experiential-education by hedongchenchen


									  Experiential Education – Where it comes from, What it is, and Why it
          An address to The York School faculty delivered August 26th, 2008

 “In the statement of our beliefs, which you can find on just about any wall in the school, we begin with
two important statements:

“Every child has a spark”
“Every child has a curiosity about the world”

and our Mission statement, which appears on the same poster, ends with this phrase:

“caring young people who are engaged citizens of the world.”

I am tempted to give a title to my address this afternoon, “Curiosity, Care and Citizenship”, for these are
not only central to our Mission as a school, but they are central to the Experiential Education approach.
It is not mere coincidence that these three words all begin with “C”. In fact, in experiential education
circles, reference is made to the 5 “C”s; namely, complexity, connection, consequences, citizenship, and
care. Before I add “confusion” to the list of “c” words that you are experiencing, I want to take a few
moments to trace something of the history of experiential education.

The notion that learning by experience is an effective means of learning is not a new thing. You may be
familiar with the words of Confucius. “I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.” As a Theory
of Knowledge (TOK) teacher I was interested to read a brief history of experiential education on the web
that credits philosophical disputes between Rationalists and Empiricists as being a foundation for the
Western tradition of learning by experience. For those of you who have not taken TOK, Empiricists
believed that all knowledge was acquired through the senses, whereas Rationalists believed that sense
perception was not reliable and could not be trusted to form the foundation for absolute truths.

A more recent philosopher should ring a bell for those of you who stayed awake during Educational
Philosophy classes, and that is John Dewey, an American philosopher of the early 20th century whose
educational philosophy is renowned for its insistence on experience as the foundation of learning.

Interestingly enough, Dewey can be seen to be the father of differentiated instruction as much as he is
considered the father of experiential education. Dewey believed that a student’s former experiences
determined how he or she might respond to any future experience. As one commentator (James Neill)
has written, and I quote:
“Dewey says that once we have a theory of experience, then as educators [we] can set about
progressively organizing our subject matter in a way that it takes accounts of students' past experiences,
and then provides them with experiences which will help to open up, rather than shut down, a person's
access to future growth experiences, thereby expanding the person's likely contribution to society.”

In this statement, you see a wonderful merging of differentiated instruction and experiential education.
You can also see links to a constructivist theory of learning – that each learner constructs their own
knowledge when they learn. Moreover, Dewey is credited with providing the foundational thinking for
the inquiry approach – the basis of the IB’s Primary Years Programme. The more I think of it, the more I
wonder whether my suggested book for The York School Book List shouldn’t be Dewey’s “Experience
and Education”.

Before finishing with Dewey, I should add that Dewey’s view of education, just as his view of knowledge,
was pragmatic. The good of education was to be measured by its effects upon society. A good education
would lead to responsible citizens who could take responsibility for the democracy into which they had
been born – which suggests to me that Dewey isn’t read much in China.

Dewey’s thinking led to many educational efforts of which he was strongly critical, including the
progressive education movement in North America. But it also found a kindred spirit in the work of Kurt
Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, and whose philosophy was instrumental in the genesis of the
International Baccalaureate. Hahn, who died in 1974 , once stated that “It is the sin of soul to force
young people in to opinions – indoctrination is of the devil – but it is culpable neglect not to impel young
people into experiences.” Hahn was particularly concerned that young people be faced with experiences
that challenged them and forced them to discover resources within that they didn’t already know they
had. In that respect, Hahn might have been dubious of a differentiated instruction programme that
merely allowed children to do only those things that they are good at, or that they want to do.

Like Dewey, Hahn saw a moral purpose in education. He stated that “The tragic history of continental
countries transmits the warning that we should take heed of Napoleon's words: "The world is not ruined
by the wickedness of the wicked, but by the weakness of the good." His words underline the moral
purpose he saw in experiential education, and that underlies the programmes that his thinking gave rise
to, including the Salem Schools, Gordonstoun public school, Outward Bound, the Duke of Edinburgh's
Award Scheme and the Atlantic Colleges. Thus, he goes on to state: “If we take to heart the lessons of
history, we will regard it as a very serious responsibility of schools to build up the nervous strength in
the vulnerable, the imaginative, the sensitive, by methods which will harden yet spare them, so that
they will be better able to stand the strain which responsible citizenship imposes.” Strong words. But
Hahn, having lived through two world wars, believed, like Dewey before him, that society was imperiled
and a corrupting influence, and required an antidote that was not to be found in the regular educational
system. He believed that the answer to society’s problems lay in facing the youth with experiences that
would allow them to find their full potential and that would prepare their hearts to take on the hard
tasks of love and compassion that are so badly needed in this world.
Other educational theorists have picked up various strains of experiential education in their work,
including, importantly, Maria Montesorri, who was a central influence in the beginnings of this school.
This brings me to this school and the reasons why we have adopted experiential education as a main
plank in our strategic plan and find it immortalized in our motto, “Experientia Docet”.

The York School has, along with other good schools, regularly exposed students to a multitude of
experiences, taking students out of the classroom, connecting them with authentic audiences, and
making a link between the subjects they study and the lives that they live; however, until most recently,
experiential education has not been considered one of the central tenets of the school’s philosophy. It
did not appear in the school’s mission, philosophy or core values.

    “Experiential learning puts the direct experience of phenomena at the centre of learning,

    buttressed by teacher-guided preparation prior to the experience and student reflection

    afterwards. It may include a wide assortment of learning strategies and activities, but tends to

    involve a combination of two or more of the following:

    Facing students with real-life situations

    Authentic audiences

    Authentic consequences

    Socially rich


    Outside the classroom

    Guided by student’s own questions

    Emotional engagement

    Emphasis on Application skills

    Inductive learning

    Democratic engagement”

In other words, The York School takes an expansive view of experiential education rather than an
ideological approach.
So, if that is what it is, why do we want to do it? From the three approaches to experiential education
noted, we can see that in each learning situation the potential exists for teachers to expand the
purposes of their lesson and to reach the hearts, minds, and diverse learning styles of their students. As
a community of educators, we believe that every child’s curiosity is to be encouraged and that we are
here to fan the spark such that it grows into a flame of moral courage. We also believe that the world
desperately needs the next generation to emerge with a deep understanding of the links between their
personal actions and values and the future state of a world of potentially hostile nations and fragile
ecosystems. Finally, we recognize that we prepare our children for a life beyond formal education,
where the whole range of their potential as human beings will be called upon. To come back to our
Mission, it is only when we have given our students deep experiences that lead them to care for others,
to care for our earth, and to want to keep asking questions, that we can ever hope to develop young
people who are engaged citizens of the world.

The good news for each of you is that I don’t believe that it requires a programmatic response in order
to push the mission forward in this direction. Each of us can re-examine what we do as teachers and find
ways in which we can make our children’s learning experiences contribute to a better society. Each of us
can find ways of connecting our children more closely to the people, places and values that we cherish.
Each of us can give our children opportunities to learn through doing and working with others, so that
they have the confidence to act responsibly in the world of tomorrow.”

To top