What is Experiential Education?
- Experiential education, a philosophy of education, was first written about at the end of the 19th century. It explores the relationship between learning and doing.
One of the most important writers on experiential education was John Dewey, an American educator and philosopher who wrote Experience and Education in 1938. Dewey wrote, “Experience happens; it is unavoidable. The problem for teachers and students is how to make meaning out of our experience.” Dewey believed that knowledge is not so much a ‘given’ as it is a ‘creation’ and that it is “individually and communally constructed by people…” as they engage in and… “reflect on the world around them” (Foundations of Experiential Education, NSEE, 1998).
- Since Dewey, experiential education has provided the philosophical basis for many educational programs and practices, including cooperative education, which involve learners in constructing knowledge and meaning as they actively participate in the world around them, typically in environments outside a traditional classroom.
How did Cooperative Education begin?
- In the early 20th century, an educational ‘experiment’ was undertaken at a college of engineering. It was felt that students might become better engineers if they could take time out from their classes and put into practice what they were learning in a real-world environment. The experiment proved to be highly successful. After a “Co-op” work experience, students better understood their coursework. They also became more confident, assertive, and independent learners.
- From this beginning, Cooperative Education became an important curricular offering at many colleges throughout the country. When LaGuardia Community College was founded in 1971, it became the first community college in the nation to include Cooperative Education in its overall mission and to require all full-time day students to complete Co-op internships as part of their academic program.
What is the relationship between classroom learning and a Cooperative Education internship?
- From its early roots to the present time, Cooperative Education has connected work experiences with classroom learning. It provides students with an opportunity to put into practice what is being learned in the classroom.
- But more essentially, it utilizes the workplace as a learning environment in which students “…test previously learned facts and theories, revise assumptions, and derive new and first- hand knowledge” (Foundations of Experiential Education, 1998). Cooperative education faculty believe that work environments provide the broadest scope for this kind of learning, where it occurs in the process of doing.
What is meant by “learning in the process of doing”?
- Think about your most transformative learning experiences. Did they change the way you think? Did they change your idea of who you are or who you think others are? Did they change your ideas about the world or what you thought was possible?
Who or what was the “catalyst” for these experiences? Was it a teacher, a book, a situation? And what was your role in these learning experiences?
- Whether or not they took place in a classroom, it’s likely that you took an active role in your most profound learning experiences. The most powerful learning occurs when we are active players in the learning process.
How and why does learning in a work environment differ from learning in a classroom?
- Sometimes, in a classroom, you may choose to sit back and be more of a spectator than an active participant. While not recommended for the classroom, this “posture” is not an option in a work environment. The workplace is a more complex environment than the classroom and the work process typically requires greater collaboration than usually occurs in a classroom.
- The workplace is an environment where your work can impact everyone else’s work and the eventual outcomes. Your performance is therefore important, not only for yourself, but for others as well. In this relatively complex, sometimes unpredictable environment, where you are depended on, you cannot simply be a “recipient” of learning. You must be broadly and actively engaged.
- It is active engagement in a relatively complex environment that fosters the depth of learning and the personal growth and development that are the outcome of experiential learning. It is in this environment that you will have the opportunity to compare your assumptions and understandings against a reality that may be quite different from anything you may have previously encountered. And differences that challenge your prior understandings afford you the opportunity to create a larger “map of the world”, one that displaces prior understandings or one that synthesizes your old understandings with new ones. It can also help you develop greater interest, curiosity, and openness to things that are new to you.
What kind of learning takes place on a Co-op internship?
- An internship provides an ‘authentic’ work experience related to your interests and your program of study. It provides a context in which you can use your skills and see the relevance of theories you learned in the classroom. Most importantly, because it requires active engagement, an internship helps develop your ability to be fully alert and ‘awake’ to your experience and to develop your own first-hand knowledge within the context of that experience.
- Your internship is actually a practicum in experiential education. While doing the internship, you are really engaged in several parallel processes – your engagement in the work itself, your reflection on your environment and how you are engaging with that environment, and the development of new understandings. As you become more skilled in these latter processes you develop an orientation toward work that places your learning and growth at the center of your experience. This helps you develop greater confidence and autonomy as an individual, as a worker, and as a life-long learner.
How is a Co-op Internship like a job? How is it different?
- A job, like an internship, offers the possibility of a wide range of learning and the opportunity to develop skills. In both experiences, as an example, you learn how to “fit in” and work collaboratively -- essential workplace skills. But an internship is intentionally designed to be a learning experience and it is an experience that you choose from an array of possibilities.
- The internship you select with the help of your Co-op advisor is one that will support what you want to learn and provide the right level of challenge for you. It gives you a chance to develop first-hand knowledge about professional work, about a career field that interests you and about yourself as you interact in this type of work environment. It will allow you to do new things that you may not be very good at when you first try them. It gives you the space and the support to develop new skills and new understandings. The focus on learning and the support for your role, as both a participant and an observer, is what distinguishes an internship from a job.
- Some closing thoughts on Cooperative Education and you.
- Cooperative Education provides an opportunity to put into practice the philosophy of Experiential Education. Through a Co-op internship, you have the opportunity to become skilled in learning within the context of your experience. And this skill can help launch you on a path of self-discovery. It can help you discover or even create a career that’s right for you, and instill true confidence, based on self-knowledge. At the end of your Co-op experience, if you have become a skilled experiential learner, you will have developed the capacity to confidently seek your own learning situations, successfully engage in the world, and wisely chart a future that is uniquely right for you.
Karen Anderson, Cooperative Education Department, 2005
- Anderson, K.,& either, J. (2004, April). Cooperative education for all students: Rethinking the critical learning and educational outcomes. Annual Conference of the Cooperative Education and Internship Association. Arlington, VA.
- Also presented, November 2004, at Experiential Education Across the Disciplines Seminar, LaGuardia Community College, Long Island City, NY.
- Dewey, J. (1997, c1938). Experience and education. Kappa Delta Pi lecture series.
New York: Touchstone.
- Frank, M. (2003-2005). Workshops on Situated Learning Theory. Cooperative Education Department, LaGuardia Community College. Long Island City, NY.
- Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Learning in doing: Social, cognitive, and computational perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- National Society for Experiential Education, Foundations Document Committee. (1998). Foundations of experiential education, December 1997. NSEE Quarterly 23 (3): 1, 18-22.