12. Experiential Learning

Curriculums that are not focused around the Textbook
Similarly to connecting learning to the real world, one of the best ways to learn is to experience whatever you’re studying instead of only reading about it in a textbook or taking a test with multiple-choice questions. The real world cannot be explained by a textbook, and very situations in real life is black and white like multiple-choice answers. That’s why the most interesting lessons in science class involves actually playing with fire, building circuits, or developing ways to toss an egg off of a building without it breaking.
An experiential learning focus incentivizes curriculum design that involves the following:
  • hands-on learning
  • project-based learning
  • exploration-based learning
  • failure-based learning

Hands-on Learning

Experiential learning focuses on experiences. What better way to experience something than to work with it with your hands?
An example of hands on learning can be learning about food through cooking and farming. It’s one thing to see the pictures of the plants and read the descriptions through a textbook. It’s another to experience growing a vegetable from a seed, harvesting it, cutting it up to be cooked, cooking it, and eating it. Knowledge that can be learned can be so varied, including:
  • experimenting with how much water the vegetable needs,
  • optimal amounts of sunlight, learning about photosynthesis,
  • how the vegetable collects nutrients,
  • once harvested, how quickly does the vegetable lose it’s nutrients,
  • can freezing the vegetable help it stop losing nutrients,
  • how does the vegetable taste freshly picked vs. a week after being picked,
  • how long should you cook it,
  • what seasoning brings out the natural taste of the vegetable the best?
    To close the loop, you end the hands-on experience by collecting the seed to grow another one of the same vegetable.
Other hands-on learning experiences can include cooking, wood-working, playing an instrument, film-making, robotics, acting, etc. Using these experiences as a vehicle for learning knowledge is much more engaging than a textbook.
If the knowledge that was learned through a hands on experience, it is much more likely that students will have a stronger impression of it. It is also much more likely to be an efficient use of time because the knowledge will actually be part of their long term memory rather than short term memory.

Project Based Learning

Following hands-on learning, we have project-based learning. Project based learning is learning via doing projects rather than through classes involving lectures and pre-determined content. It uses the idea that students will learn better completing projects rather than completing rote tasks.
Project based learning is nothing new and has been talked about a lot already. But I want to take this to the extreme. Project based learning should be completely flexible and only defined by a simple structure requiring that the project is defined properly. It should either be structured as a S.M.A.R.T. goal where there is a definitive end goal and time cap or it should be structured as a research project with hypothesis with the goal of coming to a conclusion.
An example of a project-based learning curriculum is the food project described above in hands-on learning. Another example might be testing a new model of statistics for a certain sport and seeing if it generates any kind of correlation that did not exist previously. A further example might be participating in competitions and contests.
A treasure trove of projects can be found in the research community. Most research projects are only performed by the authors of a paper. It would be amazing if there were others that can attempt to recreate the experiment to see if the conclusions of the initial experiment still holds in a different environment or population. If current K-12 schools can be in a position to re-run experiments in academic papers, the value-add to the academic and scientific academy would be tremendous.
In general, the biggest benefits to a completely flexible project based learning methodology is that it encourages exploration and discovery rather than following a strict outline dictated by someone else. The learning is done in contained batches and allows students to really develop and choose the direction of their own education.
To take project based learning one step further, it is absolutely critical that students are encouraged to work towards team project based learning. Team project based learning mimics better how work will be done in the real world, where most things are done in teams rather than by individuals. With team project based learning, it better integrates a lot of the soft skills required in the Core Philosophy. Most importantly, communication between team members become central to the project.

Exploration-based learning

Another essential part to learning is the exposure to new ideas and concepts. Schools should be offering ample opportunities to explore and experience new things and for students to explore out of their normal comfort zone. This can be achieved by workshops, field trips, speakers, events, etc.
Exploration-based learning should be heavily integrated into the curriculum to develop exposure to all the knowledge and possibilities in the world. Traditional education has a lot of required courses, limiting the amount of benefit of exposure to new concepts and ideas. With hands-on and project-based learning as the core curriculum methodologies, it opens up the door for real exploration learning.
For example, becoming a marine biologist that studies mussels. What is that like? Is there a career in astronomy? What are the specific disciplines?Becoming a YouTube Creator? What do I need to worry about to make it sustainable? Traveling the world? What are the benefits of residing within another culture for 2 weeks. What makes bread rise? What are the different types of bread around the world? What does it take to become a member of the circus? Will I be able to train my body to be flexible or strong enough for that?
One important factor to exploration is in developing open-mindedness. The more different ideas and perspectives a student is exposed to, the more they can understand the nuances of the world and be willing to accept different concepts.
Workshops and speakers can be arranged to be peppered through the week and students can choose whether or not they want to sign up and participate. A request system can be put in place to track interest, so if there is enough interest for a specific topic or specific person, there can be a group of students that make it their project to organize the session.
This also opens up opportunities to interact more with the nearby community. It’s important for students to learn about what’s happening around them, so being exposed to what’s currently happening in government, the business models of the local businesses on Main Street, nature conservation efforts by volunteers, or even just some photography from a local trail.
There are so many things to explore. Exploring the different hard sciences, exploring different cultures, exploring different foods, even exploring different histories where the same event is told in different ways depending on their culture and biases. Essentially, we want students to be able to explore anything and everything.

Failure-based Learning

Lastly, we have failure-based learning. An experience that is largely missing in traditional education is failure. Failure is a large part of life and fear of failure and rejection can really limit the possibilities of an individual’s path because they are too afraid to leave their comfort zone.
Therefore, learning should include experiences focused around failure, which is another way of increasing academia’s connection with the real world. Failure helps students develop resilience and grit by showing how tough the real world is. Failure, in general, gives many opportunities to teach fundamental lessons that otherwise would not be available. How to deal with failure, how to deal with rejection, what to do if you fail, is it okay to fail, how to learn from failure, how to rebound from failure, and maybe most importantly, answering the questions of what is failure and is it bad to fail?
In today’s schools, we try to protect students from experiencing failure because of an institutional problem. Schools need to perform by making sure students have good grades for the sake of either college or some form of national government assessment. Because of this incentive, schools don’t have the opportunity to allow students to experience failure because there is no time for them to learn from it. Once they fail, there’s no time for reflection. There’s no time to re-solve the problem and actually learn from the failure. There are no opportunities to fail because failure is not easily gradable and cannot contribute to a student’s metrics in the current system.
With a more flexible curriculum, failure can be designed into the curriculum. It gives us opportunities to allow students to fail a test and spend an extra week learning the content that they failed to understand in order to take a re-test. It allows for situations where failure an expected part of the project and instead of it being a bad thing, the project instead incentivizes failure to allow students to experience it and the appropriate repercussions that go along with it.
An example of this might be designing a chair and trying to sell it at a reasonable price. This will require the student to create prototypes and be rejected on issues surrounding aesthetics and comfort. This creates an opportunity for the student to receive feedback and make adjustments, iterating through a few designs before coming to something that is actually desirable by a client. Learning about sales is a great way to learn about failure because there is a high failure rate and it teaches students how to think about convincing others to listen to your idea. Another example might be developing a business plan and looking for actual funding. Fundraising is a great learning experience in rejection and iteration.
Another part of failure-based learning are disasters that are outside of your control. Dealing with these disasters can help develop resilience and grit and help students get acclimated to these situations so they can remain calm and logical in the face of a calamity.
Thus, I introduce the concept of calamity weeks. Calamity weeks are planned, week-long calamities that happen to individual students. These can be losing access to food on campus, losing access to the internet, or losing the progress made last week on your work.
Calamities will be created by a special task force on campus, possibly by students. Students that are chosen to receive a calamity will be randomly selected. Of course, all calamities need to be designed in a way that is not dangerous in any way to the students. It is designed to be a setback or a state of discomfort. The goal is provide an opportunity for students to experience a negative event that is out of their control, which is actually a common occurrence in the real world.
Calamity weeks have the potential of helping students experience and better understand optimism bias, a cognitive bias where one believes they are unlikely to experience a negative event. Most people who develop business or life plans forgo considerations for negative events, which is a recipe for disaster when negative events actually do happen because a contingency was never developed. Because you also see the calamities happening to other students around you, part of the hope is that students will be incentivized to help each other and build alliances and safety nets to help and protect each other when a calamity strikes.
Failure-based learning is a way to reveal the harsher side of reality and the real world to students in a controlled fashion. Whether it is integrating failure into the curriculum or calamity weeks, these experiences will be incredibly valuable and memorable. It is always easier to remember the times that we have been under pressure.

Potential Negatives of Experiential Learning

With experiential learning, one of the biggest questions might be how it can help develop longer term skills. Real skill proficiency requires time to be spent on it. Traditional education curriculums and courses require students to sit through a term of that content to be able to master it. But with experiential learning where projects seem to jump all over the place and an indefinite schedule, isn’t it likely for students to not spend enough time actually acquiring knowledge?
I would argue that most of the knowledge that students learn is not actually absorbed because it was spoon-fed to them. There was no incentive to keep that in long term memory either because it was not fascinating for the student or because the test was next week and after next week, this topic and knowledge will not be touched upon again until maybe 2 years from now. Are students actually effectively learning or are they only going through the motions of learning? Is learning effective without proper reinforcement?
That is why project-based learning, especially with projects being selected by the students, provide a stronger environment for effective learning. Not only is the choice given to them, completing the project becomes part of their responsibility. If they feel passionate towards the topic, they will work harder and dig deeper into the subject. If not, they might develop a passion for it because they learn enough about it to be proficient and interested in the topic matter, a gateway drug to passion.
Another question is how do you measure progress in experiential learning. One very clear thing is that experiential learning is not based on textbooks and multiple choice questions. This makes it harder to grade in the traditional sense. Instead, I would argue that we should be moving towards better measuring sticks by using a digital portfolio to track progress and feedback and a skills tree to track knowledge acquisition. A digital portfolio is more reflective of the real world, where we typically are using resumes instead of a grade to represent individuals. Honestly, even resumes are not enough because they are not able to showcase an individual properly to potential employers.
At the end of the day, I want to move the target of education away from getting students into college. Instead, I want to target of education to be the individual development of the students.