Educators Take Deep Dive into Benefits of Experiential Learning at Conference Hosted by Catlin Gabel


Our campus was buzzing more than usual last month when over 150 educators from across the U.S. and Canada came to Catlin Gabel to take part in the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) conference.

Classroom teachers, outdoor education and community leaders, as well as global trips and diversity and equity practitioners spent three days together sharing their knowledge and ideas. Schools known for excellence in education are selected to host the conference each year. Past hosts include the Punahou School in Hawaii, Riverdale Country School in New York, and Phillips Academy, Andover, in Massachusetts.

Led by Catlin Gabel’s PLACE/CENTER director George Zaninovich, the gathering was deemed an unqualified success – both from those who attended and our perspective as hosts. Zaninovich reflected on his experience,

To me, skills such as deeply listening and centering the experience of other people is at the heart of educating for democracy and community connectednesss. The conference allowed me to hone in on what we do during PLACE programs and at the CENTER to teach skills that lead to greater understanding of self, others, and systems. Another highlight was seeing CGS employees showcasing the work they do to create just communities in their classrooms, at our school, and in our cities.George Zaninovich

Experiential Workshops Led by Catlin Teachers

Experiential learning introduces students to new experiences, includes reflecting and hypothesizing, and requires them to apply skills and knowledge to answer questions and solve problems. More than 20 Catlin Gabel teachers from across all grades presented workshops on this teaching method, which was informed by the conference theme of “Just Communities: Learning and Leading through Listening to Each Other.”

Presentations given by our community included:

  • Japanese American culture in Portland
  • Navigation of urban landscapes and culture
  • Photojournalism and nature education
  • Structural engineering and design
  • Ethnography and personal identity through writing

We were honored to be selected as the host, especially as it allowed us to showcase how we are deepening our commitment to experiential learning—one of our 2016 strategic plan goals.

First grade students visit the Structural Design & Engineering display in the Creative Arts Center.


Insights Gained by Implementing Experiential Learning

Through presenting to others, we are also learning how to best implement experiential learning in classrooms. Our insights include:

  • Well-designed experiential learning engages students intellectually, emotionally, and physically, provides relevance, helps students make connections across themes and disciplines, and fosters collaboration skills and individual initiative.
  • It works best when teachers know their students’ prior knowledge and skill levels and can differentiate the guidance each student receives.
  • It requires teachers to constantly monitor and provide feedback to students and be ready to step in with more direct teaching of content or concepts that students are not grasping.
  • It is effective in developing skills and understanding concepts and provides opportunities to practice higher order critical thinking.
  • It is less efficient than textbook-based teaching, and it is harder to cover as much subject content (although long-term recall of content covered is stronger).
  • Our growing experience is helping us see that our goal at Catlin Gabel is not to apply experiential learning to all lessons; it is to equip all teachers to do it well and know how and when to employ it based on specific learning objectives.

Why Experiential Learning Is Key to Educating Students for the Future

With today’s world becoming more entrepreneurial, diverse, complex, digital, urban, and personalized, how do we ensure our graduates learn the skills and competencies they need in such a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment? How can we provide ample opportunity for students to practice and master the skills of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creative thinking?

Experiential learning, well-designed by expert teachers and appropriately matched with the learning objectives, is a proven path that leading schools are pursuing. Through coaching, feedback, and by sharing what we are learning with other educators at conferences like ISEEN, our teachers are becoming increasingly skilled in providing this kind of powerful and lasting learning.