The Future of Experiential Learning

Last week, I took part in a discussion with an amazing group of practitioners and change agents in the experiential learning world facilitated by Gensler Architects in San Francisco. The group included folks from the Stanford, the Alt School, Singularity University, The Story Center, and the California College for the Arts. We talked about what we thought experiential learning meant to us, where we thought the pedagogical approach was heading into the future, and the implications of all this on our built spaces and places (the reason why Gensler convened us all in the first place).

Here are three things that emerged from that conversation:

1. There was widespread agreement that the disruptive forces in education would continue and strengthen for the foreseeable future. 

The people in the room were convinced that the abundance and relative accessibility of information has forever changed the way we think about teaching and learning. If information is “everywhere” then learning can be too. Pop-up classrooms, micro-labs, maker spaces, and community-based learning all point to the ways in which the dominance of “seat time” (with an occasional field trip) needs to become a relic of the past as we shift toward a pedagogy that more artfully integrates places, experiences, and people. The “primacy of content” educational paradigm is changing into the “primacy of experience” paradigm. Randall Bass at Georgetown talks about this as the shift in flow from “content mastery-to-practice” to a new paradigm of “practice-through-content.” I have described it as teachers becoming “curators of experience.” Teachers in this new paradigm will continue to be content and subject mastery specialists but with a different suite of skills beyond the lecture to employ with and alongside students (see #3 below).

2. There was also agreement that, despite these disruptive forces, the dominant structures of education (classrooms, courses, grades, etc.) remain mostly unchanged. 

A constant refrain during our discussion was just how challenging and difficult it was to employ these new pedagogies amidst structures that are not designed for them. Whether it was the fixed seat, four-walled classroom, the academic schedule, the credit system, grading, standardized tests, expectations about “rigor,” etc., we continue to operate, in the United States, within a conceptual and physical structure built for different learners in a different era (established in the first Progressive Era of the 1890’s). Teachers utilizing public parks in San Francisco with students during the school day were eyed with suspicion, parents complained that students needed to be ready for college through more traditional learning environments and assignments, administrative structures and budgets are not designed for innovation and experimentation…

Despite all this, educators of all shapes and sizes are experimenting and innovating. They are finding ways around these obstacles and structures and, most importantly, they are achieving some incredible results and projects. Architects are starting to pay attention too. Learning spaces are being designed for more flexibility, more collaboration, and more dynamism. One participant asked: “why would any university want to build another lecture theater… ever?” Interestingly amongst the group, technology, while not viewed negatively, was seen as a potential distraction. Start with your vision and your learning outcomes, the group agreed, and only bring in technology if it can serve as a tool to meet your broader aims.

 3. Teachers need to learn a new suite of skills to help their students succeed in this environment. 

The experiential teacher of the future was most decidedly not organizing one or two field trips per quarter or facilitating a few interactive games to liven up direct instruction. The group agreed that a new set of knowledge, skills, and aptitudes were needed to thrive in this disruptive space. Skills like project management, teaching what you don’t know, design thinking, reflective practice, formative assessment, integrative learning, content curation, and networking. “Lesson planning” may be necessary but it will be insufficient. A firm understanding of design in philosophy, structure, and function will be critical. As one participant said, “the teacher is the user interface to the world” for students. She must make it accessible and intuitive for her students. And importantly (as one participant noted), we need to learn when to get out of the way.

While we are certainly not yet at this future place for education (K-16), there are more than enough signs that this future is coming. It is why Gensler invited us to talk with them. As architects, they have to be mindful of these trends in their design and consultation work. Readers, if you made it this far, what do you see as the future of experiential learning?

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