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 Mechanics Of Experiential Education In K12 
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Post Mechanics Of Experiential Education In K12
by: Steu Mann

Today, competent and competitive businesses don’t succeed using ideas or technology from yesterday. K12 schools are no different. The makeup of classrooms varies considerably from the past: students are digital, a growing number express restless behaviors, and class sizes swell as schools struggle with shrinking budgets. Experiential education, as I used it teaching high school science, is an excellent method to combat lethargic learning behaviors and support students in building critical thinking skills, i.e., lifelong learner habits.

Experiential education (EE) naturally occurs during designed student collaboration. This type of learning collaboration, as I’ll define and discuss later, requires that specific characteristics be met. Absent are long periods of valuable classroom time spent listening to numbing teacher lectures, doing rote worksheet assignments, or suffering through stifling segments of reading flashy textbooks. EE, as I found out in my classroom, engages students – even those with a history of being disruptive and/or non-participatory. EE percolates with the chemistry of student individuality and perceptions; it integrates learning academics with building social skills.

There are two ideal settings for EE in the K12 age group. One is an organized outdoor setting. A camp offering certain types of EE activities is a good example. The second type is a K12 classroom and this can also be a field trip outdoors. In both environments there must be opportunities to perform designed student collaboration activities, which have five phases that I’ll discuss later.

Getting experiential education right

Most importantly, students need to be onboard with using EE. This can sound redundant, but to the degree that teachers struggle with classroom management, chances are they will have struggle with EE too. Why? EE shifts the majority of activity from the teacher to the student. The teacher takes on a role of moderator instead of a wise sage. In a classroom where there is no mutual respect between the teacher and students, there will be little cooperation from students – much less curiosity about learning.

From my experience, and what I understand from interacting with other K12 teachers, there is little chance EE can sprout in a classroom where the teacher; 1) doesn’t consistently define and enforce clear processes and procedures, 2) neglects to praise student behaviors as much as or more than the attention paid to disruptive behavior, and 3) lacks the skill to thoughtfully steer a group or individual discussion using questions to accomplish specific learning objectives. With the proper teacher commitment and pedagogy, the “trouble maker” students break the mold as they dive into learning and work efficiently with other students. I’ve had that pleasurable experience more than once with my very own eyes and ears.

Accomplishing EE requires they right type of lesson plan, but I want to offer a note of caution to teachers. It’s not prudent to throw your class into a heavy duty EE session when you are introducing this type of student collaboration work. You know your students – their strengths and weaknesses – in academics and in social abilities. You recognize the aggressive individuals, those that are timid, and those that are in the know but terrified to speak. You’ll find the alchemy of EE will change students beneficially over time. But, throwing them in group work that overwhelms their social and academic skills can make them weary and erase self confidence. Start your EE approach with small projects and simple tasks that permit you and students to test the water without getting submerged.

Tools necessary to accomplish experiential education

Let’s examine the foundation of EE - the lesson plan. An OAR. With a sturdy OAR any class can be steered in the proper direction. The litmus test for EE projects: if the results aren’t being accomplished then the OAR needs to be adjusted. Period. There is no mystery whatsoever on this point.


Clear and concise statements must be posted where students can see them during class. I use questions instead of statements but whether or not you can do that will depend on your school policies. Mine are written on a small white board that I hang on the front wall in class. After we finish studying questions, I’ll transfer ‘em to poster paper and hang ‘em across the top of the walls. I have been told by students this helps them organize the concepts we’re uncovering.

Activities and Assessments

An activity is work students perform to investigate information, draw conclusions, make/produce something, and sometimes present it to the rest of class. When students are working on their first EE project, I’ll have the tasks they need to do for an activity written on the board. After we have done a few of projects I stop providing the tasks and ask the students to include information about the tasks they completed that took them to their conclusions or products. When we are doing a “same-different” exercise, I’ll prompt students to review the tasks different groups accomplished. This opens the door to explore the concept(s) we are studying, along with discussing how the groups were thinking differently, the same, and why.

There are different ways to do formal assessments and non-formal assessments used in the course of EE. You’ll find what works best for your class and students. A couple of examples for non-formal: teacher actively monitoring group work, teacher having conversation with an individual in a group or with the whole group, using different types of reflections, student presentations, giving students time to do “tickets out the door,” and so forth. There are always the predictable formal assessments: multiple choice test, essay test, or criteria reference test (CRT). Or, my favorite, use a rubric designed for this specific project to assess student work.

Resources: The materials required to complete specific tasks.

EE projects can be very fluid and having a good grip on your OAR will keep the lesson from unraveling. I keep three ring binders that hold my gold - my daily lesson plans. On each plan I write the OAR details. I scribble notes on it during lunch and at the end of day as I discover what worked, what didn’t work, and what I need to tweak. I’ll be the first to agree that a lesson, including EE projects, don’t always go the way I expect. I know that being fast on my feet to keep up with students is required. But, my ability to sense that unexpected shift and fluidly deal with it means I’m learning too, which is a demonstration to students that learning never stops and neither does thinking.

I’m a big fan of critical thinking skills. Fellow teachers, we’ve all been taunted with, “Why do I need what we are studying later in my life?” My response is something like, “Are you going to be thinking later in life? Is it possible you'll benefit from being a better thinker when you older?” Then I take a few minutes to specifically point out how the project, lesson, or task we were doing will build specific thinking skills they can use later. I cannot teach what I don’t believe. If I can’t look a student in the eye and articulate to her/him, with 100% sincerity, how they’ll benefit later in life from what we’re doing today – then I shouldn’t be teaching. This is why I choose to always respond to those taunts with specifics about critical thinking - everyone can benefit from improved thinking skills.

Design your experiential education project

As true with most endeavors in life, you have to have a plan before embarking on an EE project. These are the five measureable phases I use to segment the work: setup, investigation, produce a product, critical thinking, and reflection. The setup stage sets the tone and prepares students with what is expected from them and has an exercise to explore concepts and ideas they can use in the next phase. In the investigation process students are performing tasks to collect information that ultimately leads to making a product. The critical thinking phase, perhaps the most important, allows students time to analyze their results based on specific teacher prompts. Student reflection is helpful to reinforce learning and easily accomplished. For example, "Write down three things you learned and two questions you have about what your group covered in the project work today." After I review their responses, I return them.

The next step is identifying the activities and tasks to use in the phases. To start, let’s look at some common collaboration activities: discussions, note taking, computer work (web quest, case review, online games, virtual worlds, slide presentation, create web page), or making a product (poster, book, foldables, skit or play, short video). Once you know the activity for a phase you can determine the task(s) students will accomplish. These tasks, at least some of them, will be used in your rubric that assesses group work.

I keep my rubrics fairly simple, typically I include a maximum of five or six tasks for grading. Because you’re a facilitator now, not the sage, during the project you want to support student building their skills in gathering information, communicating with team members, and analyzing results to solve problems. When students ask a question, instead of answering it, consider rephrasing the question and directing to another student in the same group. Or, repeat the question and direct it to another group. Since the whole class hears the discussion, then everyone benefits from the exchange. The goal is to encourage student discussion and verbalizations of ideas. As time goes by, your skills at this encouragement will be more comprehensive so you can tie points from earlier class work and future class work into the question, which helps students unite core concepts.

I have one operational note about driving discussions using questions. After you ask a question, be sure to wait and let the student answer - or let other students help answer the question. It's easy, and robs the students of thinking and collaboration, to ask a question and then keep talking. I know, I have done that too many times. It's more difficult to ask a question and then - be quiet - allow plenty of time for students to answer. It takes time to find the map for this type of questioning and as you go the students will travel with you.

I found staying organized is a useful aid to reducing confusion. When I was in business plans were always required. When I got into teaching making plans carried over. In student project work I keep my plan close by, most likely it'll always need some fine tuning. Below is a sample project timeline that I want to share, along with a sample rubric. I know that nothing is chiseled in stone but plans do establish direction and reference points.


To see the timeline view the article on

Planning an effective project means remembering that a driving force of capturing student attention is providing lesson material that they find relevant. For example, you may be wondering about the relevancy of the EE project example. In the brainstorm segment, I set up students to explore ideas they could use later in the project by asking them to write down two processes, two patterns, and two functions that contributed to the settlement of the neighborhood around school. They had to stop and consider the neighborhood in a familiar yet studious manner.


The score earned via the rubric is awarded to all students in a group. Students need to understand that from the start. And, you’ll have to implement some policy about being students being absent. My policy was that when students missed a session/day, they start over in a new group when they return with other absent students. Yep, it’s a tough policy designed to discourage being absent and it works. Students make an extra effort to get to class on project days.

Task: Brain storm session

1 point: Did not produce three results

2 points: Produced three results

3 points: Produced three results and all group members participated

Task: Four living factors

1 point: Not completed within time allowed

2 points: Completed on time and not all the white board format was followed

3 points: Completed on time, all students participating, and the white board format was followed

Task: Class presentation

1 point: Did not complete white board

2 points: Completed white board and presentation

3 points: Completed white board in proper format, all group members wrote on board, all group members spoke in presentation

EE is propelled with a comprehensive learning design that traditional education does not contain. EE projects characteristics include 1) building skills in conducting investigations and drawing conclusions, 2) building communication and argumentation/discussion skills completing complex conversations – discerning ideas and facts - and speaking in public by presenting their group product to peers, and 3) producing a product with peers offers skill building in developing creative ideas. Having done hundreds of EE projects with classes, I have seen absolutely amazing transformations occur, very naturally, in students over a school year. Based on my successful project management career with Fortune 100 companies, EE project work prepares students with valuable 21st century job skills.


I’ve never walked into a K12 class thinking the students are a blank slate and ready to learn. That entire idea is so old school and off course for today’s classrooms. However, students do have the curiosity and energy to sustain anything they decide to engage in. I think that EE projects are the secret to obtain that engagement. From my teaching experiences, I know any teacher, who genuinely practices EE in their pedagogy, will see beneficial differences immediately. These project types are matrixed social and learning situations; a perfect opportunity to instill core cognitive skills and positive behavior habits to breed lifelong learners.

About The Author
Steu Mann, M. Ed. is an education journalist. He owns Education Reportingâ„¢ and works with teachers to implement experiential education curriculum. You can reach him at educationrebel@gmail dot com (.com). His teacher resource site is

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Wed Feb 17, 2010 10:15 am
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