Rescuing Education

We know what emergency services do: they rescue those who are stranded or injured or caught in life-threatening situations. Kurt Hahn, one of the past century’s progenitors of experiential education in schools, insisted that students in his schools be responsible for such emergency services. At Salem College in Germany, students were responsible for firefighting; at Gordonstoun in Scotland, sea rescue; and at Atlantic College in Wales, sea, beach, and cliff rescue. 

Hahn referred to the service rendered in rescuing lives as “the moral equivalent of war.” What did he mean by this gnomic phrase? Quite simply, he was fascinated by the tight bonds of fellowship and total support that the dangers of war can engender in soldiers of the same side. He wanted to preserve that feeling, but cleanse it of the trappings of combat. So the service of rescue, of saving lives, became a moral way in which to nurture the deep dependency and togetherness that flourish under fire. “The passion of rescue,” Hahn would say, “reveals the highest dynamic of the human soul.”

Service is an obvious example of experiential education — and experiential education, in its widest sense, is becoming a needed emergency service in this world. We need more experiential learning in order to restore a balance to school learning that, perhaps of sad necessity, has become more syllabus-driven and more test-focused. Of course, there is a place for both academic learning and experiential learning in schools. And each should complement the other. Right now, however, the urgency of the emergency demands to be underscored. Doing things, often outdoors and in groups, is a vital antidote to childhood and adolescent lifestyles that are increasingly virtual and insular. Some of the great challenges of our times, such as environmental degradation and the cultural clashes in globalization, need to be experienced to be fully grasped. In cultures in the post-industrial world that are by and large risk-averse, getting one’s hands dirty in outdoor activities engages the brain in novel and sustaining ways. The culture of learning in such schools and societies needs to be rescued.

The Definition

The term “experiential education” can be — and has been — applied to a wide range of educational programming. My working definition of experiential education: it promotes learning through direct experience, often outside the classroom, at times not directly related to academic courses, frequently not graded, and sometimes not mediated through language or academic discourse and practice. 

Its roots are often traced to a saying commonly attributed to Confucius around 450 BC (although it more likely belongs to the Confucian philosopher Xunzi): “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.” More recently (1984), educational theorist David Kolb updated this insight, saying, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” Many other dicta similarly describe the deep learning that occurs through direct experience, through doing.

I find it useful to work with a three-part typology: (1) experiential learning that takes place in the classroom, through the immediate apprehension of what is imaginatively shown rather than told; (2) experiential learning that occurs outside the classroom, but is related directly to the discourse of the classroom, such as field studies or focused trips; and (3) experiential learning that boils down to the work of doing something, such as growing food or learning a sport (or participating in sea and cliff rescue), which has a value in and of itself and is not academic. All three, but especially the last, can act as an open doorway to an expansive learning experience. The following quote from a student who has worked at the farm at my school — The Hotchkiss School (Connecticut) — shows precisely, and experientially, what I mean:

I always thought that the meat that appeared on our tables was so different from live animals I’ve seen and I’ve never truly made the connection from animals to killing and then to them being produced as meat. After experiencing the chickens being killed firsthand I feel that I finally understand the true gravity of ending the life of an animal and I think that unless one gets to witness or take part in the killing of an animal for food one will spend his or her whole life in ignorance of what it really means to kill an animal for food.
And this one, from another student, sums up the urgency and the beauty of experiential learning in a world populated by young people suffering from nature deficit disorder:
These lessons that I have learned through my experience will forever stay with me. Now, even when I simply walk around the campus, I appreciate the beauty of nature every second. When I talk about nature and my experience with the farm, I instantly smile and get excited about talking about nature and its wonders.

The Background 

Writer and educator John Dewey is a central name in the annals of experiential educators. Although he never uses the word “experiential” in his 1938 classic, Experience and Education, he writes about his topic in ways that underscore experience and are strikingly contemporary: Progressive education is based on experience but experience-based learning can occur in traditional classrooms; experience can lead both to educative and to “miseducative” outcomes; educative experience is characterized by continuity and interaction; and it is important to select experiences that build on one another — a curriculum of experiences — so as to move away from the merely episodic. 

Another key proponent of experiential education is, as noted, Kurt Hahn. For Hahn — who founded Outward Bound in addition to a number of experiential-based schools and colleges — dedicating his life to this work was simple, so discouraged was he by the standard teaching practices of his day. As he said (and felt in his bones), “The destiny of character takes place outside the classroom.”

More recent and more theoretical thinkers have tried to organize experiential education in connected stages. According to David Kolb, in his many musings on the topic, experience leads to reflection, then to conceptualizing, and then to action. Action is a critically important part of the cycle. In the area of community service, concern with this full sequence has led to an emphasis on service learning, not just service in and of itself.

Systemic overviews of educational practice, within and across nations, tend to neglect experiential education. They miss the mark. For instance, I have never heard U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak in any national debate about this topic. And the various McKinsey studies that I have seen, ranging across the international spectrum, omit experiential education completely. Test taking and test results take center stage.

When a broad overview does mention experiential learning, we need to take note. This one comes from the report published in 1996, commissioned by UNESCO, on education in the 21st century. The international commission, chaired by French economist Jacques Delors, called its challenging and exciting document Learning: The Treasure Within. The Delors Report, as it is commonly known, identified four general “pillars” of learning. These include the following (with my parenthesis as a gloss): 
Learning to know (cognition)
Learning to do (experiential)
Learning to live together (social)
Learning to be (existential)

The ordering of these four is important: cognition, applied action, community with and through others, and then life — full, human life — described in the Delors Report as learning “so as better to develop one’s personality and be able to act with ever greater autonomy, judgment, and personal responsibility.” This framework clearly identifies both the place and the value of the experiential.

Personal, autobiographical stories usually provide a more compelling background. My two stories, chosen from many, both come from the early 1990s when I worked at Maru a Pula School in Gaborone, Botswana. This school has to be one of the most remarkable on the African continent. Service is engrained in the ethos of the school, and was so from its inception in 1972, at a time when service was hardly even considered elsewhere. One internal service task took place on Monday afternoons, for about an hour, when students and teachers cleaned the school buildings. I remember well an encounter with a dapper gentleman, a prospective student’s parent, who was sent to see me in the classroom where I was sweeping. When he saw me cleaning the room — the principal of the school working in this way with students — he said to me: “This is why I want my son to come to your school. Too much is done for him in his current school. He does not do enough.”

The second story took place outdoors. During the more than 10 years that I spent at Maru a Pula, I set up a bush campus on the banks of the Limpopo River — an eight-hour drive from the city campus. Maru a Pula established the remote campus for weeklong courses in environmental education. In a camp 10 yards from the river, with hippos and crocodiles sunning themselves and elephants occasionally walking around the tents, this was indeed an experience. Some schools in the United States and the United Kingdom sent groups of students to the campus. I remember well an incident involving a redoubtable head of a girls’ school in England, as I showed her what we did on site. During an eventful day, she, her husband, my son, and I had to seek refuge in a baobab tree from a small herd of elephants. When they walked away, and we descended, she turned to me and said, in plummy tones: “I want my girls to experience the sense of danger that I have just felt.” Experiential, indeed. The next year, the girls came, they experienced, and they learned things they will likely never forget.

The Questions

Schools, especially our more narrowly academic independent schools, that try to introduce or develop experiential education opportunities often face severe questioning from faculty. Here are some typical examples, with my suggested responses.

Is experiential education faddish and ephemeral? 

My answer is most definitely no. We have been doing it for decades in athletics and, at boarding schools, in residential life. We know that the skills and lessons learned in those areas are indelible — and invaluable. More contemporary experiential opportunities are merely an extension of that tradition. Practicing service, working on the land, living in different cultures near and far — all these and other experiential opportunities add to the knowledge gained not just in the mind but also in the heart. Through doing, learning goes even deeper than anything taught in our classrooms, and more radically transforms students. 

What is the value of experiential education in relation to regular academic work? Does it enhance scholastic learning?

Without question, experiential learning enhances scholastic learning. This type of learning builds confidence, encourages risk taking, reduces the fear of failure, gives oxygen to collaboration, nurtures imagination, promotes problem solving, allows reverie, and grows a taproot from which scholastic learning flowers.

How do we move away from the episodic and build a continuity of experience? 

Each school will have its own answer to this important query. At The Hotchkiss School, one way that we have achieved this is by introducing class themes to each grade level, starting with the environmental for freshmen, and then working through the intercultural to service and, finally, to citizenship and leadership for seniors. To give one example, our freshmen work on the recently acquired school farm, which is about a 20-minute walk from the main campus. When walking there two years ago with a student who had just arrived at school (we were going to dig potatoes with the whole class), she told me that she had never left the city before coming to Hotchkiss. She reveled in the farm experience, and learned from it. Each of these Class Themes entails learning by doing and complements the discussion and theoretical input occuring through the year. 

How do we find the time for it? 

We have always done so with athletics and residential life. So one answer, for boarding schools, is to build a wider range of possibilities into those two slots in the schedule. Day schools can focus on expanding the options during the time traditionally dedicated to athletics. Move away from a sole focus on athletics to a genuine cocurricular set of offerings that includes athletics or experiential education. In addition, appreciate the greater range of options that the experiential education lens brings to the classroom. Open up the conversation with the faculty, and you’ll open up time.

Am I qualified for this?

Yes, at the most fundamental level, we all are. Training will be required, however, for expeditionary and related skills. The school will need to provide this training.

Why now?

Because this is a deep form of learning that we have largely forgotten in many schools, because it adds greater complexity to our total understanding of the mystery of learning, and because it is enjoyable and fun.

The Journey

Schools that want to make progress in either introducing or extending experiential education would benefit from observing the following:

• Encourage questioning along the lines of the previous section, and have clear, concise answers at the ready.

• Remember that music, debate, theater, math competitions, and the like are viable experiential offerings to place alongside athletics.

• Review all courses and curricula through the experiential lens, and do not forget the first two categories of my three-part typology — that experiential learning can take place both outside and inside the classroom.

• Offer administrative positions to exponents of experiential education in the school. At Hotchkiss, we created two senior positions a few years ago: an assistant head of school, director of global initiatives; and an assistant head of school, director of environmental initiatives. We wished to make a bold statement, and attract the most talented people. We succeeded in both endeavors.

• Let the students loose, and let them lose themselves in the experiential world. They will soon convince the adults in the community of the learning that takes place there.
Malcolm McKenzie

Malcolm McKenzie is head of The Hotchkiss School (Connecticut). Before coming to Hotchkiss in July 2007, he had been principal of Atlantic College, the founding school of the United World Colleges, for seven years. This article is derived from his address at the 2012 Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) Conference, hosted by The Hotchkiss School. This piece contains a few minor overlaps with an article that he published recently in the Journal of Research in International Education.