I recently visited Thetford Academy in Vermont (one of the few and interesting public-private academies in New England) where they have a formal and explicit commitment to “experiential learning.” So, the leaders of the school asked me to visit classes that were doing experiential learning and to talk with staff at day’s end about it.

I saw some great examples of such instruction. I visited the design tech course (see photos) and the class on the Connecticut River where students were learning about soil types prior to a wetlands field trip.

2013-10-17 12.39.04

2013-10-17 12.51.09

I also spent the previous day at the Riverdale School where all 9th graders were learning the skills and habits of innovation and entrepreneurship as part of a cool new project headed by John Kao, former Harvard Business School innovation guru. (I am a consultant to the Edgemakers project).

Below are some pictures from the “Design a better backpack exercise” that started the work of the day.

2013-10-16 13.48.10

2013-10-16 13.49.28

Just because it’s hands-on doesn’t mean it’s minds-on. But the gist of my remarks at Thetford was to propose caution. Just because work is hands-on does not mean it is minds-on. Many projects, problems, situations, and field trips do not yield lasting and transferable learning because too little attention is given to the meta-cognitive and idea-building work that turns a single experience into insight and later application.

Years ago when I worked as a consultant at School Without Walls in Rochester NY (one of the first really interesting alternative High Schools to emerge from the 60s and a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools), they put it very succinctly in their caution about all the independent projects students routinely did. If you were going to learn carpentry to build a chair, then “The learning is not the chair; it is the learning about learning about chairs, chair-making and oneself.”

I have also often used the following soccer example, because it makes the same point beautifully and practically. Merely playing the game over and over need not cause understanding and transfer. It takes a deliberate processing of the game experience, as summarized in the powerful approach used by my daughter’s high school coach a few years back. Instead of talking on and on at players at half-time, Griff asked 4 key questions of players:

      • What’s working for us?
      • What’s not working for us?
      • What’s working for the other team?
      • So, what do we have to do in the 2nd half?

My daughter (now a starter at Stony Brook University) has often remarked that Griff was really the only coach through HS that taught her to ‘think soccer’ and it paid off in her growth and the team’s success.

As a coach of soccer, baseball, and Socratic Seminar, I learned this lesson the hard way many times myself. I often over-estimated student understanding as to the purpose of activities and assignments, and the important learnings from the experiences. My teaching became far more focused and effective when I forced kids to be metacognitive and reflective about what had been achieved against goals. So, for example, 30 years ago I used a variant of Griff’s questions towards the end of each Socratic Seminar:

      • What have been the highlights?
      • What have been the rough spots?
      • What do we now understand?
      • What do we still not understand?
      • Whose voices didn’t we hear? Why?

With the Thetford staff I prompted a focused discussion in a 2-part exercise: What is the difference between effective and ineffective experiential learning? What are the key indicators to look for in judging whether your attempt at experiential learning is working? (Hint: mere engagement is NOT sufficient.) You might try this exercise locally.

The answers are not surprising but worth committing to. One of the most frequent answers is a clear and specific sense of purpose, linking the activity to the WHY? question – We’re doing this becauseWe’re learning this because… etc. The other common answer is that the activity needs to be processed in terms of what was and wasn’t learned. (It is key that students explain this independently. Many teachers think that just because they may have said something about purpose at the start that therefore students can answer these questions later on. It is often not the case.)

A third optional part of the exercise is to share examples of the most powerful experiential learning in one’s own experience as a learner to provide a check and to go beyond the earlier answers.

I always ask all kids when I visit class the three questions at the heart of this caution:

  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • What does this help you do that’s important?

Alas, many kids do not provide adequate answers. And that’s why we need to worry about merely hands-on learning – even as hands-on learning is vital for making abstractions come to life.



29 Responses

  1. I believe this comment/thinking is wise and important. It’s too easy to do the doing without the thinking. Asking why, digging into the meta, dancing with the processing — going beyond kicking the ball and rocking the chair are so crucial. The phrase “just because it’s hands-on doesn’t mean it’s minds-on” is a fantastic mantra for everyone to attend to.
    To avoid the bandwagon effect, asking the three questions at the end of your post would keep us all honest. Thank you for this!

  2. Mr. Wiggins:
    Thank you for this post on experiential learning. I am a music teacher and one of my classes is Chorus. It is all about performance and experience. During rehearsals I often ask students questions, to critique their singing, discuss meaning of texts in class, style and history, culture. However, I will try now to include the questions you have posed above (restated below).
    “What have been the highlight?
    What have been the rough spots?
    What do we now understand?
    What do we still not understand?
    Whose voices didn’t we hear? Why? ”
    I am “old” to teaching, but new to UbD. I have read most of your book, Understanding by Design, 2nd ed., and actually have purchased ALL of the books available on the method for personal study, and implementation. As a music teacher, I am struggling to find anyone in my subject area who uses UbD. With having class only one time per week, how can I expect my students to remember anything when there is no other time given to practice, or experience music expect that one precious time period per week? Keep in mind, that in NYS, students are now required to take a “state growth measure” assessment in ALL subject areas. The only difference between ELA/Math and other classes is I get to design my own noose by which to hang myself. I believe, through my readings, that UbD is an excellent means of planning and presenting material. It requires me to make critical decisions as to what is important, and how best to present that material so students will grasp the knowledge and use it. I want my students to ‘understand’. As a teacher using experiential learning, particularly in choral performance but also in elementary general music, I wonder if you have any suggested resources to help clarify ways in which to better utilize UbD in the MUSIC classroom? Just a side note, as required by my district, I am to set a professional development goal on assessment this year. I have actually proposed planning a unit using UbD as the means of meeting that goal. Any guidance would be appreciated. Thanks!

    • Jeannine: thanks for this query. As lifelong musician, I can easily relate. I assume you are familiar with NYSSMA performance rubrics. Those would certainly be useful as a basis for self and peer critique. I’ll ponder other sources and see if I have some music-related materials in my files.

  3. I appreciate your ‘caution’ Questions, and will include them in future Inquiry/Experiential learning, as a check for understanding and transference of skills/knowledge.
    “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? What does this help you do that’s important?”
    Thank you!
    Doni Gratton, teacher librarian

  4. Your thoughts echo ideas from John Hattie and the importance of both
    – quality feedback
    – the need to self assess to self adjust

    • Indeed – for me the ideas go much further back, to Gilbert’s Human Competence and the fine work at Alverno College described in On Competence in 1978. I have written extensively on these issues for decades – see Assessing Student Performance 1993.

  5. I am lucky. Early in my career, a student asked me those very questions. I didn’t have an answer, and it was then that I knew I was just doing a fun activity. He wasn’t being cheeky, he was merely asking me to use meta-cognition. These questions have guided my instructional practices, and I love how you have brought them once again to the forefront of my mind. Great post!

    • Thanks! I had the same thing happen to me. A kid said: i don’t get the point of this; why are we doing it? And my answer was lame. That’s partly why I believe so strongly in listening to students.

  6. Checking and adjusting in any activity is important to bring quality and learning to our students. The fact that hands-on learning is not enough, but minds-on is just is important. When I thought of hands-on, I thought the mind would naturally connect.

  7. How do we know if a project WILL work while in the planning stage? I’d hate to do all the work in planning and implementing a project, just to realize that it was completely ineffective.

    • Well, of course we NEVER know how anything we plan is going to work out. Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans, wisely said John Lennon. And a famous general said in war, plans are useless but planning is essential. Only a well-planned unit is more likely, more of the time to work – as every great coach, director, or conductor knows. The most basic planning tip, then, is to consider: what is most likely to not work? Where are the predictable rough spots? Where are the most likely skill deficits and misconceptions? Just carefully considering those questions alone will make it more likely that you succeed; the rest is gravy…

  8. I especially like the last three questions in the post: (1) What are you doing?
    (2) Why are you doing it? (3) What does this help you do that’s important?
    I believe that in order for the learning (or project) to be meaningful, the students must believe that what they are doing is relevant and the knowledge gained will be useful.

  9. Wow! Today was powerful. I really liked the questions in the article:
    What’s working for us?
    What’s not working for us?
    What’s working for the other team?
    So, what do we have to do in the 2nd half?
    As educators we really need to take the time to reflect on what we have taught and if it was in fact meaningful.
    Great first day! I can’t wait for Day 2!

  10. Every lesson needs to have ties to something of importance. A learning goal needs to be clearly identified and conveyed to the students regardless if the lesson is direct instruction, PBL or experiential learning. Otherwise, it is all a big waste of time and the teacher is reduced to being an activities director in lieu of being a facilitator of learning.

  11. “Hands-on is not Minds on” and “Mere engagement is not sufficient.” Powerful statements to teach by! Connection and Relevance included in the process, certainly must lead us to intelligence! Bravo Wiggins!

  12. The 4C’s concepts are embedded in several ways. Moreover, the “4W’s” and “H” inquiries are very effective when student begin unpacking lessons and aides in their cognitive process of comprehension. Equally, the “give” – “take” or vice-versa approach is non-intimidating and open-ended. Students must be able to intuitively identify or find the relevance and connect with the information. The focus of the examples are not winning the game; what are we doing? what are they doing? How can we fix it? The interaction and assimilation of information is student focused and student based. Teachers or coaches are mere facilitators…

  13. Critical thinking is imperative in schools and in life. Lessons with meaning and relevance is crucial. Getting the learner to truly understand his/her task and then dive deep is key.

  14. Keeping the end in mind and ensuring that students understand the learning objective is essential to experiential learning. The WHY of what we are learning or what we are doing is the key to learning for all of us.

  15. I agree that a lot of activities are designed to promote collaboration but the projects themselves need to be designed with a better purpose. We need to be able to teach lessons that are based on life time learning, If children understand the reason they are learning information they find it more engaging. I really liked the minds on comment it helps me to remember to design activities bases on an essential question.

  16. Good insights. Project based learning needs to be more than just hands on. Students can easily create things. They need to be able to also answer, “Why are you making this?”

  17. It seems imporant to remember that deep-level metacognitive learning, the ability to reflect, self-assess, and apply that understanding to a broad set of future challenges and opportunities is not a skill that can be imparted to a group of 10-year-old children in one project-based lesson, regardless of how well designed and brilliantly executed. If we are truly trying to achieve this goal, our approach must be long-term. Project-based learning models must be integrated from year to year to facilitate students building on this understanding. This takes a great deal of commitment to planning across grade levels by administration and an understanding that prioritizing this approach necessitates a sacrifice of other commitments to allow for the time needed to to implement this sort of thing effectively.

  18. I love the idea of ask the questions what is working? What is not working? and why are we doing this? I often times ask myself this after a lesson or project and take notes for future classes but I don’t take the time to ask my students these questions. Stopping and taking the time to let them reflect and give feedback would open up their thinking and be very beneficial.

  19. This article really does make an important point. While hands-on, experimental environments are super important, it is equally important to have a balance of “mind-on” with hands-on. For students to be able to understand the ‘why’ of a lesson, there needs to be more offered to provide exploration of the “why” otherwise there is not enough fidelity and structure.

  20. As a teacher, I have learned that before we do any experiment, we first look at our essential questions of what we need to think about as we work. I have found that we also need to take time to talk with each group and make them reflect or guide them in their learning. Many times with students, if we give them an experiment, they simply “just go through the motions” because it is hands on and more enjoyable.
    As a coach myself, I truly enjoyed and agree with Griff’s 4 questions at halftime. After the players have played, it is great to reflect on the game strategy from the beginning of the game and see what is working, what needs to be changed, and what is working for the other team so our team can stop them. Going through those steps sums up the meeting the coaches and the players have at half time. Then after making changes, it is always good to review them after the game or at the next practice as well.
    It is similar to what I tell my students. I always have my students look back at graded work to go over mistakes. I tell them “it is okay to make mistakes, but we have to know how to fix our mistakes so we improve our learning. That is how we truly learn.”
    I have seen time after time, students going through the motions with hands on learning. I do believe it is our job as teachers to help them facilitate what needs to be learned and bring them back to essential questions that can get them there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *