Experiential Education for Teachers


ISEEN’s Executive Director Jess Barrie and I

Last week, I had one of the most powerful and inspiring experiences of my professional life. For ten years the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) has been holding January institutes for practitioners in the fields of Outdoor and Adventure, Service Learning, Sustainability, Leadership and Global Education. We share stories, best practices, student transformations, joys, challenges and triumphs in our experiential programs. Over the years, we continue to learn from each other, confident that the work we are doing provides very meaningful experiences for students. We are excited by the changes afoot in education: the move toward innovations such as project-based learning, Maker spaces, and design thinking reinforce what we have been doing for years. We long for more coherence between experiences in the field and experiences in the classroom, where students spend the majority of their time.

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Teaching my Global Education specialty group

For years the ISEEN board has been planning an institute for teachers, to offer them the opportunity to use experiential education “pedagogy and practice” in the classroom. Well, this year, they pulled it off, and it was truly amazing. Forty two teachers, five facilitators and three board members met on the campus of Santa Fe Preparatory School for 4 days of teaching and learning, creating new lessons and new ways to deliver content. Together we reviewed the pedagogical framework described by the Kolb Cycle and then had the opportunity to work out what it looks like in practice. Three discipline-specific groups (English, History and World Languages) each met for two days with a teacher-facilitator who routinely uses experiential education in the classroom. Each participant chose either Global Education or Service Learning to explore during the next two days.


The group on a hike up Sally’s Hill behind the school.

I had the privilege of facilitating the Global Education group, and it was exciting, challenging, exhausting and exhilarating! We began by investigating such questions as “What is global education?” “Why is it important?” “What is the relationship of global to local?” and “What daily classroom practices can I use to develop my students’ perspective of the world?” We discovered through our own experience how grounded students would feel if we use opening and closing activities to frame a class period.  We remembered the importance of physical movement to engage student learning. And laughter. Lots of laughter. By the end of our sessions, each teacher had new classroom practices in their “educator toolbox.” In addition, they returned home with a plan for either a lesson, a unit, a course, or a way to work with their department or school using experiential education. Bonus: we made new friends, ate delicious food, spent time hiking in the hills and walking around the town, and committed to supporting each other during the school year by sharing resources and holding each other accountable.

We all agreed it was one of the most exciting and inspiring professional development opportunities we have experienced. As an advisory board member to ISEEN, I am especially pleased that this institute, long in the making, was so successful. I dream of the day when experiential education pedagogy and practice are routine in all aspects of education, and these four days brought us a few steps closer to that vision.

Experiential Education via ISEEN

This is the Mt. Saint Helens I climbed!

This is the Mt. Saint Helens I climbed!

I had some great teachers in elementary, middle and high school. Some of the fascinating and useful things I learned in class have even stayed with me. And yet, when I think back on my education, most of the transformative moments, those times when I made huge leaps in my learning, happened outside of the classroom. The dude ranch camp in Arizona I received a scholarship to attend; the time we climbed Mt. St. Helens (before it lost its top) and had to abandon our expedition in the middle of the night in a rainstorm; the Japanese exchange students with whom we could only communicate through sign language and by teaching each other children’s songs; the “world without war games” during a project week; my demanding crew coach inspiring our boat to beat the college teams in one regatta: those are the experiences that stand out. I imagine this is true for most of you. Our education system was set up to support the industrial revolution, creating factory workers and “company men.” Now we need to educate for life after the digital revolution, and many systems have not yet caught up. I would like to tell you about one organization whose leadership and members advocate for the integration of what has often been called “extra-curricular” with direct classroom learning.


My “homeroom” group doing an orienteering exercise

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in one of my favorite experiences each year. I attended the 10th Annual Independent Schools Experiential Education (ISEEN) Institute, this year hosted by Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Ten years ago, a small group of independent school employees met to see how they might support each other in the unique challenges they faced as program directors in outdoor education. An organization called the Independent Schools Adventure Network (ISAN) was born and they began holding an annual institute for providers to learn from and support each other. A few years into the organization, I attended one of their annual meetings at Albuquerque Academy. Although I wasn’t working in outdoor education per se, a colleague of mine was sure I would find “my people” in this group. She was right. I have been attending ever since, I served on the board for a number of years, and I come away inspired every year.

10454268_10154277967830693_8413933604781990685_oThis year was no exception. Looking at ISEEN from a ten-year perspective, there is much to be proud of:

  • The organization changed from ISAN to ISEEN to expand the scope from just outdoor and adventure education providers to include global, service learning, sustainability, and student leadership. This year we even had a strand for administrators who are overseeing multiple areas under one experiential umbrella, a trend I find particularly exciting.
  • We grew from just a few practitioners the first year to 130 this year.
  • We have been hosted by a different school every year, giving us all a chance to learn firsthand from the experiential programs at other schools.
  • We have had sessions from some of the top thought leaders in experiential education pedagogy and practice; this year included Dan Garvey, former President of Prescott College, Grant Lichtman of The Learning Pond, David Streight of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education and Eric Hudson of the Global Online Academy.
  • We have become a membership organization.
  • We had a number of pre- and post-conference workshops to expand our offerings. I facilitated a workshop this year on integrating curriculum into global travel programs, whether for a specific experience or on a school-wide level. We spent a lively three hours sharing ideas for deepening student learning by connecting direct off-campus experience to classes and other school activities.
  • This summer, we are offering the first annual professional development opportunity for classroom teachers who want to incorporate experiential education pedagogy and practice into their daily teaching.

Although much has changed, much has remained the same. We plan the institute very carefully so we can maintain the intimacy of the early days through small group discussion and time for specialty groups to convene. Many participants feel the need to come every year to connect with colleagues and friends — some of us feel it is our “annual department meeting” — and every year there are new people coming to learn and connect for the first time.  ISEEN is a vibrant organization, working to advance the pedagogy and practice of experiential education as a leading model for student transformation.