What We Do (and Don’t Do) When We Do Experiential Education

By Shuki Taylor

[This is the third article in a series dedicated to experiential Jewish education.]

Introduction: Days of Awe

According to David A. Kolb, Experiential Learning is “… the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”

As I consider the prayers I will whisper on Yom Kippur, I look back at my experience of the past year. I think about my personal ups and downs, my professional accomplishments and failures. I think about the times where I felt the closeness of God and the times that I felt his Hester – His absence. I try to conjure up all of these experiences so that I can finally ask myself, as the new year begins and the familiar songs are sung: how was this year different from the last? And what will next year bring?

In a loose translation of a poem by Leah Goldberg –
“And someone came and said;
The Days of Awe are upon us.
The summer has ended…
The summer was short
And shorter still
Was spring…”

The scent of summer’s end… our children’s excited and fresh faces as a new school year begins… the outpouring of Shana Tova emails… All of these stir in me the question: What have I learned from the experiences of the past year? And how will I transform these experiences into a new learning that will guide me to a new place?

The cycle of Teshuva – not of Repentance, but of Return – is, in many ways, the cycle of experiential learning as defined by Kolb. Like experiential learning, Teshuva emphasizes three key concepts: that growth happens not by reaching outcomes, but by learning from them; that self-knowledge is a never-ending transformational process which requires constant introspection and intervention and that we have the ability to transform what was into something new.

How the process of experiential learning can be created and designed is the primary concern of experiential education.

The question we face as experiential educators – educators who are trying to craft new experiences from which our learners can grow – is twofold:

  • How do we design experiences?
  • How do we ensure that these experiences are used as a springboard for learning?

2. Teaching Experientially (what we do well)

The role and goal of experiential Jewish educators is to create experiences from which people can learn and hopefully grow, bettering themselves as Jews, as citizens, and as human beings. What makes these experiences worthwhile is the extent to which educators are able to engage learners and open for them new roads down which they can walk, run, or get lost. Hopefully, these roads lead somewhere. The destination, whatever it is, needs to be carefully considered – for some it’s an end, for others it’s the road itself.

Creating these types of experiences, or teaching experientially, requires creativity, knowledge and skill. If we want content to be engaging, to truly capture the learner’s attention, it must unfold like a good story does – filled with conflicts, twists and turns that make the journey of the hero so compelling.

If we want the content to be immersive, we need to truly understand how to engage all senses. If we want experiences to appeal to different types of learners, we need to consider targeting multiple intelligences. If we want learners to be active – we need to know the essential ingredients that comprise the typology of designing activities. If we want experiences to be memorable – we need to understand how memory is formed.

Most successful experiential Jewish educators know how to do all of this intuitively. The YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education gives these instincts a language, so that educators can now deliberately do what they once did innately.

3. Learning from Experience (what we can do better)

There is an area that is often overlooked in the current practice of experiential Jewish education. This is an area that focuses not on how experiential the program is, but on whether the learners are in fact learning from the experience. Whether they are able to look back and deduce a succinct, personally meaningful and powerful learning – one that they can then apply to other areas of their lives.

In essence, experiential education that is devoid of this process is pointless and is by no means a learning experience. Here, the role of the educator is crucial. In providing the learner with the space, skills and tools to appropriately reflect on her experience, the educator is allowing the learner to process the experience – and to make sense of it. Recently, more and more organizations have made reflection a core part of their programming and educational requirements.

But reflection alone is not sufficient. In order to truly learn from experience, we need to do more than make sense of our experience. We need to make meaning from it. This is a process called conceptualization. It asks not “What did you experience? What did you feel? What did you think?” – the type of questions that ask us to look back at the experience. Rather, the process of conceptualization asks us to look forward: “What did you learn? What are you taking with you from the experience? And how will you be able to experiment with this new learning?”

While teaching experientially is what makes the experiences compelling and engaging, it is the process of learning from experience that turns the experience into a truly long-lasting educational encounter.

This is what David Kolb means when tells us that experiential learning is the process of transforming the experience into knowledge (or skills, or beliefs, or traits). This transformation occurs through reflection and conceptualization.

The process of Teshuva ask us to look back at the entirety on an experience and to learn from it; to conceptualize it – and to take these newly formed concepts with us into a new experience. For me, by looking back at the year that was, reflecting on it and learning from it, I am able to stand before God on Yom Kippur, and make commitments to the future – hoping that my prayers will be answered.

4. Between Teaching and Learning

The distinction between teaching experientially and learning from experience is critical, and the experiential Jewish educator must be accountable to both. What is most critical though, what creates the magic of – and the challenges within – experiential Jewish education, is the fact that while we can control what we teach, we cannot control what people learn.

While we can fully control the process of teaching experientially, we can never control the process of learning from experience. Respecting this rule, and knowing how to navigate within it, is the art of experiential Jewish education.

Shuki Taylor is the Director of the Department of Experiential Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.

Click here to apply to Cohort V of the YU Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education.