Trend Lines: The Evolution of Experiential Education

Spring 2023

By Lauren Kelley, Shoshanna Sumka

This article appeared as "The Next Evolution" in the Spring 2023 issue of Independent School.

A lot has changed in schools and in the world in the 10 years since Independent School magazine published its Spring 2013 issue devoted to “The Rise of Experiential Education” and put the pedagogical practice on the map. In that time, experiential education—in which educators engage students through direct experience, reflection, analysis, and experimentation—has proven to be essential in our schools; it has grown, matured, and evolved into a widely accepted practice at the heart of many independent schools. It values personal connection to deep and applied learning and inspires growth in both students and educators. 

Experiential education isn’t—and has never been—about getting soft and fluffy or divorced from core content or subject disciplines. It delivers unique academic depth. As then-editor Michael Brosnan noted in that 2013 issue, “by connecting learning to life, engaging students in their local communities and connecting them to global communities, linking disciplines to each other, encouraging students to make things, and setting them loose to solve real-world problems, we are helping students find that essential spark not only to build their academic résumés, but also to be creative, caring, capable, engaged human beings.”

In experiential education, we see joyful faces, engaged and challenged students, whole child well-being, belonging communities, and interdisciplinary transformational teaching. These are the educational practices that deliver holistic, relevant, and unforgettable experiences students refer to as the cornerstones of their educational journey. 

Visionary scholars like John Dewey and David Kolb, who reminded us that we “don’t learn from experience, [but from] reflecting on experience,” were onto something, and their thoughts still feel affirming and resonant. But, as essential as the practice has become, we’re at an inflection point and need to be thoughtful about how experiential education evolves. Today, educators must assess, evaluate, and reckon with what has been out of sight and unconsidered in our practices and programs. 

A New Lens

These past 10 years have repeatedly affirmed that we must stop eclipsing, denying, overlooking the wisdom of people of diverse backgrounds. We have been missing important insights and practices in our pedagogical conversation because we held the mic up to just one voice for too long. Today, we know there’s rich wisdom in the thought leaders of Indigenous communities, Black and brown communities, queer thinkers, and feminist scholars, among others. 

Though coined in 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, and her writing on identity and personhood has importantly complicated all that is understood about the human experience. People have multiple identities, and each of those identities sit in important relationship to one another. While societies and industries (and even academic disciplines) have been designed in silos, humans are holistic beings. 

If we overlay what we have learned from Crenshaw and others in the practice of holistic engagement, we start to understand that we’ve been missing something important in our design of experiential programming. Schools have been building programs in isolation. Our social-emotional curriculum must overlap with our diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and they all must coexist within our experiential programming. We ask students to show up as their whole, vulnerable selves, and we should be engaging all these levels of their personhood.  

One great example lives within place-based programming, once romantically agrarian and necessarily rural. Facilitators asked students to develop a sense of place under a tree, looking out on the hills, while listening to the whisperings of Robert Frost and exploring their “internal landscape.” However, our ecologically focused programs lacked layers of social and historical context. If educators’ goals are to encourage students to arrive more fully in their place and take responsibility for its enduring sustainability, they must understand and own their positionality, not just the features of their physical environment. The new lens insists that educators add a critical layer to ensure students are invited to reinhabit their communities with both the sensitivity of an ecologist and the critical eye of a social scientist. 

Such transformation has been happening within the many fields that fall within the greater umbrella of experiential programming. Multidimensional, nuanced versions of programming that were once flatter in scope are now emerging, and we’ve recognized that a narrower approach has caused harm in students and partner communities.  

Not long ago, and still today, schools were creating programs whereby students were encouraged to “help” the “less fortunate” without considering the societal structures that caused such inequalities in the first place. In recent years, there’s been a shift away from saviorism-inspired community service programs to justice-focused community engagement initiatives. Such programs seek to build partnerships that are bilateral in design and mutually beneficial with objectives based on understanding rather than hours served.  

Similarly, over the years, students across the country participated in backpacking and other outdoor programs without taking into consideration the melting glaciers and the overlooked Native American history. Now, many schools are merging sustainability programming with outdoor education while also layering questions of justice and access into their essential questions. What emerges is a far more nuanced and complex experience of the natural world, both its past and its future.  

Global travel programs from a decade ago highlighted images of students in quaint villages hugging orphans, painting school walls, and unknowingly appropriating sacred cultural traditions. Students traveled to the far corners of the earth, but programs didn’t consider the impact on hosts, the climate, or the lessons implicitly taught to students regarding “other” cultures. Today, schools and organizations that are leading the global education movement understand that trips should be grounded in explicit ethical travel standards and built around clear educational objectives related to intercultural fluency in order to reinforce the competencies of a global citizen.

Ultimately, schools have always been in the practice of crafting transformation. But today they understand it’s not just about the students but our world. Perhaps more honestly, it’s this: Schools are in the work of evolving our world through our students. Experiential educators are always looking to achieve transference—that palpable sense that a program is “coming home” and shifting the way students understand themselves and their world. Schools are working to equip students with the tools to shift their communities toward a more beautiful, just, and sustainable future—one they can own, celebrate, and invite others to join.  

Leading from the Core

Schools must reevaluate the educational objectives of experiential programs to ensure there’s a wider and deeper understanding of the skills they want to develop and the understandings they want to inspire. This may challenge schools, asking communities to reckon with the lines consciously or unconsciously drawn around experiential programs. However, such intersectional power comes when environmental educators begin partnering with DEI coordinators. It becomes possible when social-emotional learning practitioners engage with global educators, and classroom teachers feel empowered to integrate course content with the experiences happening in ancillary programs. If the goal is to invite students to explore with their intersectional identities and the intersectional relevance of their experiences, schools must be brave enough to wrestle with the intersectional nature of this work.  

This work may push educators to question their experience and skills. Some may feel ill-equipped to build programs of another nature or lead students into areas of inquiry they have yet to explore themselves. But experiential educators have always known that the goal was never to be the expert. Instead, they understand that the work is to shape experiences in which students lead and thereby discover for themselves what there is to learn and what work must be done. When educators let students lead, they emerge as engaged, authentic community members in a world that will be all too soon their own.

This is the reasoning for perhaps the most important shift in the independent school landscape as it relates to experiential education: Programs are no longer considered optional add-ons. Increasingly, schools are including such programs in their list of graduation requirements, demonstrating that experiential programming instills—sometimes more effectively than standard courses—something essential to the education schools hope to deliver. In this way, schools are bringing experiential education pedagogy from the sidelines to the heart of their curriculum. In the next 10 years, we expect to see schools build whole academic programs around interdisciplinary (intersectional) programs that assess students on their ability to develop core competencies rather than perform on traditional pen and pencil tests. It’s time for our schools to deliver transformational, holistic learning rather than passive consumption of information.  

Ten years ago, educators in our field were more concerned with the power of experiential education in its ability to shift and transform an individual. Today, they are returning to the mission of modern education. Education has always been about the future of our society, our communities. We cannot have democracy without an informed and engaged citizenry. Schools can return to the power of this work by bravely designing programs that aim to inspire global citizenry. At the core of all experiential education is valuing humans, identities, and the environment. Experiential education works to engage participants to be active global citizens working for a more just, equitable, and sustainable world where everyone belongs.
Lauren Kelley

Lauren Kelley is head of upper school at Cascades Academy in Bend, Oregon.

Shoshanna Sumka

Shoshanna Sumka is executive director at ISEEN, which seeks to lead, inform, connect, expand, and steward transformational experiential teaching and learning throughout an interconnected world.