John Dewey was an advocate for experiential learning, which includes providing engaging learning experiences and interactions for students in a social setting.
Experiential learning is an umbrella term that has encompassed a diverse body of educational theories and practices that share a common core of key principles. Although theories about experiential learning can be found in ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, the term assumed great public prominence in the 1960s with an intense public interest in alternative schools based upon student-centered curriculum and instruction. Experiential learning, since the 1960s, has been generally understood as a systematic approach to applied learning catalyzed by students extracting from various experiences, within and beyond the classroom, meaningful methods promoting lifelong learning. [. . .]
Educators are in general agreement that the term experiential learning began with John Dewey’s 1938 book, Experience and Education, a concise distillation from lectures given late in Dewey’s career as a philosopher of education. It is notable how often this single text is quoted by both proponents and opponents of experiential education nearly seven decades after its publication. Central to Dewey’s understanding of experiential learning are a handful of key principles. These include the importance of offering students quality learning experiences since “experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other” (Dewey, 1938, p. 25). Dewey defines a quality learning experience as one that moves a student forward progressively to learn more and more about a worthwhile subject of inquiry. For Dewey, any educational experience can either distort or block a student’s curiosity, or enhance a student’s intellectual energy so that he or she wants to advance. Sound experiential learning encourages what Dewey labels “the continuity of experience” (p. 28), meaning that a student’s curiosity is constantly fueled by engaging learning experiences so that a student wants to stretch beyond known boundaries. In terms of Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development (discussed in Chapter 5), experiential learning offers students a painless way to stretch their intellectual horizons because they are encouraged to take their experiences as seriously as any assigned textbook or classroom lecture (Vygotsky, 1986). [. . .]
The other key principle underscored in Dewey’s book is the importance of interaction in promoting the value of experiential learning. Learning in Dewey’s world is primarily socially constructed, meaning that learning is an intellectual and emotional energy generated from the quality of interactions between students, and between students and teachers. This view contrasts with a traditionally held view of learning in which knowledge is mined from the repositories of texts and class lectures offered to individual students under a teacher’s authoritarian guidance. The acquisition of knowledge in terms of Dewey’s theory is an active, questing process, an act of community construction from the building materials that established texts and lectures provide (Dewey, 1938). [. . .]
Controversy has always surrounded these cornerstones of Dewey’s definition of “experiential learning” for a variety of reasons. In terms of assessment of student achievement, how can teachers and administrators quantify what is essentially the quality of student learning experiences? Since so much of the history of 20th-century American education has been marked by reliance upon quantitative scoring of academic achievement through standardized testing, there has been a bypassing of the development of reliable and commonly accepted assessment tools to evaluate the educational value of quality, experientially based learning experiences. These assessment issues have also presented complex challenges since experiential learning programs often utilize sites other than schools. For example, in service learning, students often learn how to practice problem-solving skills in environments with marginalized populations in need of social services, or in environmentally degraded areas in need of restoration. These “learning by doing” programs that are based on the premise that the classroom is the world raise the question of who functions as an evaluating teacher of student learning, and how such potentially life-altering learning experiences can be accurately assigned a grade.
Tools for Evaluating Experiential Learning
Although Dewey left the assessment issues surrounding experiential learning largely unanswered, proponents of experiential learning over the decades since Dewey’s work have developed a number of evaluation tools including student-generated portfolios and journals containing evidence of student academic achievement, as well as a variety of oral, written, and computer-based learning projects summarizing student learning from experience. Advocates of experiential learning often acknowledge that achievements realized by students through this approach often resist simple assessment. How can an educator quickly and accurately assess such achievements as independent thinking, flexible and creative thinking, and self-motivation to become a lifelong learner? Could a “one size fits all” standard be developed to assess students in such slippery and complex categories? The results of students undergoing learning from experience are not as subject to instant assessment simply because such learning plants potentialities in students. These potential bits of knowledge might not be manifest in an obvious way for months or years, unlike the achievement of students selecting the right answer to a multiple choice question on an exam based on a textbook reading assignment.
To offer another form of experiential learning as an example of the difficulty of assessment, the last half century in education has witnessed a large number of outdoor environmentally centered learning programs. These range from after-school activities that entail cleaning up an environmentally polluted site to Outward Bound programs emphasizing survival skills in a cross-disciplinary fashion. Students and educators bring a variety of different assumptions to these programs, depending on cultural background and years of experience in urban or rural settings. A program in New York State in the 1970s that offered the experience for inner-city New York City teenagers of learning a variety of survival skills in a mountainous wilderness area was strongly criticized by a number of students and their parents for not adequately preparing students for a learning experience so alien to their previous experiences. This could serve as a reminder that proper timing, setting, and preparation are crucial if experiential learning is to be achieved and retained by students. If a student is not properly prepared in knowing how to encounter a fresh learning experience, and able to integrate it seamlessly with previous learning experiences, then many of the potential advantages of experiential learning will be lost.
As Dewey’s proponents and opponents often admit, Dewey loaded the word “experience” with thick layers of connotative (and occasionally vague) meaning. For example, in some of his writings, Dewey insists that students need to have learning experiences that carry much of the tradition of the accumulated wisdom of Western civilization. It has been debated whether such an idealized view of tradition-laden personal experience is realistically commonly found among most students. Further, students might not always be conscious of whether a learning experience is immediately interconnected to the Western canon of thought. Even more challenging is to be aware of whether the learner has thoroughly extracted all that could or should be learned from an experience. Thus, the need exists for teaching students how to comprehensively work with the multiple, and often paradoxically conflicting, meanings attached to any learning experience. Learning how to interpret experience wisely calls for students highly motivated to get to the essence, the essential gist of what a life experience means, and that might be heavily dependent upon an intellectual and emotional maturity many students need to cultivate. [. . .]