Created opportunities for students to apply course content outside the classroom
Author: Joe Bandy, Vanderbilt University
While the theories and practices of teaching often focus on the classroom, learning itself, rarely does. Learning is vital to our humanity and therefore can occur throughout the full range of human experience, structured and unstructured, bounded and unconfined. It is common for any essay on experiential learning to cite authors from antiquity, both East and West – maybe Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them,” or maybe Confucius’s “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Such quotes convey what we all know intuitively: that many of our most transformative moments of learning occur when we least expect it and even outside of those very institutions dedicated to it. What if we, as educators, could learn from these moments outside the classroom and could use them to enhance our curriculum? What if we opened the classroom and let learning breathe?
The practices of teaching and learning outside the classroom are the subjects of centuries of debate and theorization. From antiquity, to John Dewey’s foundational thought during the Progressive Era, to late 20th Century work by Donald Schön or David Kolb, there has been a recurring intellectual movement to understand and advocate for experiential education. What follows is a review of those principles and practices that may guide our understanding of experiential education today, focusing on its origins, its promise, and its challenges, with examples along the way.
Experiential learning outside the classroom has an infinite number of manifestations that defy easy summary, but we may at least note several categories of experience: service learning or community engagement, community-based education, internships and cooperative education (Moore 2010:4-6), field work, outdoor education, and international study. In all settings there is a common emphasis on “learning by doing” in which learners develop “new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking” (Lewis and Williams 1994: 5) through active, purposeful, and reflective engagement in immersive contexts defined by complex, meaningful, and challenging ambiguities or problems (Chapman, McPhee, and Proudman 1995: 243). Jeffrey Cantor argues that this form of learning is not just beneficial; it is necessary (1995), elemental to human learning, both individual and social.
John Dewey agreed and it is his understanding that laid the foundation on which all subsequent theories of experiential learning were built. Borrowing from an intellectual history stretching from Aristotle to 19th Century pragmatism, Dewey posited that, for learning to occur, one must enter into a cycle of inquiry. This cycle begins with an individual or group acting on habits of mind derived from conditioning or socially normative thought. Then, one encounters an “indeterminate situation” in which these habits of mind fail to bring understanding because they are contradicted. Without such situations, learning is impossible, since one must reconcile one’s faulty worldview with reality via “intellectualization,” in which there is a “definition of the problem,” followed by a study of the conditions of the situation and the formation of a working hypothesis, or a new framework of understanding. Abstract reasoning and empirical testing of the new hypothesis is then necessary for the new understanding to become the mental model through which the world may be understood anew. This then lasts until a new indeterminate situation presents itself. Most important here is that individuals merely act by habit and tradition (his “primary experience”) with no motivation or potential for development without an initial failure and a willingness to actively reflect upon and change one’s mind (what he termed, “secondary experience”) (Dewey 1925, 1934, 1938). This is the core of experiential educational theory later taken up and modified by Kolb (1984).
From Dewey’s perspective any learning at all requires learners to actively experiment, test, and reflect upon their understandings, and this is best done in complex, applied experiential contexts outside of the sterile and controlled environs of the ivory tower. Dewey believed schooling could not replicate the rich diversity of learning experiences possible in everyday life, nor could it simulate all of the institutional contexts in which social learning occurs. Indeed, Dewey did not limit his cycle of learning to the individual, but also theorized that entire societies either ossify or grow – more democratic, more just – depending upon their collective willingness to confront irrationalities or contradictions, to reform them through critical reasoning, and to build new knowledge for the common good (Dewey 1925, 1934, 1938; Miettinen 2000: 63-5). For Dewey, like many other critical pedagogues that followed – Kurt Lewin, Paulo Friere, and bell hooks among them – this social betterment is the soul of education. As he famously stated, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife” (1889). It is thus no coincidence that experiential education often focuses on applied learning in contexts that involve public scholarship, social service, civic education, and organizational or community development.
Benefits of Learning Outside the Classroom
Experiential learning outside the classroom has many well-documented benefits, for learners, teachers, our educational institutions, and our communities. For learners, the primary benefits are:
Motivation. The experience of active experimentation, risk-taking, and especially failure, in relevant real-world contexts with authentic audiences is highly motivating and yields more engagement in the learning process. Students crave meaning, relevance, and purpose, and teaching that affords this provides tremendous motivation for learning. In the words of bell hooks, experiential learning offers “a place of passion and possibility, a place… where all that we learn and know leads us into greater connection” (DeSantis, Carm and Toni Serafini 2015).
Depth and Breadth of Comprehension. By encountering uncontrolled real-world complexities and ambiguities that challenge preexisting concepts, students are better able to refine their theoretical understandings for different settings, strengthening comprehension and memory. Real-world contexts also are rarely understood by merely one discipline, requiring interdisciplinary insights and comparisons that broaden cognitive connections. We learn differently in different contexts (Kirschner and Whitson 1997, Lave and Wenger 1999), therefore “Compartmentalized learning doesn’t reflect the real world” (2017: 1).
Critical Thinking and Inquiry. In experiential contexts, students come to understand knowledge as more than a discrete set of facts and theories, but instead as an unending dialectical process of engagement with investigative methods, deductive and inductive reasoning, and theorizing. As they do so, they come to recognize enduring elements and methods of inquiry, enhancing metacognition and intellectual autonomy as well as open, fair-minded reflection.
Problem Solving. By allowing students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in context, they must grapple with challenges, define problems, design solutions, and test them, often with one another, in ways that develop their knowledge, creativity, and confidence (Moore 2010).Civic Education. In the process of engaging in relevant social contexts outside the classroom, such as basic field work or community-based education, students gain an awareness of social problems, whether they be cultural, economic, or political. In service-learning, community engagement, or public scholarship models that ask students to aid in solving social problems such as homelessness or environmental destruction, students may learn how to generate governmental, policy, cultural, or economic change and thus develop citizenship skills and a valuable sense of self-efficacy or empowerment. This form of learning also has been shown to promote lasting commitment to community engagement (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray 2001).
Social Learning. Especially in study abroad and community-based experiential learning, students have immersive opportunities to learn about social groups, if not entire societies, that are different their own. This heightens awareness of differences and prompts deeper learning across the disciplines, especially in the acquisition of language, cultural and historical critique, and social analyses of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation. This also triggers a transformative openness to reflection on taken-for-granted dimensions of one’s own identity, society, or community. This said, social learning can occur in any experiential learning where students work in groups, since they may learn valuable skills of communication, coordination, leadership, and ethics of collaboration, particularly as they work across differences (Cantor 1995: 81).
Environmental Education. In outdoor education and fieldwork – particularly in the fields of environmental studies, geology, ecology, and archaeology – students gain valuable opportunities to apply and refine abstract concepts to natural spaces and forms. This can deepen student understandings of the many social and natural processes that shape the natural environment while informing cultural, economic, and political conceptualizations of environmental health and sustainability. In certain conditions, especially for younger learners, fieldwork may help them reduce stress, improve health through exercise, develop skills of survival and self-reliance (Burdsal and Force 1983), as well as gain positive attitudes towards environmental well-being (Mitteltaedt, Sanker, and VanderVeer 1999).
Career Development. Particularly in community-based learning, internships, co-operative or professional education (Baxter Magolda 1993), students may develop valuable work experience, skills, and labor market networks (social capital) to give them a head start in a career. In fact, across private, government, and nonprofit sectors, employers often report a skill gap among college graduates in workforce preparation, particularly missing “soft skills” of communication, collaboration, leadership, and problem-solving (Student Affairs Forum 2017). In its best forms, experiential learning can help students develop these very qualities. Further, career-focused experiential learning has been shown to generate greater student interest in graduate and professional careers (Cantor 1995). While the benefits of experiential learning far exceed career preparation, this is a significant contribution of the pedagogy for students, educational institutions, and employers alike; and it is the prime reason experiential education is a hallmark component of professional and graduate education.
Graduation Rates. Research suggests that college retention and completion, and greater interest in graduate and professional education, do improve with greater experiential educational opportunities, and especially for nontraditional learners – adult continuing students and those from underrepresented groups including women, people of color, and first-generation and lower-income students (Cantor 1995: 89).
Experiential education has many benefits for educators as well, including more motivated and engaged students, as well as opportunities to develop new research inquiries, to contribute to publicly relevant scholarship, and to build connections to place and community (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray 2001). Post-secondary institutions also can see benefits from higher impact learning (Kuh 2016), higher academic and career achievement among its students, improved public relations (Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray 2001), and more curricular—co-curricular integration (Student Affairs Forum 2017). Of course, in the most socially engaged forms of experiential learning such as internships, cooperative education, or community service, communities profit from collaborative service, organizational development, and knowledge creation; and we all benefit from the many ripple effects that this may have on the growth of a vibrant and just society.