Experiential Learning For School Improvement and Student Engagement

Posted on Feb 28 2012 at 10:13:57 AM in K-12

As a principal, school administrator, or department head, your number one priority (after safely getting the kids out of the hallways and into a classroom) is to ensure that learning actually takes place in between the ringing bookends of your bell schedule.

As a veteran teacher, with over 18 years of classroom experience (including one surprisingly enjoyable summer school now under my belt), I can tell you that I feel sorry for the students that had to endure my first year of employment back in 1993 – a date that now seems ages ago. 

I was enthusiastic and well educated, and I established a good rapport while maintaining a disciplined environment – but I feel I utterly failed when it came to delivering lessons that actually STUCK with my students for more than a few days after their scantron tests were graded.

My problem then, and the problem of so many teachers that truly care about and take responsibility for educating their students, was that I did exactly that – I DELIVERED the information in nice, easily digestible chunks of notes and review games, but I seldom provided opportunities for them to actually experience the information. 

I know now, as many of you do from the wealth of research that is available, that memorization or lecture style delivery does little to inspire any long-term learning.   For our students, as ourselves, to actually recall and feel and internalize any information or insight, it must be attached to a meaningful and memorable personal experience.

In addition to being a great tool for teacher teambuilding, Experiential Learning is the best way to engage the attention of those students your teachers are responsible for, and it provides a significantly better return in terms of recall and application of knowledge and skills.

So, in order to impress upon you the importance of exposing your staff to this teaching tool and its many benefits, I would like to share a little background information about the history of Experiential Learning and then provide you with examples that your faculty could implement easily and effectively.

So, what is TEACHING?  Is it just telling, or does it require that learning occurs?

I believe that the job of a great teacher is to facilitate his/her students’ movement from where they are to where he/she wants them to be regarding specific skills, information, and behaviors. 

So how does your faculty get them there?

Well, consider this analogy…

As trainers, coaches, or teachers, we choose the vehicle our clients or students will use on their journey to reach that destination of acquired skills or knowledge. 

Unfortunately, what most teachers still use is as outdated as a horse-drawn wagon…


(and, just to be clear, your students are the horses that are encouraged, implored, and even threatened to go where the teacher has already been with little thought about the horses’ desires, past experience, or needs!)

Horse and Wagon?



The horse and buggy, as a style of transportation, is just as outdated (and nearly as ineffective) as the still popular lectures and worksheets have been.  But even though the horses are often unmotivated, unaware of why they are being driven, or otherwise distracted from working to get there, this is the style that a majority of educators continue to choose!


According to J.W. Wilson, author of Cracking the Learning Code, “Experience automatically stimulates approximately 95 percent of all neurons that provide the massive neural firing that is the basis for all long-term memory, verbal presentation in general fires only 5 to 20 percent of neurons”

And even if they sit there, un-stimulated, and passively receive the information that is fed to them, the fact is that your students will not have internalized or processed that information in a way that really impacts them. 

Howard Gardner, the renowned Harvard Researcher, explains that “Investigations document that even students that have been well trained and who exhibit all the overt signs of success -faithful attendance, good schools, high grades and high test scores, accolades from their teachers -typically do not display an adequate understanding of the materials and concepts with which they have been working.”

Common sense dictates that, if you simply consider how YOU best learn, you may begin to appreciate how experiential learning and can transform your school.

Take out a scrap sheet of paper and draw a lines so you have split the page up into two columns.  Then do the following:

1 -Think of something you are good at. What are some reasons you got good at it?

2 -Next, think of something you not good at. Why didn’t you learn it better?

Whatever your responses to those questions, you can be assured that other people are very similar!  The most common answers for question 1 are that:

You experimented and learned by doing it yourself

You had others help you do it yourself, and

You learned by working with and/or teaching others.

…and the most common answers for question 2 are that:

You didn’t spend enough time to really get comfortable with or good at it

You didn’t understand the information the way it was presented

You didn’t care because topic was applied to their interests, not yours!

To change the results and create better learning experiences, we must first change the paradigm of what constitutes an effective vehicle for teaching!  Instead of us driving the horses to perform or remember things that they are not truly invested in understanding, a wiser and more effective teacher could…

            1. Supply a better, more enjoyable vehicle for them to use

            2. Hand the keys to the students / clients

            3. Focus on providing a safe road to travel on

THAT is Experiential Learning!

Unlike Discovery Learning, which can be far too unstructured for many teachers to consider adopting, and has been criticized (a 2004 study by R.E. Mayer, discussed in American Psychologist magazine, reviewed educational literature from the past 20+ years to demonstrate that “pure discovery methods are simply not effective. Without guidance, learners do not effectively track down the pertinent information needed to achieve their learning goals.”), Experiential Learning Paradigm depends upon the teacher to be involved and help guide the student’s behavior.

The teacher remains involved by first defining the specific relevant learning activity, by ensuring the students are actively involved in the experience, and by creating and monitoring a safe classroom culture where this can occur followed by providing questions to reflect on that emphasize the intended insights or outcomes


 The MAIN THING is that you recognize the need for Active Student Experiences, and then provide relevant Review Questions and Reflections.

The active student experiences should be less-structured han a PowerPoint lecture, of course, but meaningful, learner centered and engaging.

The review questions and reflections at the end of the experiential lesson are a vital stage that allows discussion, but the answers must be theirs, not yours, in order to ensure that the learning has truly been internalized and understood. 

A key part of the experiential learning cycle is that, when students do not carry from the planned experiential activity the learning, skill, or insight intended, the teacher must then plan and provide another experience that will produce that intended outcome.


THAT creates ownership!

Experiential learning is nothing more than organizing “active student experiences” such as learning a physical activity, games, role play / charades, teaching others, taking field trips, engaging in class debates, or creating something new and relevant.

Think back with me… Could you ever accurately explain to someone what kissing is like by giving lecture notes or describing the scientific physical action only?


And you can transfer this idea to your teachers and their classrooms!

Have your faculty identify one topic, skill, or lesson that they have previously delivered as theoretical or “told” information?

Then, have them write out two ways they might transform that lesson into an experiential activity and engage students actively instead of allowing them to remain passive receivers of information?

Consider this example…

Would you simply tell a NURSING SCHOOL STUDENT what the procedure was to take a patient’s vital signs?  Could you possibly expect them to successfully recall a PowerPoint bulleted list of instructions and then do an acceptable job of changing the sheets on an occupied bed?

Our schools are now lagging behind the many professional programs that have already developed and implemented a “SEE ONE, DO ONE, TEACH ONE” model. 

Couldn’t your school benefit from a similar teaching and learning style for certain topics?

Want a YOUR WORLD Example? 

In English class, instead of a vocabulary word list being memorized for only a brief time using workbook activities and sentences, how about having the students engaged in physically acting the words using  a charades activity, or write a letter to editor about a chosen topic and use five words in context!

As shared earlier, it is important that every experience be “debriefed” and reflected on for students to take meaning away from the activity

The role of teacher is to ask questions only at that point, and students will provide the answers and insights.  This is the part of Experiential Learning that demands your teachers provide both lower and higher level reflective questions to draw out and focus attention on the actual purpose of the activity. 

Some examples of “lower level” reflective Questions are:

-What did you do?

-How did you feel?

-What was most difficult? Easiest?

-If you could do it again, what would you change?

And after discssing those, the teacher then continues to drive the lesson deeper with Higher-Level Discussion questions such as:

-What did you learn about ______

-What problems or issues did you experience?

-What did you learn about yourself?

-How can you apply this lesson to ______?

Despite the ease and many benefits of incorporating Experiential Learning into your faculty’s toolbox of ideas, there are a few issues that your staff may encounter when first beginning to implement this style of instruction.

Some teachers may be concerned that outcomes are sometimes difficult to measure or that this requires more planning time.  My answer is that yes, this is true – but even though it may takes up more class time that telling, and even though it can sometimes be difficult as an instructor to bite their tongue and let students make their own personal discoveries instead of feeding them the desired information, the rewards far outweigh those initial uncomfortable feelings.

Your staff will be rewarded with a more engaging, fun classroom environment, the participation and interest of students who are normally bored, and the pride that comes with providing students a long-term memory and depth of understanding instead of an easy short-term band-aid that is pulled off after test-time.

Your faculty will report the joy of watching HA-HA moments become A-HA’s…

And they will soon agree with basketball coaching legend Pete Newell, who said that he believed “you can never change a habit, or create one, with a word or piece of chalk. You can talk all day, put all sorts of diagrams on the board, but a habit is not going to change… Learning is created through physical acts.”

So I encourage you to consider, instead of driving your student “horses” to perform or remember what they aren’t really invested in understanding, you can transform your campus into a more impactful place where teachers

            1. Supply a better, more enjoyable vehicle for them to use

            2. Hand the keys to the students / clients

            3. Focus on providing a safe road to travel on

THAT is Experiential Learning!

If I can ever be of service to your school or organization with a training workshop that introduces your people to this powerful tool and provides an entertaining and engaging set of activities to illustrate it to your faculty, please contact me - and feel free to use the teamwork resources on my site!




  Article Information
Created: Feb 28 2012 at 10:13:57 AM
Updated: Feb 28 2012 at 10:13:57 AM
Category: K-12
Language: English