What is Experiential Education?

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results." — John Dewey

Excerpt from Inspired Educator, Engaged Learner

The experiential approach to education, group work, and social and emotional learning is based on the idea that change and growth take place when people are actively (physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally) involved in their learning rather than just being receivers of information.  This approach emphasizes that learners are shaped by their experiences and effective teaching involves meaningful experiences and interactions with others in an environment that intentionally encourages collaboration, problem-solving, inquiry and reflection.


John Dewey, a prolific twentieth-century educator, psychologist and philosopher was one of many innovators during the progressive movement in education who promoted this philosophy of experience and education—later coined as experiential education.

Dewey believed educators should focus on the “whole person” including one’s physical, emotional and intellectual growth. He felt that “modern education” was ignoring the time-honored and commonsense observation dating back to early Western and Eastern philosophers (Plato, Socrates, and Lao Tzu among others) that people learn most when they are actively involved in their learning and find the material attractive, engaging, and relevant to their real life. He emphasized that learners need to feel a sense of control and ownership over learning situations and should be provided with opportunities to reflect on the learning experiences so they relate, connect and transfer to real-life (Dewey, 1897, 1900, 1938; McDermott, 1981).

He believed that schools should prepare students to be active members of a democratic society. In this approach, learners should be encouraged to experiment and think independently with support and guidance from educators (Dewey, 1916, 1925).

These ideas put forward nearly a century ago are now being supported by scientific studies of the brain and how people learn. In the past few decades, brain-imaging technology has allowed neuroscientists to study the living brain and identify optimal conditions for learning. This has lead to the emerging field of educational neuroscience and the promotion of brain-based teaching strategies.

Brain-based approaches emphasize many of the same principles of experiential education Dewey put forward nearly a century ago such as the value of creating novel and active learning situations and the importance of relevancy, and a sense of choice, control, and ownership in learning. Studies of the brain are showing that physical, emotional, and social involvement in learning increases engagement and retention (Medina, 2014; Willis, 2014). Like experiential educators, proponents of brain-based learning stress the importance of creating opportunities for reflection along with regular feedback so that lessons can be applied to real-life and future learning.

Experiential Facilitation and Teaching

The word “facilitate” is used in a variety of fields to describe the process of guiding, helping, assisting, and creating. Experiential facilitation is an intentional approach to group work based on the idea that people learn and change more from the process of working through problems and finding solutions than from being given answers and solutions by a teacher/counselor/leader. The term facilitator could describe the role of a person in the field of education, counseling, training, or other related area who works to help individuals and groups create positive change, learn new skills and gain new perspectives.


Classroom teachers and trainers might find that thinking of themselves as a “facilitator” or guide in the process of learning and discovery is key to helping learners create ownership over their learning and increasing their effectiveness and satisfaction as an educator.

A benefit of experiential facilitation is that by using a variety of methods and combining action and reflection educators can better differentiate their lessons to reach the varying needs and styles of group members or students they work with. Experiential approaches to teaching and facilitation can enhance your ability to engage and motivate learners, inspire a sense of discovery, instill a desire to learn and help create a positive and supportive learning community.

Brain-Based Learning



The following excerpt from Tips and Tools for the Art of Experiential Group Facilitation explores  some key concepts and current information coming from the emerging field of Educational Neuroscience that support our work as experiential educators and facilitators:


We can help learners change their brains through PRACTICE! One of the most exciting findings in the neuroscience field is that the brain can change much more throughout our lives than scientists previously thought possible, specifically through ongoing practice and experience (Aamodt & Wang, 2011; Willis, 2012). These findings support the value of experiential approaches. They are especially exciting because the parts of the brain that can potentially change through practice are the frontal lobe and the areas that control executive functions such as self-control, decision-making, problem solving, and communication skills, which we focus on in experiential group work (Aamodt & Wang; Diamond, 2010).

The Importance of Active Engagement
Get their attention and keep it! We have so much information coming to our senses that our sensory filters/limbic system only let through some of what we encounter (Medina, 2008; Willis, 2012). We learn what we find emotionally engaging, relevant, meaningful, and interesting. Having a “hook” to engage learners from the very beginning of a class or group session increases attention and retention. Social interaction with others (talking, sharing) releases dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter in the brain, which increases attention, retention, and pleasure in learning (Willis, 2011a, 2013). Verbally discussing material helps learners make connections and synthesize information.

Multiple Pathways to Learning
People learn best when multiple senses are activated. The more methods used by a facilitator to engage participants in learning and practicing information, the more neural networks are activated, and the more ways the brain can store and retrieve information (Wang, 2014; Willis, 2013). Using multiple ways to learn and practice something, (i.e., writing, talking about it, drawing it, playing an active game to review it) strengthens and increases the neuronal connections and pathways to learning and remembering information.

Joy in Learning
Creating emotionally rewarding experiences increases engagement, attention, and
retention. We enhance learning when we cultivate joyful learning—not just having fun, but encouraging a sense of accomplishment, pleasure in learning, positive social connections, and deep interest. These pleasurable experiences increase dopamine and endorphins, thus increasing intrinsic motivation, focus, memory, and positive connections to learning (Willis, 2010b, 2014).

The Power of Using Play to Teach
We learn our most basic life skills through playing safe, following rules, staying within boundaries, creative problem-solving, etc. Play contributes to the development of one of our most important brain functions—the ability to control and modify our behavior to reach a goal. We learn self-regulation and discipline through play (Aamodt & Wang, 2011). A playful approach facilitates learning by arousing attention and increasing sensory gain (Aamodt & Wang; Willis, 2010a). For information on the science that supports harnessing the power of play to teach, see chapter three of Inspired Educator Inspired Learner (Stanchfield, 2015).

Physical Activity and Movement Enhance Learning
Keep participants moving! Neuroscientists have found physical activity positively impacts brain development and function. Exercise increases blood flow thereby improving the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain enhances memory and transfer of information (Chapman et al., 2013). Studies on classroom behavior indicate that with more activity in the
classroom, negative behaviors decrease (Yancey, 2010). Professors at
Stanford University found that walking during class enhanced problem
solving and creativity (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014).

Emotions Impact Learning
Emotions influence what our brain filters—what we pay attention to and take in. It also forms our attitude about learning. When we have a positive emotional connection to an experience, we are more likely to remember it and view the process of learning in a positive way (Immordino-Yang & Faeth, 2010). Lessons related to our interests and real life increase motivation. Conversely, negative emotional connections to an experience such as being put on the spot
or embarrassed can negatively impact learning. In these situations the amygdalae takes over, resulting in a “fight or flight” mode in which people often act out or check out (Willis, 2014). This is important information for facilitators, as we need to carefully consider how we sequence and scaffold lessons in order to create a safe and supportive atmosphere for learning.

Reflection Creates Lasting Lessons

Pick_Postcard_Kit_Reflection_PostcardsModern-day, brain research validates John Dewey’s (1933) belief that reflection helps learners find relevancy and meaning and make connections between their educational experiences and real life situations. Reflective practice plays an important role in the development and strengthening of neuronal pathways to enhance retention and the ability to recall and apply lessons (Willis, 2014). Our brains seek patterns and meaning. Reflection helps our brains make meaning

from experiences and match new information to memories, creating more extensive neural pathways. Connections made between new and old information become long-term memory. Intrinsic motivation is increased when learners can see their progression throughout learning experiences, receive regular feedback, and think about what they did well and what needs improvement (Willis). A recent study released by Researchers from Harvard Business School, HEC Paris, and UNC found individuals in the workplace did subsequently better in future
tasks when they were given time to reflect on their performance (Di Stefano, Gino, Pisano, & Staats, 2014).

Metaphors and symbols used in conversation and reflection stimulate multiple areas of the brain involved in other senses (Lacey, Stilla, & Sathian, 2012), making them effective tools for promoting multiple pathways to learning. Chapter seven of Tips & Tools for the Art of Experiential Group Facilitation explores using metaphoric methods to enhance learning and offers a variety offers techniques to facilitate meaning-making and reflection.

–From Stanchfield, Jennifer. (2016). Tips & Tools for the Art of Group Facilitation 2nd Ed. OKC, OK: Wood N Barnes Publishing


McDermott, J. (1981) The Philosophy of John Dewey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Medina, John. (2014). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School 2nd Ed. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Stanchfield, Jennifer. (2014). Inspired Educator, Inspired Learner: Experiential Brain Activities and Strategies Engage, Motivate, Build Community and Create Lasting Lessons OKC, OK: Wood N Barnes Publishing

Willis, J. (2013). Unlocking student-directed learning and concept acquisition. Lecture conducted at The Learning & the Brain Conference: Engaging 21st Century Minds. Boston, MA.

Wang, Sam & Aamodt, Sandra. (2011). Welcome to Your Child’s Brain. Bloomsbury Publishing.