What is Experiential Education?

G. Wiesen

Experiential education is an educational process by which a person learns through direct experiences and interactions, rather than simply through lecture or reading. In this type of education, students are likely to take field trips and go outside of the classroom to learn, and teachers will often bring outside materials into the class whenever possible. Certain fields of study, especially science and technology, often benefit greatly from this type of learning rather than didactic methods. Experiential education is typically a mutually interactive experience created and facilitated by a teacher and performed by a student who creates meaning.

Children learn through hands-on experience.
Children learn through hands-on experience.

Often associated with experiential learning, they are interconnected but not synonymous. The difference is not merely semantic, as experiential learning is the actual process through which experiential education is applied and made real for students. In other words, experiential learning is more directly related to the student and how the student creates meaning in the learning process. Experiential education generally refers to an examination of the entire process, including the teacher and the environment in which the learning occurs.

Experiential education focused on teaching outside the traditional classroom.
Experiential education focused on teaching outside the traditional classroom.

This type of education is strongly rooted in understanding how a student experiences the learning process and how that can be used to enhance his or her education. In an experiential education, students and teachers typically work together to create an experience that creates new information and practical meaning for a student. This is often done by finding ways in which what is being studied can be made relevant for students, as students will often best learn materials when they understand why the information should matter to them.

For example, students learning about different animals could certainly learn by looking at pictures of the animals and hearing the names and descriptions of the different species. An experiential education, however, would step outside of the classroom and the students might go to a zoo where they can see the animals firsthand. The different classifications of animals become more relevant to students as they see how birds, mammals, fish, and sub-species are all related and understand how such classifications make discussing the animals easier.

A teacher in experiential education creates the environment in which the learning can occur and assists students with the construction of meaning. The teacher in the previous example would point out different animals and discuss similarities within species and orders of animals. This teacher would likely also ask questions to establish the relevance of what the students are learning. As facilitator, the teacher would likely direct student thought toward better understanding what they are meant to be learning and would challenge students to create meaning and knowledge for themselves.

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