Experiential Education


I imagine every reader of this blog has heard the phrase, “experience is the best teacher.” Usually when one has “learned by experience”, the lesson has been a hard one, a mistake to avoid at all costs. Pondering the phrase further, though, we understand that learning by experience is more complicated than that, and that it happens all the time. Also we realize that it is still probably the best teacher.

Before the printing press, it was probably the only teacher. Somehow over time experience lost its central place at the front of the classroom of life. Somehow, at some point, “learning by experience” came to be seen as the antithesis of education in school. If you had to learn by experience, it was probably because you weren’t good at “book learning”, and so you took up a trade, worked on the farm, or lived by your wits.

About eight years ago, SMUS became one of the earliest members of ISEEN, the Independent School Experiential Education Network, an international network of over one hundred independent schools across the United States, Canada, England, South Korea, and South Africa. Our Director of Service, Kevin Cook, sits on the Board of ths organization, and he remembers when it consisted of only a handful of schools. How things change: Pat Basset, recently retired President of the National Association of Independent Schools (itself the largest organization of independent schools in the world), listed ISEEN as one of his Top Ten Innovations of the previous decade at the 2012 NAIS Annual Conference.

For the past six years we have been operating our Grade Ten Experiential program for students who chose to sign up for it. In this program students’ academic program resembles everyone else’s until the third term. At that point, they forge their own path, and their academic program is integrated with carefully selected experiences outside the classroom, experiences that include service, the outdoors, work and other projects, all of which are knitted together by significant reflection and discussion. Most students who go through the program say it is one of the best educational experiences of their lives.

If it’s so good, shouldn’t we work to extend it to all of our students?  That is the question we are considering right now. Becky Anderson, our Director of Leadership Development, would probably say that her role as the guiding hand of the small group examining this question is an exercise in herding cats. We aren’t a school of fish that all shimmer in the same direction with a wave of her hand. The group consists of Andy Rodford, Director of Senior School; Donna Williams, Music Department Head; Keith Driscoll, Director of Residence; Pete Mcleod, Director of Outdoor Education; Richard Curry, Assistant Director of Senior School, Kevin Cook, Director of Service; and myself. Feel free to sympathize with Becky Anderson. Our intention is to arrive at some solid, workable proposals for the school year 2015-16. To advance this purpose we expect to include quite a few people in the cycle of questions and answers – students, staff, parents and teachers. If you’ve read this blog entry, you’ll have a head start.


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