Experiential Learning and Technology

Experiential learning is not a new concept in education. It at least dates back to John Dewey, a celebrated proponent of education and student-centered approaches at the beginning of the 20th century. Dewey advocated for student-centered pedagogy because the student experience is what drives all learning. Later in the century, Jean Piaget introduced the theory of constructivism further supporting this approach. Students are not blank slates, to be filled with knowledge by teacher lectures and explanations. Instead, students develop their own understanding over time forming what Piaget termed schema. Each new experience can challenge a students’ current understanding and lead to the development of new understandings.

During the second half of the 19th century when many high schools were first created, schedules and fixed classroom spaces were used to bring structure to a complex school environment. That structure allows the school to function on a daily basis and effectively manage the use of limited resources namely: space, time, and teachers. Despite this, teachers are still able to creatively find ways to engage students in meaningful experiences in their classrooms. In fact the predictability of the schedule and spaces can improve opportunities for creativity. Once students and teachers get used to the flow of the school day, the transitions become routine and are accomplished without thought. That frees the mind for more meaningful work. This is similar to how in design thinking constraints are seen as opportunities. Effective teachers leverage the stability of the school structures as well as their own classroom routines to create the magical experiences that make learning memorable and powerful for students.

Teachers also realize that many of the experiences students need lie beyond the walls of the classroom. Sometimes these experiences are cleverly packaged and brought into a classroom-designed activity. Other times teachers take students out of the classroom on a trip to take advantage of the world around us. However, both of these approaches have their limitations. When out-of-classroom experiences are brought into the classroom they can lose the richness that made the experience so valuable in the first place. On the flip side, when students go on trips the lack of the dependable classroom structure makes it hard to be creative and spontaneous in leading the experience. Typically the experience is guided by inflexible trip sheets and preset schedules.

Disruptive technology has become a buzzword in the media and particularly around education. Sometimes it is presented in conflict with the teaching profession. Some have argued for technology as a replacement for teachers. As a career educator, that model does not make any sense to me. The guidance of teachers is more important than it has ever been in our schools. Students crave the mentorship and insights of their teachers.

However, the power of technology is to disrupt the limitations of space, schedules, and the school building to free the learning process. Learning can happen anywhere, at any time, and in any context. What we need are powerful tools that support new structures for learning. Experiential learning will continue to be the driving force behind effective instruction, but with technology, the teacher can effectively facilitate that learning in the classroom and beyond the classroom walls. The technology can augment and even take the place of schedules, classroom spaces, and learning routines in bringing structure and predictability to a wide range of learning experiences. For example, on a trip, a teacher can facilitate the same level of creativity and spontaneity as happens in a classroom-based lesson by scaffolding the experience through a flexible mobile app instead of a paper worksheet. So let’s redefine disruption in education. Experiential learning will continue to be at the core of educational innovation as it always has been. But we will disrupt some of the logistical barriers that have prevented us from fully realizing the visions of Dewey and Piaget in creating transformative learning spaces for our students.

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Greg Benedis-Grab

Greg Benedis-Grab

exploring the intersection of coding, education and disciplinary knowledge