Where the Experiential Learning Movement Meets Learner-Centered Education

18 June 2019
By Chris Unger


Learning in the doing is learning in context. It’s the kind of learning that includes all the messiness and complexity of making something happen in the real world.

Chris Unger
Faculty Member, Northeastern University’s Graduate School of Education

I have participated in the experiential learning movement for decades, and I’m now fully immersed with Northeastern University’s “all-in” commitment to support experiential learning in PK-12 ecosystems (see NExT). Throughout the entirety of my journey, one basic question has come up again and again: What is experiential learning?

In answering this question, many schools point to a certain set of “experiences,” such as “study abroad,” “outdoor education,” and “community service.” However, if we really think about it, everything is an experience, including those activities we typically do not associate with experiential learning—such as lectures, reading, or writing papers.

Our everyday existence is an experience. With this lens, the question “What is experiential learning?” transforms into “What are the attributes, or qualities, of an experience, and how do those qualities contribute to the intended learning outcomes?”

There are two qualities of experience that significantly impact learning outcomes—1) the learner’s stance toward both the learning experience and learning itself; and 2) the authenticity of the work in which the learner is engaged.

The Learner’s Stance Toward the Experience

When looking at the learner’s stance toward the learning experience, we first need to ask whether the learner cares to learn what is being offered to them, or if they themselves have chosen what they are learning. If a learner, regardless of age, does not intrinsically care to learn what they are learning, we know they may or may not actually achieve the intended learning outcomes.

For example, the act of memorizing text to simply pass a test or taking spoon-fed notes to write a paper often leads to a vacuous “surface” approach to learning. Noel Entwistle—an influential educational psychologist—referenced this difference as the learner engaging in deep vs. surface learning, which is entirely dependent on the learner’s intrinsic desire and approach to learning.

When intrinsic motivation is absent from the learning experience, the result is typically a lack of true understanding or skill development; or an inability to apply what was learned to the “real world.” This type of learning is “devitalizing.” It does not contribute to the life of the student, neither literally nor figuratively. This kind of learning has little value for the learner, and the learner will resort to memorizing knowledge or attaining skills in a way that is more in keeping with surface learning than deep learning.

The Authenticity of the Experience

As we explore the learner’s stance, we must also ask if learners are engaged in authentic work. This exploration requires us to ask what authenticity means in the context of the learning experience.

First, is what the learner will be doing and thinking about in the activity a match for the intended learning outcomes? Second, is the learner provided the guidance and support that builds their capacity to develop both those intended skills and dispositions and their capacity to drive their own learning in the future?

A simple example would be to compare one learner who is learning how to drive a car by watching someone else drive to a young person who simply hops in the driver’s seat and learns by driving.

The first learner is learning very few of the requisite skills required to drive a car and is certainly not developing their capacity to drive on their own.

The second learner, however, is being challenged to successfully navigate in a socially- and conceptually-complicated problem-space that requires developing the necessary skills to accomplish the task or engage in the activity. Learning in the doing—a shorthand often used for deep, engaged, applicable learning—is learning in context. It’s the kind of learning that includes all the messiness and complexity of making something happen in the real world.

How often are we putting students in the driver’s seat (pun intended) to develop the requisite skills to think and act competently within the domain of learning we, or better they, have identified as valuable?

The Questions We Must Ask Before Jumping Into a Learning Experience

By reframing our initial question—from “What is experiential learning?” to “What are the attributes, or qualities, of an experience, and how do those qualities contribute to the intended learning outcomes?”—we allow another conversation to take hold; one that fits inside the broader learner-centered movement. Being inside both conversations, I have always wondered, “What is the connection between experiential learning and learner-centered ecosystems?” I’ve come to discover the answer lies in the way educators and young people orient themselves toward the creation of a learning experience—ensuring they remain focused on the learner’s stance toward learning, as well as the degree to which the experience is authentic to the learner.

Before jumping into a learning experience, the learner and educator should engage on questions like the following:

  1. Does the learner care about the learning we expect to happen in the learning experience? How can we ensure this? And, to what end?
  2. Will the learner be engaged in authentic work with the kinds of guidance and support that leads them to developing the capacity to be self-directed in that work?
  3. How will I not be acting as a conventional teacher but as a co-designer and facilitator of the learning experience, and how does that design support the learning outcomes that are of value to the learner?
  4. As a co-designer and facilitator of my learners’ learning experiences, in what ways is the experience designed such that my learners are fully engaged in their learning—learning in the doing?

When I think about where the experiential learning movement intertwines with the learner-centered movement, it is within these questions that I have found the greatest synergy. These are the questions most “experiential learning educators” ask themselves when they think about the learning experiences their students are afforded. Educators who come from some of my favorite learner-centered environments such as Iowa BIG, BVCAPS, One Stone,  SOTA, SAMI, and IDEA consider these questions every day. And, there are dozens more in the Education Reimagined community who do the same.

Our educational system needs a revolution that can inspire, assist, and support the kinds of learner-centered ecosystems Education Reimagined, NExT, and learner-centered environments and initiatives across the country are striving to build. Wherever and however you are contributing, thank you.

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