Institut für Elebnispädagogik

Jörg Ziegenspeck

Experiential Education

Cardinal Information on a scientific practice
and a practical science.

1 Preliminary note

Whenever crises occur in society; whenever solutions to economic and social problems are unsuccessful, and discontent paired with disinterest in state affairs spreads, the young generation seeks alternative ways to express themselves and shape their lives. Such was the case in the Twenties displayed in the quote: “from grey town walls we will escape to open fields”, and was also the tenor of the “green sub-culture” which continues to make a strong impact on our lives today. In other words, whenever the young make a move (Youth Movement) the search for first-hand experience is always the preeminent motive.

Even today some young people literally put on their back-packs and take off for new horizons while most kids and youngsters who are targeted as consumers by the marketing industry, succumb to an ever-growing desire for new goods such as TVs, walkmen, and mobile phones spending time and money in amusement arcades. Those who are able to resist, choose to take new roads, discover other paths and head for new goals.

Experiential education is one answer to the desire for new departures. Is experiential education, long an empty phrase, merely a reaction to their action? The question certainly requires investigation.

2 Definition

Experiential Education regards itself as both an alternative and a compliment to established and traditional educational institutions. With its roots in the “Reform Pedagogy” movement and having been almost forgotten during WWII, Experiential Education (further referred to as E.E) gains recognition, the more school and social pedagogy refute creative problem-solving strategies. In its role as an alternative, E.E investigates new paths outside the confines of existing institutions while as a compliment, E.E searches for new approaches within existing structures. The name E.E today invokes images of nature-sports activities on water, land or in the air. This current, limited focus on out-door activity, out-door pedagogy must be widened to include in-door activities, in-door pedagogy. The opportunities for experiential learning in art, music, in both cultural and technical areas are manifold.

Taking into account the current discussion with its bias on nature-sports, the following must be stated:

Experiential educational programmes as proffered to date involve for the most part, a natural environment and therefore state ecologically-minded claims.

Here a clarification of terms seems necessary:

It remains to be said, that out-door programmes in experiential education always carry a certain element of risk which must of course be controlled and contained resposibly.

3 Historical Retrospective

Experiential Education today displays many aspects covering even more areas. Since its tentative (new) beginnings fifty years ago until today in 2007, there has been both quantative and qualitative progress reflected in wide-spread federal discussion.

Its roots lie in the work of Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) who founded a humanist psychology, in which experiencing one´s condition subjectively and the recognition of one´s being through exterior objectivity are understood as the two ways humans have of comprehending reality.

Experiencing is the subjective internalising of important processes. Experience is the sum of such internalised processes made at both first and second hand. Knowledge evolves from these experiences which gives insight into understanding and thus forms the highest level of knowing: wisdom. Experiencing, experience, knowledge, and insight are equally important terms in the realm of E E.

Experiential Education reached its peak in Germany initially around 1930, as a pillar of the perception of teaching as recognised by the reform pedagogy movement. Waltraud Neubert, a research student of Hermann Nohl´s at the University of Göttingen, made this clear in her dissertation of 1930 where she speaks of experience as the “methodological basis term in modern pedagogy”, besides which “work” is understood and school is recognised as the “children´s field of experience”.

E.E took unfortunate detours during the time of the “brown” indoctrination and political manipulation only a few years later, in the years 1933-1945. Under the mantle of the cadres of the NSDAP e.g the HJ, the Hitler-Youth movement and the BDM, the German Girls' Union, KdF, Power through Joy, and also by misusing vital pedagogical elements such as parties, trips and camps to their own ends, experiential education was robbed of its original basic humanitarian message.

After WWII the attempt was made to carry on where the Third Reich had ruptured the natural development during its violent terror regime. Unfortunately this was merely a half-hearted attempt of educational politics, since a large number of teachers and educationalists, at least in West Germany, remained politically implicated. It was therefore not possible to speak of a “pedagogical atmosphere of departure”such as had taken place in the aftermath of WWI, particularly since the rebuilding of Germany was at that time of uppermost importance. The economical success, the “business boom” in the years to follow gave no reason to doubt the sagacity of continuing with the traditional way of thinking. Restauration took first place, before reformation.

With the rebuilding of the economy and constriction of the federal republic of Germany under the growing shadow of the East Block and the Iron Curtain which gave rise to the Cold War, competition evolved between political systems which naturally had enormous influence on training and educational systems. The so-called “sputnik shock” lead to changes in curriculum, giving greater emphasis on cognitive skills. An occidental identity in educational thinking was given no place, and with hindsight it is possible to speak of “over-exaggerated” thinking and regimented schooling as the results of the guidelines and requirements of the then educational policies.

Only in recent years have new ecologigcal discoveries forged their way through old patterns of thought and behaviour. Old (political) structures are crumbling in East and West. Humanity and being human can be clearly defined; inner and exterior boundaries, it is hoped, are being dismantled.

Much will be reconsidered in the future, including learning and education.

4 Perspectives arising from this

Whoever releases or is forced to release old ideas, gains a new perspective for socio-political imperatives.

While the initial apogee in the history of E.E took place within the confines of the school, a second phase of high estimation is reaching its summit. Remarkable is now however, that E.E is gaining respect in the field of social therapy, as recent developments displays growth in extra- curricular areas. Perhaps Experiential Therapy, the term coined by Kurt Hahn, is gaining recognition and becoming integrated into socio-therapeutical concepts.

With the educational policies in place since the reunification of Germany, the process is speeding up and gaining new depth for the following reasons; where old approaches to state youth-care are no longer effective, new methods are needed for dealing with the increasing violence and disorientation amongst the youth of today (high youth unemployment rates, alcohol and drug abuse, family breakdowns, social isolation- as mass phenomena) while at the same time fewer role-models are available and moral values in general are lost sight of (the world of politics destroys its image through constant negative media presence, infoming of corruption, exploitation and open dishonesty and leaving young people searching for trustworthy figures of authority). A vicious circle is being created which will have long-lasting effect should visible measures not be taken to thwart its development. The increasing attraction of neo-nazi ideology and rising crime-rates are only the tip of the ice-berg. Under the surface the growth is worrying and not to be taken lightly. The social state is seen to have exhausted its powers, innovative approaches to social justice remain insivible. It is a sad situation, in a world in which Germany a leading industrial nation, vital part of Europe, ought to be able to demonstrate how to manage its internal problems and act as role-model for others.

5 Resumée

A well-founded, distinctive choice of method must be made, taking three aspects into consideration. Firstly, the choice should be made depending on the specific programme e.g. nature sports, artistic-cultural, or technically orientated. Secondly, depending on the clientele of the target audience or on the individual problems of single participants, e.g. pupils, trainees, socially underpriviledged adolescents, and lastly depending on the time-scale, e.g short-time measures, and the requirements, e.g. physical, emotional, social, or cognitive, pre-knowledge or aspration levels. All questions pertaining to “how” as applied to the practicalities of envisaged measures, programmes and intentions must be answered from the view point of person, goal, concept and therefore in an educationally coherent manner.

Important for the socio-pedagogic viewpoint is the differentiation between experiential educational measures with a preventative goal and maintenance in the case of deviance pedagogy. In the latter case, attention must be drawn to the successful work done in residential care such as travel pedagogy, projects abroad, social- therapeutical sailing trips and one to one care.

Two theories and a statement give food for further reflection:

  1. EE makes it necessary to rethink. In 1986 a study on the life and work of reform pedagogue Kurt Hahn, spoke of the necessity for a “copernican change”:

    Unlike theory-building learning situations, teaching strategies with emphasis on skills and competences which need to be learnt “hands on” dominate in EE accentuated programmes.Or, perhaps clearer:

    Not learning with the head (and how many young scholars have subsequently forgotten what was thus drilled into them?) but learning with hands, observing and discovering for themselves is aimed at. The opportunities must be given for something to be “treated”, “dealt with”, “grasped”. When will it finally be understood that the “Nuremberg Funnel” is the wrong tool for changing old patterns into forward-looking behaviour?

  2. A complex or holistic approach, i.e measures and programmes in general, about which the following statement can be made:

    Heart, hand and understanding belong together, unifying human life and all things social. The heart stands for life and love, the hand for business and work, understanding for learning and leading. The combination should “make sense” of the world, with all the senses, create an awareness in each individual and make emancipation second nature.

    It follows therefore that:

  3. With heart, hand and understanding it is possible to learn in real situations which are socially challenging and require creative solutions. Such learning creates the pedagogically defined framework of expectations which must be practically implemented, with responsiblity. These considerations must be based on individual and group behaviour changes and values.

EE is, as shown, a relatively young pedagogical discipline which has only developed slowly.As public recognition grows, for whatever reason, the interest in conclusions and results will lead to means and personnel being made available, so that what has thus far been vague, unscientific and discriminated against, can become substantiated and established.