A white woman faculty member counts on her fingers while holding a leaf and speaking to a student who has their back to the camera
Director of Service and Sustainability Christina Erickson with students

Today’s students need 21st century skills and mindsets, both of which are fostered by experiential learning. At Champlain, we define experiential learning (ExL) as a pedagogical approach where knowledge is produced through direct experience that is framed by ideas and followed by reflection, analysis, and synthesis.

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

John Dewey

John Dewey, the internationally-renowned father of experiential learning, was born on land that is now Champlain College. It’s a powerful legacy that points us toward the future. Dewey defined intelligence as having three parts: converting “past experience into knowledge,” projecting knowledge in ways that anticipate future outcomes, and acting to achieve our desired ends. But how do we convert experience into knowledge?

A white female Champlain student kneels on the grass with a multiethnic group of children, showing them a photograph

Most ExL practitioners agree that hands-on learning experiences must be designed carefully, must take into account the developmental needs of students, and must be followed by sustained reflection on what has occurred. Reflection and analysis help make meaning of experiences, and are precursors to synthesis — in which we develop further plans based on what the past has taught us.

The experiential learning practiced on Champlain’s campus is often collaborative, project-based, place-based, and/or problem-based. ExL is an exciting mode of pedagogy because it immerses students in the world where ideas inform practice and vice versa. Most importantly, perhaps, students come to see themselves as active creators of knowledge.

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