The Case for Experiential Education

The Case for Experiential Education:
There is No Learning Without Meaning and Feeling

—By Nancy Monson**

Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand. ~Chinese Proverb

How do you know your children are really learning in school? By their test scores?

Learning is a process that develops depth and breadth of understanding. It’s knowing how to think, figure out solutions, ask questions, find answers, be intrinsically motivated, take responsibility, be patient, work alone AND collaborate, make mistakes and learn from them. Living a truly fulfilling life is all about learning.

Learning is not memorizing and regurgitating facts, it is not information (computers are full of facts and information). It is not about how well you do on tests.

I believe it is crucial for parents to become educated about the crises in American Education: Children are learning how to take tests, how to get good grades, how to read, write and do math….but they are not learning how to apply these skills to real life, how to be adaptable, how to fully use their minds to solve new problems, how to deal with challenges. Ask any college professor, or business manager in charge of hiring.

All the latest brain research is clear on the fact that meaning and emotion are key to learning:

  • All new learning (new synaptual buds and new dendrite branching) must attach itself to neural tissue that already exists. Since we remember what is meaningful, and forget almost everything else, this means that the only way for new information to find a place in the brain is to attach itself to structures that hold past learned meaningful information.
  • The brain gives us feedback that we are engaged in meaningful pursuits by stimulating the structures that prompt the release of three of the brain’s powerful pleasure-inducing neurochemicals: dopamine, endorphins and serotonin.
  • In the 1970s. Renowned evolutionary neuroscientist Dr. Paul MacLean, was one of the first modern scientists to grasp that neither thought nor memory could take place without an emotional component. In the book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman found that success in life is not tied to “our smarts” (grades, SAT scores, or our position in our graduating class), but instead to our ability to effectively perceive, process and moderate our emotions.” In Growth of the Mind, Stanley Greenspan notes that research leads to the conclusion that “Emotions, not cognitive stimulation, serve as the mind’s primary architect….Emotional exchanges…should become the primary measuring rod of development and intellectual competence.”

One reason that school and work can be so boring, unfulfilling and stressful is that it isn’t meaningful, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t let us use what is valuable or significant to us, (what we are passionate about) and it doesn’t build on our previous meaning network. According to statistics, 61% of kids are bored in school!

No two children possess the same preexisting neurological networks, so why would teaching all children in grade 3 the same way possibly work? All brains are n ot the same. In the book, Making Connections, the authors state, “by ignoring the personal world of the learner, educators actually inhibit the effective functioning of the brain.”

The Case for Experiential Education:
All true learning is experience, everything else is just information. –Albert Einstein

Scientifically, there is now enough research and data to understand why experiential learning is a much more powerful promoter of long-term memory. But even more powerful is our own personal history. Whenever I ask a parent to tell me about their most significant learning memories, it is 99% of the time an experience where they were involved in the doing. They either did it alone, with a friend or with a mentor letting them figure things out with some guidance. Words alone, linguistic instruction, does not lead to very much learning. We pour words into children’s heads and less than 20% will stay there, at the most. The brain is not a passive receiver of information. The key here (along with meaning and emotion) is engagement. Jane Healy, author of Why Our Children Can’t Think, and What We Can Do About It, said in a lecture I attended, “If you want your toddler’s brain neurons to fire, don’t put them in front of a computer, give them the computer box to play with.” (Lack of engagement is also the big problem with TV. and computers…moving thumbs and fingers, and just thinking with out other kind of involvement does not cover it).

John Dewey, American social and education reformer, wrote in 1902, “From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets from outside of school in any complete way within the school itself; while on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school. That is the isolation of the school – the isolation from the life.” The point here is that children need to BE ENGAGED IN USING WHAT THEY LEARN IN REAL LIFE EXPERIENCES THAT HAVE MEANING TO THEM. This means, in the classroom…creating, doing, showing, and teaching others. Letting all the children contribute to projects, bringing their own meaning and passion to bear on a collaborative effort and each child being valued for their gifts, talents, contributions and all the learning that goes along with this kind of model.

As a teacher of all ages, I have witnessed the powerful difference when children are involved in projects that integrate all academic subject areas to work towards solutions to real problems. Today’s students hunger for real life learning, and all you have to do is watch them when given the chance, to be impacted by the truth of it.

Colorado Senate Bill 191 now ties teacher’s jobs to test scores (50% of a teacher’s evaluations are their student’s performance on CSAP testing; 66% of principal’s evaluations). What do you think this will do to the future of classroom learning? Parents, I encourage you to advocate for your children first of all by listening to what they say about their classroom learning (not just their social life); finding out all you can about how curriculum is delivered; not just settling for rote, compulsory, reward/punishment/extrinsic motivation techniques and reading all you can about what real learning is. So many parents say, it worked for me….but did it really? Did you love school? Real learning invokes joy and enthusiasm, not stress and boredom.

This article was written to encourage parents to find out more about what and how their children are learning in school. Are they just learning information, going from subject to subject, or are they involved in projects that make real use of what they are learning? Can they use what they know? You can find out by asking them to do or show you practical ways to demonstrate their knowledge in any particular field of academics. Can they count change when shopping? Can they manage a budget? Can they build a box to store their toys (or anything) in? What can they figure out how to fix (or do they even know where to begin?)? Can they read a map, plan an itinerary for a trip, organize and cook a dinner? Do they understand how history applies to what is happening right now? Can they speak with feeling and depth about a book they read, can they read the newspaper, understand statistics? Do you think your child has all the basic skills they need to leave home, live alone, find a job and manage all that requires? They should be able to do that…and more after 13 years of education!

A resource for this article was “Cracking the Learning Code,” a soon to be published book by JW Wilson.

Nancy Monson is founder, director and a teacher at Running River School in Lafayette. To find out more about experiential learning, and further resources, go to the school web site at or call 303-718-2101. You ca also hear Nancy on Parenting Solutions on KGNU, 88.5FM on Tuesday mornings at 10:30.