think of a single parent who would teach a child this way. Instead, they would use a set of guided supports, such as training wheels or holding the bike up and running alongside until the child finds her balance. When the child is ready, they step back and let go.
Most learning requires doing of some sort. Didactic instruction – the act of telling as a method of teaching, provides students with baseline knowledge. And if all we want to do is expose students to an idea or concept, it may suffice.
However, if we want students to become creators and producers, now considered essential skills, the practice of telling falls short. We want doers, not observers of life. At some point, students need experiences that engage them with content and helps them develop mastery in a variety of topics, all the way from the simple to complex.
Letting go is hard for teachers. They feel compelled to cover the material. And with limited prep time, setting up active learning experiences can feel overwhelming. Let’s not forget the confines of a traditional classroom with four imposing walls; sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be space. And the schedule. Oh, that crucible.
But there is a framework for instructional practice that can take any classroom and transform it from a teacher-centered place to a student-centered space. All educators learn about it in one if not more of their education foundations course. They may have forgotten the specifics of the theory, but they’ve not forgotten their aspiration to create vibrant lessons – the kind they wish they could have had as students. I’m talking about experiential learning.
Experiential learning has been around for a while – millennia, in fact. Even cavemen and cavewomen learned by doing. But in modern times, we credit David A. Kolb with turning it into an educational theory that helped us get our arms around something that people like John Dewey spoke of in 1938 in Experience in Education and in later decades Paulo Freire in his advocacy of critical pedagogy.
In his Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), Kolb showed how learners create knowledge through experience. He put forward a cycle in which learning begins with a concrete experience: students take part in a learning activity. In the second phase, they reflect on their observation. They ask themselves, what just happened, and what does this mean? In the third stage, the learner attempts to construct their own theory or create their own model regarding what they observed. In the fourth stage, they prepare to test their theory in a new experience.¹
So goes a learning process one could say applies to anything in life, not just the classroom. Learners able to apply the cycle to a wide range of experiences become masters of their own destiny. When motivated and inspired to learn something new, they intuitively know what steps to take. The tech-infused environment we now live in puts a supply of endless knowledge at our fingertips anytime, anywhere. Today, knowing how to apply the cycle is a powerful skill indeed.
Still, people are wired differently; they don’t all learn the same way. We have to pay attention to natural tendencies. Kolb helped us in this regard as well and identified four types of learners:
- Assimilators: Learners who respond best to logical theories
- Convergers: Learners who prefer practical applications
- Accommodators: Hands-on learners, and
- Divergers: Those who learn best by processing a broad range of information²
It would be wrong, however, to assume students can or should rely on solely one learning style. The fact is, students need to use multiple styles, especially as a task becomes more complex. A student may enter the task using their preferred style but eventually must use all four types of learning to advance their understanding. Flexibility is learned over time, and their confidence grows with successive use.
Teachers also show a preference for a particular style of teaching. David A. Kolb and Alice Kolb identified four roles teachers are likely to fulfill: coach, facilitator, subject matter expert, and standard-setter/evaluator.³ Naming these roles provides clarity around a teacher’s preference based on their educational philosophy regarding teaching and their personal style. But like students, teachers need to develop flexibility and apply all four roles based on the need at hand. Having said that, when a teacher’s preferred role is matched to a student’s preferred learning style, learning outcomes can be enhanced.
In recent decades there has been a rise in the number of schools seeking to embed experiential learning in their curriculum. Frequent examples cited include competency-based education, action learning, problem-based learning, adventure education, service learning, and simulation and game learning. According to Kolb and Kolb (2017), these types of experiences connect students to the real world.⁴
When we think about the kinds of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and abilities needed in the 21st century, they all center on active participation in a world in a constant state of change. Students are graduating into a knowledge-based economy that expects them to learn and relearn, frequently. They must be adept at managing change. This means being curious, being adaptable, and being prepared to navigate uncertainty. It’s not just in the economic sphere; as our society becomes more diverse and social norms shift and evolve, a student’s healthy social and emotional development depends on the same skill set.
Experiential learning is not just important for schools. Rajiv Jayaraman, CEO and founder of KNOLSCAPE, a human resources firm uses experiential learning as the basis for talent assessment, development, and engagement. He believes experiential learning is the future of learning because it:
- Accelerates learning
- Provides a safe learning environment
- Bridges the gap between theory and practice
- Produces demonstrable mindset changes
- Increases engagement levels
- Delivers an exceptional return on investment
- Provides accurate assessment results, and
- Enables personalized learning⁵
It’s important to note that experiential learning differs from hands-on learning. While hands-on learning does, in fact, engage students, it falls short of helping students connect a typical classroom activity to a specific learning goal and create new knowledge because of their participation. This is where using a well-researched, defined approach such as the ELT can make a world of difference. Teachers don’t have to invent the proverbial wheel; they only need reinvent themselves.
Facilitating the ELT cycle as a teacher or advisor takes skill and a good bit of expertise acquired over time as the teacher participates in his or her own cycle of learning. If teachers add metacognition to their instructional repertoire and instruct students in how to think about their own thinking, they further equip their students with self-knowledge in how to learn while in school – and more importantly, for the rest of their life. This is how self-directed, lifelong learners are born and nurtured.
Considering the increased attention to experiential learning, it’s a good time to revisit Kolb’s theory. If you’d like your school to recommit to or fine-tune its use of experiential learning, or if you’re starting your journey as an individual, team, or an entire program, there are some excellent resources available to assist you.
First, consider reaching out to EdVisions for support in making experiential learning a potent part of your educational program. For years EdVisions has promoted experiential learning, and many of the schools in their EdNetwork feature it in their curriculum. The most common examples which you can find here are project-based learning, personalized learning, outdoor and adventure learning, career and technical education, and cooperative learning. Edvisions’ long-standing involvement in experiential learning that dates back decades makes them one of the country’s leading authorities. They are equipped to help you with planning as well as provide a range of professional development services. For more information you can contact Dr. Steven Rippe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second, Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc, founded by David A. Kolb in 1981 and its president Alice Kolb offer educators with a vast set of resources online. You can learn more about teacher role preferences by examining the Kolb Educator Role Profile (KERP). What I like about the profile is its simplicity. In it, we see the different strategies teachers incorporate into their instructional repertoire. As previously stated, though teachers may prefer one role over another, their work requires they use all four. It is important they be intentional about which to use and when. According to Kolb and Kolb, “The KERP assessment instrument is designed to help educators sharpen their awareness of these preferences and make deliberate choices about what works best in a specific situation.”⁶
Kolb and Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory is also worth reviewing. They do a superb job explaining the nine learning styles included in the inventory in a 2017 article published in the Journal for Engaged Educators.⁷ Further, you might want to explore the Institute for Experiential Learning, with which Kolb and Kolb are affiliated. They assert the Experiential Learning Theory applies to all aspects of learning throughout life. Beyond contracting with educators, they support development in human resources, professional services, health care, law, finance, manufacturing, management, engineering, IT and non-profit settings.
The more you can make learning relevant, and the more you can teach students to self-direct their own learning, the better prepared they will be for their future. Where are you at in your journey in making experiential learning a central part of your classroom?
1. David L. (2007, February 13). Experiential learning (Kolb). Learning Theories. Retreived from https://www.learning-theories.com/experiential-learning-kolb.html.
3. Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2017). Experiential learning theory as a guide for experiential educators in higher education. A Journal for Engaged Educators, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 7-44. Southern Utah University Press. Retrieved from https://learningfromexperience.com/downloads/research-library/experiential-learning-theory-guide-for-higher-education-educators.pdf
5. Jayaraman, R. (2014, October 24). 8 reasons why experiential learning is the learning of the future. Retreived from https://elearningindustry.com/8-reasons-experiential-learning-future-learning
6. Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2017). Experiential learning theory as a guide for experiential educators in higher education. A Journal for Engaged Educators, Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 19. Southern Utah University Press. Retrieved from https://learningfromexperience.com/downloads/research-library/experiential-learning-theory-guide-for-higher-education-educators.pdf
7. Ibid, pp. 7-44