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

The experiential approach to education and group work 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.  John Dewey, an educator, psychologist and philosopher in the early 20th century who was one of many innovators during the progressive movement in education 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 believed learners should be encouraged to experiment and think independently.

John Dewey felt a time-honored and common sense belief was being left behind in modern education: that people learn most when they are actively involved in their learning and find the material relevant and attractive in some way. He emphasized that learners need to feel a sense of control over learning situations and should be provided with opportunities to reflect on the learning experiences so they relate, connect and transfer to real life. He believed that schools should prepare students to be active members in a democratic society.  In this approach learners should be encouraged to experiment and think independently with support and guidance from educators.

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.

These brain-based approaches emphasize many of the same tenets John Dewey put forward nearly a century ago such as the value of combining physical action and reflection in learning, giving learners choice and control over their learning, and the importance of creating novel and relevant learning situations. Studies of the brain and learning are showing that physical, emotional and social involvement in learning increases engagement and retention (Sousa ,2005, Medina, 2008, Willis, 2010). Like experiential educators, proponents of brain-based learning stress the importance of creating opportunities for student reflection and regular feedback from peers as well as teachers 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 facilitation 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, corporate training or other related area who works to help individuals and groups create positive change, learn new skills and gain new perspectives.

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

Jen Stanchfield Classroom Community Building

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.

For “Principles of Experiential Education” visit the Inspired Educator Blog.

–From Tips & Tools The Art of Experiential Group Facilitation, Jen Stanchfield 2007


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

Medina, John. (2008). Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Sousa, David. (2006). How the Brain Learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Stanchfield, Jennifer (2007) Tips & Tools for the Art of Group Facilitation OKC, OK: Wood-n-Barnes Publishing

Willis, Judy. (2006). Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD