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Experiential Learning Lessons to Incorporate into Your K-12 Curriculum

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“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Chinese proverb

The more we research educational practices, the more we find that traditional learning methods in the classroom—such as lectures and tests—are failing to fully educate today’s students. Lectures are not only sometimes boring, they are an ineffective method of teaching students.

Zachary Jason at Harvard partially blames this problem on student boredom. With each passing year, the number of students engaged in class drops. Students are tired of the emphasis on standardized testing and as they grow older, their education transitions from active and creative, to “cerebral and regimented.”

Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, says the way we are educating students is too heavily focused on the mundane:

Rose suggests adding much more choice to the classroom. Allow exams to be written or taken orally. Assign students more hands-on projects, in which they become in control of their own learning.

Luckily, experiential learning has become a growing educational trend in recent years, first in higher education and now in the K-12 sphere.

What is experiential learning?

Experiential learning is a nontraditional way of learning. Simply put, experiential learning is just that: learning through experience. It is a hands-on experience in education that solidifies a lesson through practice rather than just oral instruction.

What experiential learning does is create a bridge between learning the theory and practicing the theory, which leads to a higher rate of learning retention according to The Peak Performance Center:

Experiential learning - learning retention

Learning retention percentages based on method via Peak Performance Center

The University of Colorado lists four elements that make learning experiential:

  1. Reflection, critical analysis and synthesis
  2. Opportunities for students to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results
  3. Opportunities for students to engage intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially, or physically
  4. A designed learning experience that includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes, and successes

For a guide on implementing experiential learning, be sure to read this piece from Brainy Child.

Based on these four elements, experiential learning is possible inside the classroom as well as outside.

Related reading: How Experiential Learning Benefits K-12 Students

K-12 experiential learning ideas

To put this trend into practice, below is a list of experiential learning ideas for the K-12 level that you can incorporate into your curriculum this year and beyond.

Elementary school

Experiential learning - Elementary school

Teaching engineering in elementary school via Wikimedia

Scavenger hunts: Nothing like a little friendly competition to teach students about the world around them. Scavenger hunts get students out of their seats and give them hands-on experience in their environments, inside and outside. They are perfect for a myriad of subjects including science, history, geography, and technology lessons.

Lesson plans:

Engineering: School programs are now teaching children to think like engineers in order to improve their critical thinking skills.

Students can build structures (or take them apart) using materials such as blocks, everyday objects, and geoboards. These lessons test their problem solving skills in a practical way.

Lessons plans:

Middle school

Experiential learning - Elementary school

Experiential learning in science for middle school students via the U.S. Department of Defense

Political science: Educate your students on the connections between popular culture, politics, and social change through mock elections, political cartoons, and mock debates.

Lesson plans:

Earth science: Your students will learn all about different aspects of earth science, from the greenhouse effect to the destructive power of earthquakes through hands-on projects that demonstrate these concepts.

Lesson plans:

High school

Experiential learning - Elementary school

High school Mars mapping project via NASA

Biology: These experiential lessons take harder to understand concepts such as genetic makeup and put them physically in the hands of students.

Lesson plans:

Physics: Instead of sitting still in their seats listening to lectures, students learn about motion and energy through Kung Fu, electromagnets, and recreating scenarios with the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Lesson plans:

Other lesson ideas

As education changes from a static transfer of information to a more interactive environment, schools need new ways of teaching students. This requires new ways of thinking and new lesson plans.

On the Capterra school administration blog, I’ve put together several lesson plan lists based on specific student needs and scenarios. If you enjoyed this piece, check out these other lesson plan resources and guides:

Looking for School Administration software? Check out Capterra's list of the best School Administration software solutions.

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About the Author

Nick Morpus

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Nick Morpus is a Content Writer for Capterra, a free resource that matches buyers and sellers of business software. He has a background in politics, economics, and journalism, which he dedicates his off-time to contributing his thoughts to other political sites. In his free-time he enjoys reading, drawing, photography, playing guitar, writing, and cooking.

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