The Difference Between Experiential Teaching and Experiential Learning

A very well planned lesson engages the students in active pursuits. In a way the facilitator explains the rules of today’s game. Here’s one I called the cave. (A teacher’s desk sits against the wall with open side facing out, the students in 3/4 circle around it.) A volunteer accepts sitting in this “meditation cave.” The facilitator moves some shoe boxes into the center of the room. He asks a student if she will put one of the boxes in front of the desk. And a second student to put another and then the next etc., until a wall seems to be building up and the cave dweller gradually disappears from sight.

Almost always someone would object to this practice at some point. Sometimes violently. Why are we doing this? What’s the point? One time with a ferocious kick the boxes went all over the place, students ducking from the debris.

Responses were offered at the time as the class realized that the game had become something else. Some time later, after what had happened had settled in, the class was called upon to discuss and reflect upon the matter and their spontaneous responses and perhaps participation in building the wall.

What did you learn from this experience? we frequently asked. Of course it was a set up. We knew what we were doing. They did not. This was experiential teaching. But reflecting on the experience and questioning one’s response to it prompted experiential learning. And that was the point. We too build walls, the shoe boxes just made it visual.

Of course in real life we engage in a variety of experiences. We travel. We ski. We build friendships. Have adventures. We try to learn more about some things. We go to a fancy restaurant or cook a meal. Or plant a crop. We study actively. We read for a role in a play. Almost any active engagement, whether intentional or accidental provides what the teacher used to provide. And if we have learned to learn, we take some time for reflection later and again still later.

Once the student has learned to do this, we have made ourselves effectively irrelevant. “More self-support replaces outside helping.” (Fritz Perls.) Congratulations to us all.

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