Beyond the Desk

Why Experiential Learning is Crucial at the Middle and High School Level


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Ask the average middle or high school student what they think of school, and they’ll most likely tell you that “it’s boring.” Another popular answer is “we don’t do anything.”

When pressed, students will admit that they sometimes have to take notes, listen to lectures, work on projects, or write papers, but those traditional educational activities still count, in their minds at least, as “nothing.”

Why? Research suggests, and anecdotal evidence confirms, that what adolescent minds crave is learning through experience. In fact, neuroscientists now know that the onset of puberty coincides with a dramatic increase in brain development, making adolescence a sensitive period for social, emotional, and experiential learning. This is why we are so passionate about individualized, experience-based education here at Templeton Academy.

In this resource, we will dive into the theory of experiential learning, what it looks like in the day-to-day life of a Templeton Academy student, and the immediate and lifelong benefits to this unique approach to education.



black-quote Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life. black-quote-right



Experiential learning is exactly what it sounds like: it is a process through which students develop knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences, as opposed to having all of their knowledge mediated through a teacher, book, or other traditional educational tool. Experiential learning makes students the agents of their own education, which means that they are more likely to retain and use the information they learn.

At Templeton Academy, experiential learning has four stages:


  1. Concrete Experience - This is the starting point for all experiential learning: the experience itself. At Templeton, our students may visit a museum or perform an experiment. They might visit the National Gallery of Art to view the Impressionist exhibit, while reading about the lives of the painters and the historical events that influenced their unique artistic perspectives.

  2. Reflective Observation - The student then reflects either personally or via written assignment on their experience. They might record their observations of a museum exhibit, or take note of the statistics related to an experiment. In this stage, the task for the learner is to understand any differences observed between their past knowledge (prior to the experience) and their current knowledge gained from the experience.

  3. Abstract Conceptualization - In this stage, the student creates the “rules” or incorporates their new learning into their existing knowledge in order to create something new. They may form a thesis statement for a history paper or a hypothesis for a science experiment. Either way, they are creating something new from their experience.

  4. Active Experimentation - In the last stage, the student goes out and tests whether their theory is correct or whether it can be applied to a new situation. A history student might research another culture or another era to see if there are commonalities. A science student might perform an original experiment based on the information gained from the previous experimentation.

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The job of the teacher is to encourage and defend [independent thought] from being blighted and destroyed, to strengthen it and enable it to flourish. Education is more like gardening than manufacturing.”



For many traditional educators, the idea of student-driven, experienced-based learning seems to negate the need for a teacher. If the teacher isn’t in control of the scope and sequence of the curriculum, they wonder, how will students learn? Aren’t teenagers too immature to direct their own education?

What we have discovered at Templeton Academy is that in the experiential model of education, the teacher acts as a guide and facilitator of learning, as opposed to a human search engine with all of the answers; we like to describe the teacher in the Templeton Academy classroom as “a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” When students are expected to be active participants in their own education, instead of passively absorbing information given by a teacher, their natural curiosity is awakened and they are more likely to become lifelong learners.

And while teenagers are immature, in the sense that their brains are not fully developed (and won’t be until they are 25 years old!), traditional education underestimates what middle school and high school students are capable of in terms of self-directed and experiential learning. Templeton Academy teachers allow middle and high school students to truly shine through experiential learning.



From concrete to abstract thinking:

Recent neuroscientific research into the development of the brain during the adolescent years helps us understand why experiential, student-led learning is so effective for middle and high school students. We now know that teenagers undergo a shift in the brain that helps them move from the concrete thinking of childhood to the abstract thinking needed in adulthood. This can be unnerving for students, because the world — especially the social world — shifts from black-and-white to shades of grey.

Experiential learning can help students make this shift without feeling overwhelmed by the ambiguities of life. How? As they develop a more complex worldview, learning by doing--whether that means going to the American History Museum or taking a summer job at a farm--can help them get more comfortable with taking risks, and help them to define their own values and beliefs in an environment that is safe and nurturing.

Logical Reasoning:

During adolescence, the brain makes a huge “leap” into the realm of logic and reason, which may surprise you, considering that teenagers are not well known for their excellent decision-making skills. The reality is that while their brains are developing the capacity for logical reasoning, teenagers feel a greater need to make their own decisions, even if they prove to be anything but logical. Experiential learning can help here too: by giving students more real-world opportunities to use their reasoning, their capacity for critical thinking and decision-making grows.

Impulse Control:

The pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control, grows substantially during adolescence. Teenagers are more capable of controlling their impulses than younger children, but their abilities in this area still need to be cultivated and encouraged. Experiential and group learning help students learn to manage their impulses by giving them opportunities to work with others and witness firsthand how their behavior affects the group as a whole.


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The experiential model of education looks quite different than what most of us remember from our school days. At Templeton, we incorporate several different experienced-based elements into the day-to-day rhythm of our school, so that our students can capitalize on their sensitive period for brain development, gain independence, and become lifelong learners.

Triangle Graphic


Unlike a traditional lecture, where the students are passive and absorbing information that is given to them, a Socratic discussion engages students by allowing them to explore questions posed by the teacher about a particular topic. Instead of the teacher summarizing a reading assignment for the students, each student must come prepared with their own knowledge of the reading so that they are able to participate in a meaningful way in the discussion. This allows students to engage in discovery, dialogue with one another about what they are learning, and learn from each other’s questions and insights.

Compared to a traditional lecture, the questioning approach used by the teacher is designed to achieve three goals:

  • Summarizing information
  • Identifying key points
  • Understanding the overall process

In our experience, Socratic discussion meets these goals more effectively than traditional lecture, because once again, the students have more agency and responsibility, which means that they are more likely to take ownership of the learning process from start to finish.



Templeton’s emphasis on place-based learning allows for the unique opportunity to use the city as a classroom. From museums and historical sites to government buildings and community gardens, the city makes what our students are learning in the classroom come alive.

We’re so passionate about the importance of place-based learning, we’ve created a full resource to explore the history and purpose of place based-learning. Learn more here!



We see service to others as integral to a well-rounded educational experience for students. Why? Because it provides students with the opportunity to participate in hands-on experiences, get real-time feedback, and reflect on how they might apply lessons in the future. We call this “service-learning,” because it contributes to the social-emotional growth that is so important in the middle and high school years. Students learn empathy, have the opportunity to encounter diverse peoples and cultures, and are asked to engage in reflection on their experiences. Service-learning is also unique in that it involves long-term engagement on the part of the student: instead of spending a couple of hours each week at a different site, they spend time learning about one organization, building relationships, and seeing more of the process, which then allows for deeper reflection.



When students consider and tackle a problem over the long-term, they are able not only to go deeper into the subject matter, but also to strengthen their ability to synthesize what they’ve learned through both Socratic dialogue and experiences outside the classroom. The projects assigned at Templeton Academy typically conclude with a final public product of some kind — a paper, presentation, computer program, or pitch. Research suggests that project-based learning helps keep students engaged and fosters critical skills like problem-solving, critical thinking, and sustained inquiry.




When you consider how powerfully our experiences as teenagers shape us as individuals, a K-12 education becomes about more than getting the grades to get into a good college. What we hope for our students is that they will become lifelong learners: people who continue reading, writing, reflecting, engaging with others, and serving the community, long after they graduate.

If your child’s post-secondary goal is college, we want you to know that the Templeton Academy model of education, as well as our excellent college counseling program, will help them achieve that goal. Our students bring authentic experiences to college so they are ready to manage their time, collaborate with others, and create in depth projects.

Once they get to college, graduates of Templeton Academy will continue to experience benefits of their unique education. Experiential learning at the middle and high school level unlocks teenagers’ passion and potential by engaging them in the search for knowledge and truth, awakening their curiosity, deepening their empathy, and building their self-confidence. In a small, learner-driven school community like Templeton Academy, students are able to take risks and make mistakes in a safe and nurturing environment, thus becoming more confident and able to tackle more complicated problems in college.

Most importantly, a student who falls in love with learning will be prepared to make the most of a college education.



We hope that this resource has been helpful as you consider the value of an experiential, student-driven education.

At Templeton Academy, we are passionate about the educational model we are building and always eager to share more about why and how we discovered the need for a school of the future.

Connect with us today to stay in touch and learn more!


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