On Experiential Education

First let me say that experiential education is about more than travel. But after having taken students on more than 25 study abroad tours, I can certainly say that it illustrates most clearly what a profound impact a quality travel experience can have on the learning process. Experiential education is learning by doing: by seeing, by touching, by hearing and by feeling. If it’s good, it’s immersive. Which is why we can’t simply expect students to show up in an exotic, foreign location and have the learning be any deeper unless we, as teachers, make a concerted effort to make connections between the learning and world around us. Wouldn’t we all love to be able to learn about symbiotic relationships in the rainforests of Brazil? Relive the communist revolution while standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square? Or understand the tumultuous nature of the stock market on the steps of the New York Stock Exchange? I’ve seen what this does for student engagement, and it’s remarkable. Virtual reality may afford us the luxury of teaching in such settings on a daily basis at some point, but until that day comes, how can we bring a small piece of that fire into our classes now? If we look at the basic underlying ideas of what makes travel learning so profound, I think we’ll find some of those elements can still be applied in our everyday classes.

  1. Be active. In every lesson, ask yourself if there’s a way I can have students moving. Movement creates energy and excitement. It’s tough to be asleep at your desk if you’re required to be moving around the classroom.
    Students learning about Game Theory and the Prisoners Dilemma with an activity.
    Students learning about Game Theory and the Prisoners Dilemma with an activity.

    Questions where students can move into a line representing a spectrum of opinion, or challenges that involve organizing a group into a tableau or pose are fun.

  1. Be social. How much interaction can you promote between your students? Have them discuss. And not just with the person next to them. Shuffle the room. What a wonderful feeling it is, as a student, to have the opportunity to interact with each and every classmate. The emotional benefits to students feeling connected not only with their teacher, but also with all their classmates, can be immense. Jigsaw activities and randomizing the selection of working groups for projects can be great for this.
  1. Make connections. Context is important for lessons. Why are we learning this? If you can’t answer this as a teacher, chances are the students are going to find very little value in it, and therefore won’t be engaged. Why not start each lesson or each unit explaining the practicality of what’s being learned? We are learning about compound interest so you can calculate what you’ll earn on your Canada Savings Bonds. We’re learning Shakespeare so you can better deconstruct some of our most timeless stories and understand how he’s inspired many of our films and stories today.
  1. Use artifacts.   When traveling we often get to handle cultural objects: from tools and cloth, to carvings, fossils and coins.   There’s no reason we can’t bring those into our every day classes as well.
    Use Artifacts
    Students discovering archeology artifacts.

    Being able to touch something foreign makes it more real for students. Try on a kimono in Japanese class. In a European history class, distribute a few Euros and talk about who or what is on the coins.

  1. Appeal to the senses. Artefacts are great for touch, but what about smell, taste and sound? Food doesn’t have to be reserved for cooking class. Learning about Spanish culture over a delicious meal, or about this history of Japan with a sushi break can be a fun way to shake up a class. Play music. I can still remember my history teacher playing the song ‘Rasputin’ as we entered class to learn about the Russian Revolution.
  1. Encourage reflection. On the majority of student tours I’ve led, we’ve had our students journal on an almost daily basis. It’s remarkable to see the transformation in worldview, as they increasingly become global citizens. Journaling is only one form of reflection. Blogging, exit slips from class, and student interviews are just a few other small suggestions for ways to have students reflect on their experiences and thereby reinforce learning and clarify their own values.
  1. Find experts. Guest speakers are great way to introduce students to new ideas. Having a different voice in the class with a different set of experiences and knowledge can be a huge benefit. It also strengthens the connection between your school and wider community. Experts may be in your class. Don’t
    Find Experts
    Business students meet the Consul General of Canada in Hong Kong – An Expert on Import & Export

    underestimate the expertise of your students and their experience, or perhaps their parents. Use online resources like Twitter to connect directly with inspiring professionals like astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield or popular authors like JK Rowling to answer questions. All of these people can all be great resources for sharing and learning.

  1. Encourage a sense of wonder. Students who are curious about how and why things are as they are will be enthusiastic to increase their understanding and critical thinking skills. Why do the stars shine brighter away from cities? Why are there similar words for numbers in different languages? Why is it summer during Christmas time in the southern hemisphere? Model curiosity. It’s okay as a teacher not to know the answers… we can find out together as a class!

This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully will help you think about some other ways you can bring a love of experiential learning into your classroom. I love to learn by traveling, and enjoy sharing that passion with my students. Experiential education doesn’t have to be limited to those with a passport though. We can bring those same ideas into our everyday learning to help promote greater student engagement and quality learning.

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On Experiential Education

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