School Change Through Experiential Programs

Independent schools have increasingly created specialized positions to lead or facilitate new, experiential learning opportunities for their students. Do you have these positions at your school?

Director of service learning
Director of global programs
Educational technology specialist
Urban studies program director
Director of student life
Outdoor programs coordinator
Director of diversity

These programs feature a common thread: experiential learning. Students engage in hands-on activities grounded in an authentic context such as service, the outdoors, global travel, or multiculturalism.

Where do experiential programs live within the school? How do students access them?

One model: students experience two separate courses of study, a “core” of discipline-based study plus a “peripheral” set of experiential programs.

This structure implies an “influencer” model of school change. The school creates new positions for experiential program leaders. Students participate in these special programs outside of the regular class schedule. Most teachers observe from a distance. If the experiential programs are exciting and the program specialists effective at outreach, then teachers may increasingly partner with the programs to introduce more experiential elements into subject-based instruction. Experiential programs only affect the core as much as they influence from a distance.

The contrast of teaching methods may send students unintended messages. Discipline-based classes may use more recognizable forms of teaching: holding classes, facilitating class discussion, assigning readings, and assessing student mastery through papers, presentations, and tests. Experiential programs may take place in the woods, on Skype, or through a blog. They may emphasize student construction of the learning environment, partnerships with local organizations, special events, and interdisciplinary study. Experiential programs may gain a reputation for being optional or less rigorous.

Another model: students experience a “core” program that incorporates experiential components.

This structure adopts a rapid, comprehensive model of school change. The school makes a decision early on to broadly adopt specific experiential learning themes. All teachers are involved, and all courses integrate experiential learning in some manner. If the school creates special program director positions at all, then these individuals are few in number and partner closely with teachers to create student learning experiences. They do not offer separate programs to students. The weekly timetable is organized to facilitate experiential learning opportunities. Students experience a relatively consistent learning experience across the school program.

How may an existing school integrate experiential programs without completely reorganizing itself?

1. Assign experiential program responsibilities to core teachers. Partly discipline-based teachers, partly program specialists, they are more likely to influence their colleagues to try something new.

2. Mandate special, schoolwide initiatives to introduce more experiential learning, supported by program specialists.

3. Facilitate democratic, teacher decision-making processes to introduce specific types of experiential learning into the school program, facilitated by program specialists.

4. Provide program specialists greater access to school change vehicles, such as administrative leadership and curriculum review committees.

Case studies: schools trying different experiential programs

I would like to list these schools now and write short case studies in the future. What other independent schools would you add to this list?

Urban School: Innovative Teaching

Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences

Lick-Wilmerding School: Public purpose

“Leading from the Middle”

A summer institute offered by the Santa Fe Leadership Center


  1. […] School Change Through Experiential Programs […]

  2. Carla Silver says:

    Richard, I would add Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco to this list. They have recently introduced a new model called the “Leadership Fellows Program.” Teachers apply to be a leadership fellow in a number of areas — from Wellness to Multicultural Programs, Teacher Center, garden program as well as more traditional academic areas such as math and humanities coordinators. The hope is that this model will give more faculty and staff (the positions are open to staff as well!), more opportunities to lead school innovations.

    I like this model a lot for a number of reasons, many of which you discuss in your post. This seems to be a very strategic way to create real change in the culture of a school. Also, these fellows, while their roles within the school might be different, they do see eachother as a cohort of school leaders. They can use each other to discuss challenges they might be having in their roles and they can work together to develop an overall culture of leadership within the school.

    In addition, I can’t agree with you more that the experiential programs in a school are so central to the growth and development of the students. These are the programs that often shape WHO the children turn out to be in their adult lives. I know I am a different person today because of my outdoor education program as a high school student. I didn’t realize it then, but I do now. I think that the experiential programs can inform and inspire the academic programs (and vice versa). By having a group of leaders representing both academic and experiential side in one “fellows” program, this can create some real harmony in a school.

    I am doing a training for this group — we had the first session last week and we pick up again in August. I would be happy to tell you more about it when you return from Botswana — or write a case for you.

    Have a great trip, Richard!