Experiential Learning: Just Because It’s Hands-On Doesn’t Mean It’s Minds-On

nasagoddard-open-ended-learning-teachthough-fiExperiential Learning: Just Because It’s Hands-On Doesn’t Mean It’s Minds-On

by Grant WigginsAuthentic Education

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.

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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.

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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.

This article was excerpted from a post that first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; Grant can be found on twitter here; Experiential Learning: Just Because It’s Hands-On Doesn’t Mean It’s Minds-On; image attribution flickr user nasagoddardacademy


  • Learning through experience does not necessarily produce the kind of articulation you seek in all students. Some kids will articulate their answers through the work of their hands, through their curiosity, and through continued pursuit of and improvement in the hands-on kind of learning touched upon in the article.
    It is actually okay that NOT all kids go to college and seek what has become a normative, information-society kind of career; some kids grow up to be successful — and perfectly happy — mechanics and cabinetmakers, and we should not fret when they do.

    • Exactly! It’s fine to have this as an approach that one can use with the students its good for. But a blanket approach to how kids process and respond and to how instruction takes place is not going to work effectively, nor is it nessessary, for every learning experience. If a student goes outside and picks up sticks and makes a teepee does the student need to be able to explain how she balanced the sticks, which lengths worked best togeher, how a triangular shap is structurally sound? No. Sometimes students just need to do. Freely do. To make art is not to need to be metacognitive. I’m an art teacher. I have used this method of “assessment” in various forms at at differing stages of projects. But it is not needed constantly. Be careful where and how you add this layer of work onto an experience. You can take away student enthusiasm and the sheer profound learning that does occur when one shuts off the thinking part of the brain and just lets go.

      • “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?”

        I do not know of any cabinet maker, mechanic and artist that does not want to improve or increase efficiency in their chosen craft.

        • True, but articulation does not equal learning or processing for all people. You can learn and process, without being to articulate the process. I have a friend whos is a musical savant. He can play better than a mutual friend of ours who started her classical music training at age 5. While my savant friend cannot articulate how he plays, or why, or what it means the same way as our trained friend can, no one upon hearing them play, would have any question that he is the better musician.

    • Absolutely, but preparing for careers isn’t the sole purpose of education. Mechanics and cabinet makers need the same literacy and articulation skills as the rest of us as voters, consumers, parents, jurors, officials and more.

    • We pay far too much attention to words written down to evaluate education and career prospects, and far too little to things taken to heart.

      Despite a Junior High School guidance counselor who advised me try for a career as a retail sales clerk, I never did that, nor became a mechanic or cabinetmaker, even though I’d dropped out of High School and run off to a 21 year career in the Army. After the military, I found employment as an electrical engineer, and only 30 years later actually retired.

      I took no engineering courses, nor did I put together a degree from the credits I tested for and earned on Active Duty, the means being University of Maryland extension courses, the College-Level Examination Program, the United States Armed Forces Institute and the Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support.

      University may be the Temple of Knowledge, but it is not the only place that is found; its scriptures were first written on the pages of the world.

  • I would hope people would not forget that reflecting upon one’s experience is a key part of the experiential learning process and turn to models like Kolb and others for guidance on how to facilitate it.

    • You may appreciate this quote

      “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting
      on experience” John Dewey

      I appreciated Lisa’s tee pee example. That being said, I believe student can benefit from reflecting on the process unfortunately State and federal standards provide little time for students to delve into “understanding”

      in my opinion, policy folks need to read Grant’s “Backward Design” and clearly identify the What’s……….

  • As so many have said in their comments below, it is the reflection piece that is critical. We just spent 6 weeks on an experiential/research unit on invasive species as part of the new NGSS mandate. Students researched a particular invasive species and presented their findings to the class. What I observed was a great deal of engagement, but when it came time for reflection or critical thinking they were not able to transfer what they had learned or to come up with ideas on how to manage the problem…that’s really the goal, to make them better thinkers and problem solvers. Learning is always a little bit of teaching, a little bit of doing, a little bit of reapplying, followed by reflection. For example, I have to read the directions before I put something together; chances are I won’t do it right the first time, but I’ll learn from my mistake and improve. What pieces can we put into place for each learning style in a 40 minute period is the other hurdle that always has to be considered?

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