Experiential Learning – thinking inside the school box

I have never been closer to the excitement, energy and enthusiasm that comes with students embarking on experiential learning opportunities. These opportunities can take on many forms, and look very different from to the next; but they all share the ability to channel into the very being of the students – whether that is through pursuing a passion, being pushed to a new level of ‘out of the comfort zone’, or becoming part of a larger movement – it can also involve students experiencing what it means to make an impact, and to be impacted by others.

Experiential learning can look like, or call to mind big trips to faraway destinations, or exciting learning projects in communities closer to home or abroad. However, these assumptions can limit opportunities and gateways to building experiential learning opportunities within the regular conception of education. Here is what I mean.



1)  These assumptions may limit the meaning of experiential opportunities existing only outside of the normalized school structure. This means that it is an add-on; however, it could and should be considered anything but. From a recent Forbes article entitled “Experiential Learning Focuses on the UN Sustainable Development Goals“, the author writes about a program out of Rutgers University:

The programs are all accredited, tied to courses in different universities and led by professors and professionals, and are held year-round.

Let’s start to reimagine experiential learning as an integral part of the academic experience of our students. How might we make excursions part of the course, or even the course itself?


2)  These assumptions can narrow the focus of learning by doing into the non-curricular pieces of character, citizenship and ‘learning-service’.  There is a robust body of research that learning by doing is integral to the successful learning and engagement of students in the learning process. In an article entitled ‘The 70:20:10 Model for Learning‘ theauthor reinforces this structure as an excellent model for deep learning and understanding:

It holds that individuals obtain 70 percent of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20 percent from interactions with others, and 10 percent from formal educational events

How might we, in formal education scenarios, support the real-world application of our disciplines into the learning experiences of our students. Project Based Learning and Design Thinking are two powerful strategies that can be used to approach this challenge. As well, connecting our students to others around the world is a powerful way to experience the lives (challenges, hopes and aspirations) of others.


3) These assumptions can risk ‘othering’ the people and cultures, countries and communities that are the destinations. Experiential Learning is also be about reflecting upon the experiences of others. What I mean by that is this: how can a student learn about poverty is any context if they don’t know what it means to experience it. In a recent Atlantic article entitled “Can Morality Be Taught?” the author writes:

I believe that the problem is not what is taught in schools, but how it is taught. It is not enough to simply offer curriculum about the ills of racism, homophobia, or bullying, and then expect lasting results from students who are entrenched in cultural beliefs that are reinforced by society. How can it be a surprise that a number of Americans lean toward authoritarian ideals when, according to Marzano Learning Sciences Center, an educational consulting and research group located in West Palm Beach, Florida, 58 percent of class time in K-12 schools is used for lecture with the teacher delivering content? Or that a number of Americans choose to ignore facts and reason when only 6 percent of class time is used for cognitively complex tasks? In a 2012 Center for American Progressstudent survey, one third of American 12th-graders said they engaged in class discussions only two times a month or less, suggesting that the majority of 17- and 18-year-old American public-school students (young adults coming upon voting age) rarely spend time engaging in dialogue during the school day. The current state of American politics is not surprising when the country’s youngest citizens are given few opportunities to engage in critical thinking and discussion. In order to counteract these trends, it is essential for educators to provide exploratory opportunities for students to not only think about the experiences of other people, but to also challenge their own inherent belief systems through experiential learning.

This is a powerful statement regarding everyday pedagogy and what we are asking of our students. How might we get our students to engage with the voices of others, without ‘othering’ them. How might we build an understanding and connection with other communities without assumption of privilege? These are important questions to ask and to explore.



So how might experiential learning look different in the everyday experiences of our students? It starts by reimagining what experiential learning can be in smaller, niche environments. Here are two examples from Havergal College:

img_20161019_124514Our students attended a conference called 6 Degrees – I’ve written about it HERE. It was a powerful experience that was out of class, but during class time. In order for our students to flip the idea of ‘missing class’, we created a venue where our students invited their teachers to lunch, and they shared their learning. There was an opportunity presented to the teachers, by the students, to integrate their bigquestions, their reflections into the curriculum and assessment of their classes. Let’s see where this conversation goes!

Secondly, two students who share a passion for the written word, and are interested in or taking Sr. Law, were paired with two alum from the school who are lawyers.  They then attended a breakfast put on by the Legal Education and Action Fund, in support of “Person’s Day”. At this breakfast, Margaret Atwood was speaking. Here is one reflection from the Alum:

I think there is benefit to the students getting out into the real world and seeing careers in action.

And from our student:

img_20161019_131131_01I was surprised to hear that the two old girls did not know a lot of the things Atwood said.  They said they were surprised on the things that were happening to women in Canada and around the world because they worked mainly in advertising/law(I’m pretty sure) and not in human rights/law…


Having opportunities outside for girls is super important. It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and watch something, but it’s a whole other thing to experience it first hand. It’s also becomes a memory that you will treasure.

Let’s move forward with a new understanding that experiential learning is an everyday pedagogy. It is an approach to make real the connections between the learning and the learner.

4 thoughts on “Experiential Learning – thinking inside the school box

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Garth. You reminded me of the vision (need?) for interdisciplinary, student – developed, projects that focus on process and real-world application. I wonder how it would be to see have all of our grade 9 students in our school next year to have one culminating task. Teachers can develop the framework in June and launch it in September 2017.

  2. Great article Garth. I really appreciate your question “how might we get our students to engage with the voices of others, without ‘othering’ them?”. I always question who benefits from traditional ‘service trips’, and what we are really learning…

  3. Great insight on experiential learning. I am always challenged to find authentic ways to deliver experiential learning to my science students. I always preach that you learn science best by doing science, and not just reading or watching. Thank you for your thoughts!

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