IMG_0669In my workshops and conversations with teachers and faculty from across the educational spectrum (K-16), I often find a tendency to falsely divide teaching into “experiential” and “traditional” methodology. Often, proponents of experiential education disparage traditional education as ineffective and outdated. On the other side, teachers who are less familiar with experiential methods sometimes pigeon-hole it as “out of the classroom” fieldwork or only meant for certain disciplines or subject matter.

The reality is that there is a continuum of approaches in and out of the classroom that might fall from “more experiential” to “less experiential.”  Without placing a value judgement on where something falls along the continuum, there are ways that you can make a class, a unit, or an area of content more experiential if you would like.

Here are 3 principles that can help you teach more experientially in just about any context.

1. Experience Before Label

When designing experiential lessons or units, always think about how you can put the experience first and the label (content) second. This allows students to approach the issue at hand from an inquiry-based framework. It also replicates real world contexts and problems which are often ill-structured and messy. Pose a socratic question at the beginning of class (“what makes someone a citizen?”), engage in an open-ended simulation, or, at a bigger scale, have students generate their own course-based questions they want to answer by the end of the semester.

2. Continuous Processing

We all know that “reflection” is important in experiential learning. But too often, it is seen as something to do at the end of an experience and, as a result, can be hasty or vacuous. Processing of experience (cognitive, emotional, social) happens continually and, as educators, we should look for ways to honor that and create opportunities for students to make it overt with each other. Even short lessons or classes can consciously incorporate more continuous processing through individual journaling, partner sharing, small group discussions, and technology-enhanced reflection of various kinds.

3. Bounded Student Choice

We know that student choice raises engagement and intrinsic motivation. As teachers, however, we can suffer from the “twin sins” of either too tightly scripting assignments with no choice or by giving too much choice and freedom thereby producing shoddy work or results not directly connected to desired learning outcomes. “Bound” student choice by creating the educative framework and outcomes first and then providing a range of options for how to complete it. For example, an internship reflection assignment might state what you are looking for in terms of integrating academic and experiential learning while allowing students to demonstrate that integration through a variety of means– a video blog, a poster, a podcast, or an essay.

Teaching is not a question of an either/or choice between experiential approaches and traditional approaches. The savvy educator understands that different contexts require different designs and methods. By viewing experiential learning along a continuum (from more to less experiential) and by refraining from putting a value judgement on any given approach, we can expand our repertoire and find new ways to engage students inside and outside the classroom.