June 7th, 2013

Experiential Education: Many Faces Wearing the Same Expression

By Larry Frolich

It would seem that the Journal of Sustainability Education, now in its fourth year, has grown up quickly, directly from toddlerhood to adolescence.  The accompanying growth spurt manifests itself in our current, two-part issue on Experiential Education, and the wide-ranging (and to be honest overwhelming to our small editorial staff) response to the Call for Papers. Perhaps the naiveté of adolescence led us to believe that this might be our most focused and tightly knit theme yet, but reality and hindsight have shown something completely different.  We received submissions that came from around the globe, unified by a quality of urgency and passion.   The many different ways educators are applying the imperative to involve students experientially still stuns me.  I now know about Experiential Education on farms and in cities, mimicking courtrooms and nourishing gardens, taking students from the wilds of Norway to the wilds of Galapagos, from keeping bees to starting political movements.  I know how beautiful, in words and in photos, education as experience can be.  And these are just a few examples of the many faces that showed themselves in this resonant theme.

Interestingly, as diverse as the examples are, the faces all share an expression and it is a fierce, prideful and optimistic one.  It’s an expression that says, “This is how its done:  This is the true road to sustainability because only through experience will people’s behavior change.”  That expression, this insistence, convinces us when it comes from so many different sources, and is given voice by so many different actors.  We know that our educational system is in total flux.  That the online environment is making impacts whose seismic-scale effects are only now being subtly felt.  We know that almost any topic in education, from standards to classroom size, from the role of media and textbooks, from how our institutions should be structured, or unstructured, will bring about multiple viewpoints.  And yet, here, before us, in a wonderfully diverse set of articles, is a unified message, and one that no one seems to dispute:  The Power of Experience.

I wouldn’t want to try and mimic the elegant, eloquent and erudite arguments that every one of our authors makes for the unsurpassable power of experience in the educational process.  In my own discipline, the Biological Sciences, I need look no further than the unstoppable force of the teaching laboratory, to know this truth.  How do we get people to change, to do the right thing, to quit smoking, to wear seat belts, to learn something as complicated as heart surgery or sequencing DNA.  How do we teach people to become outstanding members of society concerned about improving everyone’s quality of life:  we can try teaching it a million different ways, but until they actually do it, the change has yet to happen!


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