What does it mean to Live Your Education?

Experiential education is something of a buzzword in education, but is it another fad? Is it fluff? What are its origins, and what evidence exists for its added value? While many answers and threads to still more interesting questions can be found through the Association for Experiential Education  and the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network, (ISEEN), I’ll provide a brief overview of experiential education here (Part 1), and talk about its practice as seen through the eyes of one of its committed practitioners, Midland School (Part 2).

Experiential education’s earliest roots go back to a time before it even had a name, because in essence, it existed before there was such a thing as “school.” In humanity’s deep past, lessons that mattered for survival were learned through direct experience; moreover, future survival depended upon recalling such lessons and responding accordingly. One can envision agile responses to, say the need for procuring water, building fires, or avoiding predators – learned and honed over lifetimes on the savannah or any of Earth’s hospitable biomes. Such lessons were undoubtedly experiential in nature.

I admit that these scenarios are so far removed from our modern lives as to seem ludicrous, but I start here for a purposeful reason. We need to ground a data point for what it means for education to matter. At its most elemental, education that matters links a person to a skill set necessary for survival. Thankfully today, basic survival needs are met by membership within a community, and thriving depends upon the worth of one’s contributions to that community, so it’s worth looking at one’s role within a community. We’ll come back to that later.

American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey put words, theory, and practice behind the ideas of experiential education in the early 20th century in a series of Kappa Delta Pi lectures later published in a short book Experience and Education (Touchstone, 1997). He asserted that in order to be educative, experience must not be arbitrary or episodic; rather, it must have “connection with further experience (27).” He believed the relationship between teacher and student should be “a co-operative enterprise, not a dictation (72)” and similarly, that the soundest point in the philosophy of progressive education is its emphasis on “the participation of the learner…in the learning process (67).” In other words, in order to be meaningful, education must have relevance and direct application to each student’s life, and teachers and students must work together in applying past learning to new experiences. This involves collectively choosing future experiences and responding wisely to them. John Dewey was clear about education’s end game: “The most important attitude that can be formed is that of a desire to go on learning (48).”

Dewey’s prescriptions for meaningful education were an antidote to schools that filled kids with facts while failing to convey the relevance of facts to their survival, let alone to their thriving. At best, schools might impart a set of skills useful to citizenship or to the work place; at worse, they might just as likely cut kids off from career paths or higher social strata by emphasizing what they don’t know. In any case, schools that teach by dictation don’t calibrate isolated facts to lessons that build student identity or life experience.

Dewey’s work laid the theoretical foundation for the Experiential Education Cycle as outlined at a recent ISEEN Conference by ISEEN’s executive director, Jess Barrie. The Cycle’s steps are:

  1. Concrete Experience
    • learning from life
  2. Reflective Observation about the experience
    • processing what happened
  3. Abstract Conceptualization
    • processing: “So what?”
    • figuring out what went wrong, what went right, and what it means
  4. Active Experimentation
    • planning: “Now what?”
    • creating a basis for change that incorporates what we learned; transferring our knowledge to a new experience

The definition offered by the Association for Experiential Education is in tune with this cycle whereby, “educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection…” and further links experiential teaching methodologies to an outcome, which is “to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities.”  Ahh, now we’re talking; a fundamentally important point of education is “to develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.” In other words, the point is to see ourselves as part of a community whose values we understand and to which we have something to offer by way of tangible skills that have been reinforced through school.

Geology Dip and Strike calculations

I’m sure the following metaphor from athletics will resonate with boarding schools that value athletics alongside academics, because in our schools the same adults often fill roles as both teachers and coaches. At Midland, we talk about meaningful activities as ones in which students get to “play the game.” In an athletic game, the outcome is not pre-ordained, certain kids can emerge as leaders or keystones, everyone is counted on, and what each player does matters to the outcome. In a game or a race, the judge is impartial: either the six- or eight-minute mile is broken, or it isn’t. Truth-be-told, in conventional (that is, non-experiential) classrooms, students are not active players. They do their assignments, and they get graded. But the grade isn’t tied to a lasting outcome or product. It prepares them for the next unit or the next grade level, and “ultimately,” for college. But what about for life?

Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain and Speaking of Boys, writes about “the biggest problem facing American youth, which is uselessness,” or the perception that kids do not have much to contribute, or that their work is simply not valued by society. He writes that “workbooks, homework, grades, the whole school catastrophe, none of it has any meaning for a wider society,” (Thompson, 274) yet students are graded on it. Sports can provide an antidote because in athletics, kids actually get to play the game, rather than be passive receivers of lessons. Being an active player launches kids out of the demoralizing cloud of uselessness. It offers an avenue of engagement for all kids, even the iconic kid sitting at a school desk in bewilderment, asking, “but what does this have to do with me?”

Thus, it’s a useful metaphor – playing the game – that reveals something about the nature of experiential education. The metaphor gets at the fundamental difference between player and spectator. Players are active participants and stakeholders.

But does it tell us enough – or anything, really – about the application or deeper added value of experiential education? Is it really just a game?


Many experiential education programs put outdoor education at their cores, and it’s not hard to see why. The results are so tangible. The impartial judge is nature, and there are real consequences for failing to, say wear rain gear in the rain. Teachers act as guides who help develop skill sets – for everything from planning and packing to navigating rugged terrain to fitness to safety. The skill sets are developmentally appropriate, meaning they can be mastered through trial and error (aka the experiential learning cycle), and when they are mastered, the results are deep. As competency is attained, students build character, confidence, and identity. Students are able to tap into wells of internal motivation by learning their own strengths. And the benefits expand outward; nature is not only the impartial judge, she is the reward. Alongside building a sense of identity, students develop a sense of place, and ultimately a sense of stewardship.

Other experiential education programs – for equally compelling reasons – put service learning at their core, with focal points that can be local or global, with results that likewise deepen relationships between individuals and communities.

Midland School’s experiential educational model includes both outdoor education and service learning. Midland is unique – and hopefully instructive to others – in the extent to which experiential learning permeates our entire curricular and co-curricular programs. Perhaps the best way into Midland’s ethic is an quote from the school’s founder, Paul Squibb, as he reflected on the school’s founding:

In 1931 we vaguely envisioned a much more conventional school, in which the boys would be conventionally shielded from worry about rain and cold and water supply and disposal of ashes, trash, sewage, garbage, the hazards of fire and flood, the provision of light and fire-wood and shade trees and playgrounds and of funds for sports. Instead of these real battles, we envisioned the conventional sham battles of teams against teams and coaches against coaches to furnish the extracurricular zest to the school’s life. (Dominion Over Palm and Pine, 9)

Now, there’s something you don’t hear every day. It’s starting to sound a tad like survival on the savannah. Midland’s founder saw the value of athletic programs, but was so radical as to call them sham battles, meaning that a community’s needs are not met by the outcome of an athletic competition. While Midland is not as austere as it was during its founding at the height of the Depression, it has intentionally held onto the core values of thrift, distinguishing needs from wants, and working as a community to meet basic needs more than just about any other school has, all-the-while giving prominence to a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. Let’s see what Midland can teach us about experiential education. At its heart, it is about lessons and actions that matter.


Dewey, John. 1938. Experience and Education. Kappa Delta Pi. First Touchstone Edition 1997.
Lewis, Gary. 2001. Dominion Over Palm and Pine: Paul Squibb and his Students. Artful Codger Press. Kingston, Ontario.
Thompson, Michael. 2000. Speaking of Boys. Ballantine Books. New York.