Experiential Education is a philosophy and practice used all over the world. It’s learning vehicle is a selected direct experience. These experiences can be anything as simple as exploring a forest, or learning how to make cookies, to more difficult undertakings like bee keeping or starting a business. In this model there is a time for reflection, analysis and synthesis of information leading to powerful learning moments and personal growth. Learning this way is important because what we directly experience we know to be true, and we value. It changes our perspective, is motivating, fosters independent learning, and develops a deeper understanding of the complexities of the world we live in.
The way we frame experiential learning is summarized in 5 steps:
Explore a topic.
Venture to a place where we can experience the impacts or realities of this topic.
Process and debrief the experience.
Dig deeper into learning with lessons, research and reading.
Report about it.
We went to the rainforest in Sumatra for one week to experience the jungle. Students came armed with an understanding of the threats to this particular rainforest, and its quick decimation across Indonesia as conflict palm oil plantations cover the nation. Our goal was for the students to fall in love with the rainforest and to be moved to understand the dichotomy between its resilience and its new found fragility.
In a nutshell, we explored the jungle by foot and by raft and slept under the canopy. We had lessons sitting on the forest floor about taxonomy, microbes, soil, and the structure of the forest. We met the people who live in this area and visited local schools to talk about their culture, the forest, and to teach about our program. We learned traditional Saman dance. Intuitively, we planned each day based on the weather and our hunger.
Experiential education is exhilarating, exhausting and messy. At the same time, it is fluid, organic and logical. Often there is a roller coaster of self-reflection, planning and encouragement. We find ourselves in situations that require, let’s just say, going way above and beyond “expectations” of what teaching looks like on paper. You just simply have to absorb all of the nuances and realities of daily life plus all of the juicy learning to be unpacked in each situation.
Process. Debrief. Unpack. Sort. These steps are integral to the “real” learning. Different experiences mean different things to different people and when we take the time to share and become experts on what inspires us, we own the learning process and the content. Students come back and decide to dig deep, search for more, and uncover more about what aspects of the experience they are inspired by.
My past teaching experiences include both traditional and experiential models of learning. In Canada, I have taught students about rainforest ecology from a classroom set in blizzards within the thicket of the Canadian Shield. Bringing students to the heart of the rainforest to better understand the complexity of it and meet its people is life changing and long lasting. The kids in Earthbound are connecting to ideas that they never quite imagined from their learning in the classroom. And, the best part is that our experience has been sealed within our friendships. We have gushed over insects, seeds, roots, rocks, hot springs, rivers, clay, and humus; stomach flu, menstrual cycles, and infected wounds; the emotions of homesickness and the discomfort of the forest floor; and the unforgettable people of the forest: the orangutan.
When experiential learning happens with an intentional twist it can be the foundation for a powerful program. On Earthbound this philosophy guides our everyday and we sort our learning experiences into subject areas and themes to expand on and document. Students are able to take an experience and look at it from different angles and perspectives – personal, scientific, humanitarian, historical, geographical, or literary. The options are seemingly endless, but with guidance and a sustainability focus, we help students build their own unique learning plan.
Written by Jackie Pye
7 thoughts on “Experiential Bliss”
Jackie, Your imaginative writing connects me to what truly matters in life, our childrens natural sense of right and wrong and a curiosity within them to solve for man made crises. It commits me to work with my daughter Lola, raising awareness in more boardrooms and implementing practical solutions in areas I can control to ensure the sustainability of our precious planet.
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The experiences you are having will last a lifetime! What a great way for our kids to learn! Thanks, John (Papa)
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Jackie, a great way to describe the value of this Earthbound trip and to emphasise the critical factor of reporting on the experience, the quality of this and the student blogs has been excellent, telling the story of place with some evidence of research and reflection. Observe and react. Looking forward to more blogging from the trip, keep it real.
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Thanks Tony! Loving the real.
Wow, this is incredibly inspiring, thank you so much for sharing this Jackie. How much of your Earthbound programme is based on experimental learning? I’d love to think you can apply this approach across all subjects and topics within a curriculum; is this possible?
Hi Amy! This is very flattering coming from you. 🙂 Almost all of the program is experiential. However we do have advisory groups for a few hours a day where we synthesize learning into assessment pieces that are valuable to real world skills – like journalism. As well we have the kids working on independent math or science, and literature (all the kids will study a variety of novels). Within a curriculum it is very difficult if there are many different factors to consider and work toward – testing, government standards and checklists of topics, classroom size and location, teacher resilience, and more. There is a movement to create micro schools – a model that is more flexible and creative as opposed to a large school model where kids are less autonomous and teachers are more limited in what they are allowed to do. Experiential ed works well here. Of course some schools are able to do this very well. In my school board in Canada there are integrated credit programs, outdoor education programs, co-op work credits, and many private schools working to ensure that experiential ed is available for those who want it. Experiential ed, the way we do it, also has its drawbacks – it can be messy and uncomfortable. There is a lot to sort through, and you need to be familiar with scope and sequence of curriculums to recognize a child’s development and make sure that you are on the mark for different age groups. Its not easy to just wing it per se. Anyway, thanks for your comment. Hope to see you again one day!