Doing for Learning: Differentiation and Experience

Doing for Learning: Differentiation and Experience

November 10, 2017

School education is often seen as a kind of dress rehearsal for what will follow in adult life. It is largely preparatory, imparting skills and knowledge needed later in life. It is structured so that students acquire knowledge sequentially in order to build understanding about what will happen later in the ‘real world’. We test understanding in different ways, some formal, others less so. At some point, we judge a student ready to exercise this acquired knowledge and skill in a productive way beyond school.

The idea that we might also learn from our experiences, however, is ancient. There has been a view throughout history that certain learning might need action, rather than theory. For such learning, the test is participation in the act itself. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle stated, with no doubt intentional irony:

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.

(Aristotle, 1908 [350BC]Book II)

This idea suggests that there are some things in life that we just cannot learn about before doing them; we must go ahead and act in order to learn. Take swimming for example. We can learn a great deal about water, its properties, laws of buoyancy, and ways in which our bodies might be propelled through water to stay afloat. Ultimately, however, swimming is about experiencing water: going in at the ‘deep end’ so to speak.

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HOS-5   At this time each year, we embark on a program of experiential learning, regional in scope, demanding in challenge, and deeply rewarding in outcomes. The ‘Experiential Learning Programs’ (ELPs) are a good example of what Aristotle described as ‘doing before we can learn how to do’. Under the care of highly experienced teachers and instructors, we place learners in environments that cannot be replicated in the classroom and ask them to undertake tasks that cannot be simulated in an hour-long lesson. As each experience is unique to the student, each outcome highly individualized, these programs offer the ultimate differentiated curriculum. The way in which we store memories about our learning experiences also ensures that no revision is necessary, just reflection on learning that can shape character and attitude for a lifetime.


I hope that each family – students and parents – will join with me in expressing gratitude to our teachers and Experiential Learning Team members and managers, along with the many highly skilled and experienced instructors, who made this rich and resonant learning possible. Done and learned.


Dr. Malcolm Pritchard
Head of School


Aristotle. (1908 [350BC]). The Nicomachean Ethics. Retrieved 17 November, 2015, from




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