22 March, 2024

Developing student engagement through experiential learning

Developing student engagement through experiential learning-Developing student engagement through experiential learning-Student Learning

 ‘An experience’ - an event or occurrence which leaves a lasting impression on someone (Oxford English dictionary)


Anyone who has ever had a conversation with me related to education knows that my passion is enhancing the learning experience of students both in and outside of the classroom. You will often hear me talking about the benefits of ‘experiential’ learning. Why is this so important to me - Trawling back through my memories of school, I can state with some confidence that I don’t remember the ‘chalk and talk’ lessons in History or Mathematics or Science, what I do remember however is those all too rare occasions when I was engaged in practical work or field trips, or debates, times when I could ask questions and think for myself. My history teacher would often call me ‘contrary’; at the time, I couldn’t understand why, however I now realise what I enjoyed was playing ‘devil’s advocate’, arguing the opposing point of view, even if I did not necessarily agree with it. So, yes, while I may have been contrary, I was also employing my critical thinking skills. Today, rather than seeing students who challenge and question as being ‘contrary’, we see them as being engaged in their own learning and creating their own experience.


Thankfully, we have moved on from those rare practical labs or fieldtrip or debates to understand that experiences help us learn and are an integral part of student development. These experiences can be found in any classroom at BSY, whether it’s through debates, presentations, research projects or open-ended discussions. Outside of the classroom, student learning is just as important and ongoing. BSY prides itself on challenging students to be curious, collaborating with their peers on MIT challenges or ways to help the environment, support charities or develop connections with other Nord schools. Dr Jane Gaskell a member of Nord Anglia’s Education Advisory Board, summed up why it is so important that students engage, when she said, “We don’t want them to be passive in the face of the things happening around them…We want them to have a sense of empowerment…they have to feel engaged with what is going on.” We aim to offer BSY students a broad spectrum of experiences, in order that each child can develop their own passion.


How do we put experiential learning into practice. A simple way to understand the process is:


“Do, Reflect, Think and Apply” (Butler et al, 2019, P.12).


Below I have used the recent Nord Anglia Snowsports expedition as an example of how this process can be used and skills transferred.


While the explicit focus during the trip was to learn to ski and have fun, there was also an implicit hope that the students would learn new skills that can be used outside of skiing.

During the trip, the ‘Do’ was for students to learn to ski and enjoy the experience. They were not learning theoretically, in a classroom, but engaging and learning through the experience of doing, being shown by professionals how to ski, while on the slopes. Once they are ‘doing’, the next step for them is to ‘reflect’ on what it is they have learned. For most this will undoubtedly revolve around how resilient they have become. Most BSY students have never skied, so they may have fallen over many times, and despite being very tired, and at times cold, they needed to pick themselves up and try again. Eventually, they would reflect on how their resilience had led them to achieve their goal of skiing down a slope, no matter the size. While this was important on the trip, I want students to move on and be able to ‘think’ how this skill of resilience or perseverance can be used in other areas of their lives. It may be persevering in a subject that they find difficult, learning to play an instrument or new sport etc. Once they have used the ‘think’ time to look toward other areas where they can use their newfound resilience, they should move on to the final challenge of how to ‘apply’ what they learn to a new skill or other areas. This aspect, like the others is ongoing, ‘application’ of resilience can come in many forms, whether it is picking yourself up, on a ski slope, for the tenth time when you are cold and tired or redrafting a piece of coursework for the fifth time, as it just never seems to be right. This is the same skill that can be transferred to so many areas of life both now and in the future.


This idea of transferring skills is what makes experiential learning so important. We live in an ever-changing world that no longer offers the guarantees that we had 10, 20, 50 years ago; the idea that we learned facts, took exams, went to university and then had a ‘job for life’ are long gone. The pace of change today means that we must have a flexible set of skills and a growth mindset. One area of concern for many today is the development of AI technology. We must however remember that the concept of Man vs Technology is not new, through man’s ingenuity, we adapted to new technology during the industrial age, as well as in the 20th century with the age of computers and the web.  Providing challenges such as those from MIT, Global Campus, Sports competitions and student leadership, offers students the opportunity to learn through the experience of doing. Man’s ingenuity will again serve to help our students adapt to the technological challenges that they face today, especially with AI.



It is not however always the outcome but the process and the experience, that provides the most learning. Unlike today, where many airlines make huge profits, between the years 1903 and 1994 despite the large number of airlines flying in the US, not one of those airlines made a profit. So why continue, you may ask? The experience, the ‘yes we can’ approach of pushing the boundaries of technology and ingenuity. Where would we be without this ingenuity and drive to succeed by ‘doing’, even if the reward is sometimes not visible. With reference to pushing the boundaries in education, BSY supports Zelechoski et al., 2017 findings that through learners’ dynamic participation in experiential activities, the teacher can trigger their ability to retain knowledge that leads to their intrinsic motivation and interest in the course material. In turn, we hope that this can also translate into supporting our students to be well-rounded global citizens, who leave their mark on society.


For me, one of the most important things that we can help our students understand  comes from a quote by the longest serving US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the Great Depression. In a time of hopelessness in the world and great uncertainty, he told his people, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. His point was that no matter what the challenge, man has the capability and ingenuity to overcome these challenges. Roosevelt brought the greatest minds to the White House to share and develop practical ways to bring his country out of the worst financial crisis the world had ever faced. They succeeded and by challenging our students in and out of the classroom with world class experiences, they too can succeed.