ERIC Identifier: ED345929
Publication Date: 1992-03-00
Author: Stevens, Peggy Walker - Richards, Anthony
ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Changing Schools through Experiential Education. ERIC Digest.
In its efforts to restructure schools, the education community has begun to
address the challenge of designing a curriculum that young people find
significant. This Digest describes how experiential education can help provide
such a curriculum and the impact it can have on students, teachers,
administrators, and school organizational structures. It also describes ways
experiential education can help educators make the transition from a traditional
program to an activity-based program requiring the collaboration of teachers and
DESCRIPTION OF EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION
education is the process of actively engaging students in an experience that
will have real 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).
John Dewey (1938) was an early promoter of the idea of learning through
direct experience, by action and reflection. This type of learning differs from
much traditional education in that teachers first immerse students in action and
then ask them to reflect on the experience. In traditional classrooms, teachers
begin by setting knowledge (including analysis and synthesis) before students.
They hope students will later find ways to apply the knowledge in action.
Despite the efforts of many would-be reformers, recent 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 of it.
SOME EXAMPLES OF EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION
experiential education abound in all disciplines. In her book, "Living Between
the Lines" (1991), 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.
CHANGES 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 students
taking on new active roles. Students participate in a real activity with real
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.
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 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 an adventure 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
The wall or web of rope 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 decisionmaking (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 can also provide a
process for helping all those involved in schooling become more comfortable with
the unfamiliar roles commonly proposed for restructured schools.
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:
Goodlad, J. (1984). A place called school: Prospects for the future. NY:
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.
Rohnke, K. (1989). Cowstails and cobras II. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt
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.