Campus & Community

Experience, Education Link Real World to Classroom

8 min read
Student Laeka Ishat Reza shares her thoughts about an Eastern Algonkian canoe inside the Peabody Museum as part of an experiential learning class.

The class started off easily enough.

Graduate School of Education Lecturer Meg Campbell said it was to be student-directed, following the principles of experience-based education. She had given the assignment ahead of time – the students were to observe an artifact in the Peabody Museum’s Hall of the North American Indian and write down their thoughts. In class, the students were to act as tour guides for their items and share what they had written.

Now it was show time.

“This is a class we’re going to create together,” Campbell said to start the lesson. “The great traditions of experiential education really value everyone being heard and the fact that leadership is shared.”

For a moment, nobody moved. Campbell had said that one of them would lead the group, but she hadn’t said who. So the class sat in a circle, cross-legged, on the Peabody’s gray-carpeted floor. Campbell – herself part of the circle – said nothing more.

Finally, graduate student Nadine Slavinski stood and walked to a nearby exhibit, a button blanket crafted by Native Americans a hundred years ago in British Columbia.

The 13-member group, a Graduate School of Education (GSE) class on a teaching method called experiential or experience-based education, gathered around.

Slavinski took a deep breath and began, detailing the symbolic importance of the thunderbird that dominated the blanket’s center. She wondered about the blanket’s owner and noted that the buttons dotting the cloth were not made from shells or other natural material, but were imported from China, a sign of the changes sweeping Native American culture at the time.

Then she told her classmates a bit about herself, that she was drawn to the blanket because she used to be an archaeologist and that her quilting hobby made her curious about the item’s craftsmanship.

From a simple museum exhibit, class members learned not just about an item that afternoon, but about a person as well. And they learned not from an instructor or a book, but from an activity and a fellow student.

Learning from each other and learning by doing are two hallmarks of experiential education, a teaching method that is winning converts across the nation and generating newfound enthusiasm in GSE students.

Experience-based education is structured around projects that have real-world meaning as well as a deadline for their completion, rather than around traditional lectures and classroom exercises.

Robin Kessler, a GSE master’s degree student, said she came to Harvard because it is one of the few universities to offer courses in experience-based education.

Kessler said the philosophy’s value has been highlighted in her own life as a student. In too many classes, she’d learn the material for the test and then forget it after. The problem, she said, is that subjects are segregated – from each other and from real applications that might give them meaning.

“I would learn it and forget it, learn it and forget it,” Kessler said. “Education is everywhere. It’s all around you. [Experiential education] is making everything real, making what [students] do have real meaning and impacts.”

The standard-bearer for experiential education at Harvard is the Harvard Outward Bound Project, a 9-year-old collaboration between the GSE and the wilderness education organization Outward Bound.

The goal of the project, which Campbell directs, is to foster research and understanding of the experience-based theories developed by Outward Bound as they apply to classroom teachers and administrators who pass through the Graduate School of Education.

“We encourage ordinary people to do marvelous, wonderful things,” Campbell said. “Most teachers teach how they were taught. So teacher education in this country often boils down to who their first-grade teacher was.”

Taking a Chance

In some ways, experience-based education is about risk. In going first, Slavinski assumed a leadership role when she could have hung back. In sharing her personal stories, she was opening up to classmates who had been strangers just weeks before.

Students who led the group after Slavinski also took risks. Some read poetry composed as they sat in the silent hall contemplating their chosen artifact. Ichiyo Iwata, a GSE student from Japan, talked excitedly about the creativity inherent in the lesson, a creativity she said is often lost in the memorization-based Japanese teaching methods.

“I wonder how I would be different if my creativity was not discouraged by our educational system,” Iwata said. “Learning from this class I feel I can bring something back to Japan, something very different.”

The risk in experience-based education extends beyond Campbell’s class and beyond Harvard, to the teachers and schools that embrace a change from traditional teaching methods.

With a steady drumbeat in this country for education reform, many are looking for ways to change what Campbell referred to as the “19th-century factory model” prevalent in today’s schools.

In experiential education, Campbell and other converts believe they’ve found a better way.

Now they’re trying to spread the word.

An outgrowth of the Harvard Outward Bound Project and Outward Bound, called Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound, is providing expertise to schools around the country that want to switch to experience-based education.

So far, Campbell said, they have 85 school partners and more on the way.

Learning at these schools is structured around the real-world projects that are the hallmark of experiential education. Teachers of different subjects collaborate to design the projects so they encompass the skills that students need to learn.

At Central Alternative High School in Dubuque, Iowa, for example, a group of at-risk students put together the “Tuskegee Airmen Research Project,” honoring the accomplishments of the all-black 332nd Fighter Group in World War II.

The project involved both history and English and had the students not just reading and writing, but also conducting original research, public speaking, fundraising, budgeting, and planning a major event.

In addition to putting together a book of research on the airmen, the class hosted a public seminar featuring several members of the Fighter Group at a local college. The seminar drew hundreds of people and raised $3,000 to help with the restoration of one of the last remaining P-51C Mustangs – the kind of plane the Tuskegee Airmen flew.

But experience-based learning doesn’t have to encompass major projects. One kindergarten teacher at the Rafael Hernandez Two-Way Bilingual School in Boston’s Roxbury section simply took her students out to the playground after a winter rainstorm to look at puddles as a way to understand evaporation.

She asked students what they thought would happen to the puddles during the day and had them draw chalk lines around them for later comparison. When the students saw the water had disappeared, they discussed what might have happened. Then they went to part of the playground shaded from the sun and talked about why there were still icy puddles there.

The shift to project-based learning requires a committed staff, so Expeditionary Learning/Outward Bound won’t take on a school until 80 percent of its teachers endorse the idea.

“It’s very challenging to shift to project-based teaching,” Campbell said. “It’s very tempting to just take the textbook and march the kids through it.”

The risk in embracing the new teaching method is not without reward, however. Results nationally from Expeditionary Learning schools show improved test scores and report higher-quality work and greater enthusiasm on the part of the students.

In a study by the Academy for Educational Development, for example, teachers reported that students at all levels produced higher-quality work after implementing an Expeditionary Learning design, meeting not just school district standards, but sometimes meeting standards for similar professional work.

Excitement about Learning, Teaching

In addition to Campbell’s class, two other courses based on experience-based teaching are also offered through the Graduate School of Education, Service Learning: A Teaching Methodology, and School Design: The Practitioner’s View.

Outside of the classroom, the Harvard Outward Bound Project is collaborating with the student-led Experiential Educator’s Network to co-sponsor a series of roundtables on experience-based education. The two organizations are also planning an April 5 student conference for those interested in learning more about the teaching philosophy.

“We want the ideas to spread,” Campbell said. “[Outward Bound founder] Kurt Hahn said the purpose of education is to make you realize your grand passion, and most people go through life not knowing what their grand passion is.”