I’m just back from the ISEEN Summer Institute on Experiential Education in the classroom. After four days of thinking deeply about teaching experientially, I’m motivated to share some thoughts here.

The science cohort included bio (left), physics (center), and chem (right) teachers.

The Wikipedia: Experiential education article gives a great overview. Though experiential education (EE) has become synonymous with outdoor education these days, I think EE can be more general-purpose.

The ISEEN Summer Institute brought together about 60 classroom teachers from the US, Canada, and Hong Kong.

Also at the Institute were arts and math teachers.

You might remember experiential education and John Dewey from your history of education course. He’s the guy who started the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and wrote…a lot…about education reform. More recently, David Kolb extended Dewey’s work.

Kolb says that to gain genuine knowledge from an experience,

  • The learner must be willing to be actively involved in the experience;
  • The learner must be able to reflect on the experience;
  • The learner must possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience; and
  • The learner must possess decision making and problem solving skills in order to use the new ideas gained from the experience.

These requirements form the Kolb Cycle for Experiential Learning, pictured below:

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 11.11.42 AM

Later, the Association of Experiential Education (AEE) suggested The Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities.

At the institute, I was challenged to demonstrate Experiential Ed in action with a classroom activity. My choice was pinhole photography because our location was beautiful and sun-drenched.

  • Concrete Experience: I started my class off with camera obscuras built out of toilet paper tubes, foil, and parchment paper. Even outside the world of experiential ed, many of us are putting the experience first — it’s our hook.
  • Reflective Observation: Reflection is the means by which a student makes sense of their experience. There are so many ways to reflect, including journals, portfolios, role plays, games, model construction, and discussion. Taking a page from the Math Forum, I asked the teachers what they noticed and what they wondered. We all noticed the image was upside down. We also noticed it was hard to see the image unless the viewing screen was dark.
  • Abstract Conceptualization: According to Saul McLeod, “reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing abstract concept.” You can conceptualize through lecture, experimentation (a form of further experience), solving problem sets, etc. Based off of the notice and wonder comments, I showed everyone how the camera obscura works. In a traditional classroom, this stage of the cycle is the most prominent and almost always precedes any experiences (such as labs) students might have.
  • Active Experimentation: According to Saul McLeod, this is when “the learner applies them [abstract concepts] to the world around them to see what results.” We built pinhole cameras, took, and developed photos. The teachers were encouraged to experiment with exposure time. The amazing results are below.


Want to know more? I put together this framework for planning experiential ed lessons alongside the pinhole lesson.

Sunrise in Santa Fe.