Who leads the classroom?

The author takes a look at how the humanistic notions of experiential teaching and experiential learning play out in the classroom

By Diane Blau, PhD

Most of us, throughout our educational experience, have sat through more lectures and done more writing than we may care to remember. For the most part, our academic lives were filled with papers, tests and assorted projects whose content and criteria were dictated by the instructor. Indeed, as a young teacher, I closely followed the textbook to be sure my students learned the expected curriculum. I was the resident expert imparting knowledge to my students, with little awareness of the place of their voice in the learning process.

Then, one year, a group of bright third graders started asking remarkable questions and proposing exciting possibilities for investigation. With their youthful drive and energy and immense curiosity they challenged me to let go of traditional teaching practices and engage in a myriad of learner focused experiments and adventures. Since it was a presidential election year, instead of reading about it, we held our own convention, debates and schoolwide election.  In a study of economics, concepts came alive through producing and selling a school pennant, moving through market research, production, advertisement and sales. From curiosity to satiation, we explored, reflected, discussed, and discovered. I came to trust my students’ resources for self-direction, ownership of learning, and problem solving. They showed me how learning could flourish in an atmosphere of acceptance and respect and how curriculum content could be presented but moreover, expanded in creative, relevant and meaningful ways. I came to know this as experiential learning. I was never the same teacher again.

Over the years, I transitioned from elementary school teacher to clinical psychologist and embraced the tenets and values of humanistic psychology. It seems to me that humanistic psychology and experiential learning/teaching go hand in hand; John Dewey (1938/1997) and Carl Rogers (1983) spoke of  this years ago. What follows is my understanding of the foundational tenets of experiential teaching.
Basic Postulates:

  • The learner enters the room with prior experience/knowledge related to the content 

  • The learner creates connections between prior experience and new knowledge 

  • The learner has the inner resources necessary to achieve his/her own learning 

  • Each learner is unique and has something different yet distinctive to offer 

  • The learner seeks meaning and relevance in any experience. (Blau, 2009)

Currently, these concepts parallel the best practices of brain-based learning theory (Jenkins, 2008; Zull, 2002). The basic premise is the same: trust in the individual and his or her resources, acceptance, regard and respect for the individual, and belief in the individual’s creativity and capacity for growth and change. What is learning if not growth and change within the individual — the generation of new thoughts, ideas or realizations that are personally relevant and meaningful?

Yet, in many institutions of higher education, in particular, instruction still remains primarily teacher centered. In this traditional model, faculty, holding the expertise, seek to provide knowledge to students who are the “vessels” into which the expertise is poured. Faculty seem most concerned with “covering” an expected amount of content in the limited time of each class period. The material to be studied is faculty led, the way in which it is learned is faculty devised, and student engagement, when present, lies in discussion with faculty at its center.

Even while desiring change, faculty report there is little time “left over“ in class to engage in creative activities, to “play” with the material, to explore, to discover together with their students. Experiential teaching is viewed as additive, rather than as the center of the learning process. Yet the very nature of the creative process — exploration and discovery — are at the heart of learning and thus, must also be at the heart of teaching.

In experiential teaching/learning, there is emphasis placed on the knowledge students bring to the particular lesson, their thoughts ideas, and feelings. Each class session begins with the teacher initiating an activity, which accesses the learner’s prior experience with the topic to promote initial engagement. Further, the teacher makes use of multi-sensory pathways (e.g. visualization, writing, music, poetry, movement, visual aids, simulation) to maintain engagement, model creativity and respond to different leaning styles. The teacher choreographs student exploration of ideas, concepts and possibilities through study, research, interviews, and fieldwork, typically in collaborative units, both within the class period and following, to personalize and explicate knowledge. Discovery, application and synthesis in real world or simulated situations solidify and anchor learning.

The experiential model of teaching and learning is as fitting for higher education as it is for third grade. Faculty in this model serve as resource and guide, offering expertise at different points depending on the topic and need for input, feedback, explanation and understanding. Teaching is dynamic and creative. It is centered in the belief that the learner is the source and resource for knowledge attainment; that it is the learner that seeks meaning and relevance and is eager for discovery. The learner moves from inquiry to exploration, exploration to discovery, from discovery to application. Faculty promote inquiry, facilitate study, engage in mutual learning, and like the student, become enriched in the process.


Blau, D. (2009). The efficacy of experiential teaching. Unpubished document. Third Annual Division 32 Conference. Colorado Springs, CO.

Dewey, J. (1938/1997). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

Jensen, E. (2008). Brain based learning: The new paradigm of teaching.  San Francisco: Corwin

Rogers, C.R. (1983). Freedom to learn for the 80's. Columbus: Merrill.

Zull, J.E. (2002. The art of changing the brain: Enriching the practice of teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Sterling, VA. Stylus