Placing Experience at the Center of Understanding Experiential Learning

By Dr. Gabe Goldman

[Note: In this article, the terms “teacher” and “student” also include counselors, hike leaders, campers, trip participants, etc.]

There is a wonderful story about chavrutot (learning partners) who completely disagree about the meaning of the text they are learning. Their views are exactly opposite of each other so they go to their teacher to find out which of them is right. The first student goes into the rabbi’s study and presents his case. The rabbi tells him that his understanding is exactly right. He leaves and the second student enters the rabbi’s study to present his case. The rabbi tells him that his understanding is exactly right. He leaves and the rabbi’s wife enters and says, “Those boys were in total disagreement but you told each of them he was right.” The rabbi looks at his wife and says, “You’re also right.”

In many ways, the same can be said about the varied understandings of the qualities comprising Experiential Education. Over the decades, and with more frequency in recent years, Jewish educators/researchers have tried to pin down exactly what Experiential Education is. These efforts have led to the publication of multiple paradigms of EE, each with its own list of identifying characteristics. The differences among these paradigms do not mean that one is “right” while the others are wrong. Each of the paradigms holds truth for the persons constructing them because their formulations derive from their personal experiences. Thus, while all of the paradigms are “right,” what is collectively identified as Jewish Experiential Education has become an unwieldy assortment of attitudes, beliefs, characteristics, qualities and values. Jewish experiential educators simply cannot keep all of these attributes in mind, let alone bring them into play at all times.

Ironically, none of the paradigms currently in vogue actually focuses on what is in my view the single most important aspect of EE – the experience itself. This oversight comes, I think, from looking at the question from the perspective of what makes someone an EE teacher rather than what makes it possible for student to be experiential learners. Answering this question requires us to focus our attention on the nature and types of experiences that transform students from passive spectators to active and engaged learners. It is within this understanding that the truly unique qualities of EE are to be found.

Based on my two decades of experience in this field and the findings of a three-year study comparing EE and conventional teachers in Jewish formal and informal settings (see endnote) it is clear that three types of experiences serve as the foundation for experiential learning. These experiences are: A) Experience of Place; B) Experience of Teacher; C) Experience of Classmates. Noticeably missing from this is the experience of subject matter, which will be addressed later.

Experience of Place

One of the greatest differences between conventional education and EE is the role the learning setting, or physical space, plays in the educational process. In conventional education, the physical setting is merely a backdrop to the educational wisdom dispensed by the teacher. In EE, the physical setting generates experiences that lead to learning. Experiential educators understand the power of place to define the learning experience and they will often manipulate their environments to help bring about experiential goals. Any learning setting can be experientially enhanced – even the most ordinary classroom. Perhaps the best example of this is the way early childhood educators fill their rooms with images and artifacts that visually communicate the message that “Learning is fun.”

Experience of Teacher

One of the greatest differences between EE and conventional education is the way they conceptualize the roles of teachers and the relationship of teacher and student to each other. In conventional education, teachers teach and students learn; there is a one-way flow of knowledge. It is assumed that if students follow their teachers’ directions and do what their teachers require, they will learn. EE completely changes the teacher-student dynamic. As so many others have pointed out, EE teachers act more like guides than traditional teachers. This is a perfect analogy because guides require an absolutely different relationship with those they guide than that which exists between conventional teachers and their students.

In EE, students must trust their teachers. Just as we would not head off into the wilderness with a guide that we do not trust, likewise students will not participate in meaningful EE unless they trust their teachers. The Rule of Thumb in EE is that the greater the risk perceived by students (emotional, intellectual, physical or spiritual), the greater must be the level of trust they have in their teachers.

Anyone who has administered a school knows there are the “popular” teachers, the ones that all the students want to have. Based on the findings in the Three Year Study referenced above, it is clear that these teachers share certain qualities. I propose it is these qualities that serve as the foundation for students’ trust in their teachers:

  • They demonstrate that they care for their students as people.
  • They never use sarcasm or criticism.
  • They demonstrate respect for their students.
  • They demonstrate deep understanding about and passion for what they are teaching
  • They use humor as a communication and teaching tool.

Experience of Classmates

There is also a profound difference in the way students relate to classmates in conventional and Experiential Education. In conventional education, the relationship among students ranges from cooperative to competitive. Thus, conventional education does not necessitate students’ relating in any depth with one another. Even when conventional education has students working on group projects, it does not even require them to know the names of the people in their work group. This completely changes for students in Experiential Education. Success in EE is not possible without students trusting each other and/or engaging in experiences together and/or overcoming challenges together. And this level of cooperation first requires students to feel that they are accepted by others in the group, that their feelings and ideas will not be ridiculed or rejected, that they will not be ridiculed or rejected. The most common reason teens give for participating in any type of social or educational program is the desire to be with friends. The single most common reason teens give for not valuing an experience is that they did not feel a part of their group (likewise with Birthright trippers who did not value their trips). Given this strong social motivation, it simply does not make sense to ignore it by creating programs that do not seek to transform “classes” into “communities.” EE educators go out of the way to enable students to get to know each other, to discover qualities in each other to value, and to ensure there is an inclusive and accepting learning environment. This is a fundamental element in enabling students to become experiential learners.

Experience of Subject Matter

Quite simply, few students (prior to their college years) in either conventional or EE settings have an “experience” of subject matter. Even in informal settings, such as Jewish camps, where campers eagerly look forward to learning Israeli folk dances or how to scale climbing towers, their positive experience of these “subject matters” is largely determined by their relationship to their instructor and/or the members of their “chug” rather than by their desire to learn a particular skill. I would speculate that the overwhelming majority of readers of this article can better remember powerful experiences of places, of teachers and of classmates than of subject matters.

Unfortunately, there is pressure on Jewish experiential educators to “bulk up” their subject matter. There is an implication that failing to articulate measurable, content goals indicates lack of learning. This pressure is leading Jewish educators to treat EE as though it is simply a technique to achieve the same goals one finds in the most conventional Jewish supplementary schools. Jewish educators are using the laundry lists of EE characteristics and practices as blueprints for focusing on intellectual development.

EE process is being turned into EE product.

One of the central doctrines of EE is that learning from experience is phenomenological with learners bringing a host of personal attitudes, knowledge, fears, doubts and so forth to their learning. It is wrong as well as impossible to shape experiences like funnels in which students are dumped in and more or less come out with the same lessons learned.

Below are two scenarios I would ask you to consider. They concretize the ideas presented above. Each one takes place at sunrise on a mountain peak in Joshua Tree National Park. Each scenario involves hiking a group of eighth grade students to the top of the peak as a prelude to their morning service.

In the first scenario, upon arriving at the top of the mountain, students are told to find a partner and answer the questions on the assignment:

  • Find the blessing for seeing a beautiful natural event in your Siddur and say it if you think it applies to your present experience.
  • Look out over the landscape and pick out one natural feature that interests you.
  • Does it make a difference to you if you pray outside vs. in a synagogue?
  • Imagine you are Moses on Mt. Sinai. How would you feel?

Students are then given 15 minutes to do the assignment. When they are done, the teacher brings them together for a 20 minute, semi-lively discussion about their answers. This is followed by students conducting the morning service and a trip back down the mountain.

In scenario two, upon arriving at the top of the mountain, the teacher congratulates students on making the early morning hike and jokes with them about waking so early. She tells students they are on the mountain to have a “mountain experience” and that it is something different for everyone. She reminds them to use all of their senses – to feel, hear and smell their surroundings. Student head to a private place to have their experience and are called to return 20 minutes later and share their experiences.

One student describes seeing the shadow of a mountain, that it was awesome. A girl describes how the landscape changed colors as the sun rose. A boy says he actually heard a crow’s flapping wings. Others talk about feeling “closer to God.” One student remembers the words from the morning service, Mah rabu ma-asekah – “How magnificent are Your creations.” As students describe their experiences, the discussion embraces feelings about praying, about praying outdoors, about being in wilderness, about Jacob’s statement “I knew not that God was in this place.” After students hold their morning service, they share their feelings about their experience of praying on top of a mountain.

Though there are extraordinary differences between these two scenarios, according to current EE paradigms both incorporate EE qualities – i.e. small group discussions, clear goals (scenario #1), teaching with intentionality, follow-up reflection on the experience and so forth. What distinguishes the two scenarios, however – and this, as I have attempted to argue and illustrate, is the key to truly understanding EE – is that the magic of EE is found in the relationships students develop with place, teacher and/or fellow students. Simply put, if students do not develop these relationships, they ultimately experience nothing – or next to nothing.

What is required of EE teachers is to provide opportunities for their students to have these three types of experiences and to have faith in the central doctrine of experiential learning – that all students learn from their experiences in ways most meaningful to them.


The Three Year Study of Jewish Experiential and Conventional Educators in Formal and Informal Educational Settings was presented at the Symposium on Experiential Education Research (SEER) – 41st International Conference of the Association for Experiential Educators, 2013.

The Study was carried out between 2005-2009 with graduate student researchers observing conventional and EE educators in Jewish schools, camps and on outdoor trips. Observations ranged in time from two hours in a single classroom to several weeks in summer camps. Observations focused on such factors as: types of teacher student interactions; student interactions amongst themselves; types of questions asked by teachers and teachers and so forth. Techniques employed included: timed observations of student engagement; proximity studies of learning space; use of teaching props and other efforts to enhance teaching. Written surveys, evaluations and follow-up interviews were employed to a limited extent to help explain anomalies in observation data and to get clearer insight into teacher and student behaviors.

Gabe is the Director of Experiential Education at the Pittsburgh Agency for Jewish Learning and the Founder of Outdoor Jewish Classroom.