The Wetfoot Blog

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

An Introduction to Experiential Education

As a leader, I define myself as an experiential educator. Often, when I initially try to define experiential education for others, I received blank stares or looks of confusion. Sometimes I receive comments such as, “Do you mean hands-on learning? or “Oh, you mean that ropes stuff.” While experiential education does involve an active, “hands-on” approach to learning and can use challenge (or ropes) courses as one tool to achieve its educational outcomes, there is a lot more to it than that.

The Association for Experiential Education offers the following definition:


Experiential education is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values (The Association for Experiential Education, 2010).


Closely examining the combination of words in this definition helps to clarify its meaning even further. AEE chooses to refer to experiential education as both a philosophy and a methodology revealing the strong connection between the merging of theory and practice. It is both; not mutually exclusive but rather working in concert to create this educational approach. The words “purposefully engage” signify the intentional nature of the educator’s work as creating intentional learning processes as well as their active role within the educational environment. The use of the word with may seem like a small choice; however, it reveals a powerful idea concerning the interaction between educator and learner.

As a leader, I am concerned about how experiences inform us to learn to become engaged citizens in the world. I use experiential education as a medium for opportunities to examine how learning can become applicable beyond one isolated experience. To understand the process of learning, we can refer to David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle. Kolb (1984) developed this cyclical model offering signposts for the process of learning. He argues that students must have an experience, reflect on that experience, make broader generalizations from their reflections and observations and then find ways to apply the new meaning to other aspects of their world.


Often, we can get caught in the trap of offering an experience and letting it speak for itself. When we do this, we miss about three fourths of the learning process an intentional experiential educator strives for. While the “hands-on learning” and “ropes stuff” might be beneficial on its own, it is within the reflection and application stages of experiential learning that we can engage in meaningful experiences that inform us as leaders and active citizens within society.

Marin Burton, Ph.D, is the Director of the Team QUEST program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Article originally published at the Leadership Launching Pad blog, October 2010. Used with the author's permission.


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1 comment:

  1. The idea of metacognition at this level of reflecting is often forgotten, which is mentioned as the last stage of the cycle of experiential learning. Without the process of understanding how one came to their realization, the knowledge obtained from it lacks credibility - even to the thinkers themselves. However, understanding this is one thing; teaching it is another. Experiential Education is something that I believe Manito-wish excels at - especially the process of reflection and meditation. It all goes back to day one of training - "debreif, debreif, debreif"

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