What makes an exceptional learning experience?

Students spend about 190 days per year in school for at least twelve years. A typical school day is about 7 hours, so in total students spend about 16000 hours in school before they graduate from high school.

A teacher in Ontario requires a bachelors degree and an education degree, so that’s at least four years of university - five years for most. After about 20,000 hours of school and about two and a half years of involvement in education, I can’t immediately define what makes an exceptional learning experience. I have been on both sides of the fence, as a student and teacher, so why is it so hard to coherently outline what makes an authentic, memorable, and meaningful learning experience?

I think this is because I have had both good and bad learning experiences but “we remember bad times better than good”. So it’s easy for me (and others) to see the bad - schools can sometimes be void of meaning, boring, passive, repetitive, and “one size fits all”. Instead of focusing on the bad in our attempt at hacking education, I believe we should focus on the positives and work to make them a more common occurrence.

This article is an opportunity to reflect on what I have learned and to outline in a concise and coherent manner what I think makes for an exceptional educational experience. My goal is for the ideas here to apply to all forms of education - offline, online, in-person, distance education, workshops etc.

Meaningful and Memorable

Teachers, students and parents as a group are responsible for learning but sometimes in our effort to meet curriculum expectations, get high grades, get ahead in life, etc., we can lose sight of the real purpose of education. For example, a biology lesson about the Krebs Cycle can degenerate to the point where all that matters is that students memorize the steps and can regurgitate them on demand. We have to ask ourselves - what is the point? Will students even remember this stuff after the exam? Will this be an experience that ignites a spark in these students, a spark that triggers a lifelong passion for science, or even an appreciation of science?

What if we compromised a bit, ditched the jargon and extreme precision and spent our precious time focusing on what makes the topic significant and dare I say fun? What if we presented topics in an authentic context? For the Krebs Cycle it might be the fact that it’s the reason why we breathe or why some food is so delicious (hint: it has to do with carbohydrates and fats).


Traditionally in a classroom, the teacher is the centre of the universe; he or she requires complete silence so that their distilled wisdom can be poured into the little brains of students. One has to ask, is this really the best way to teach/learn? Our brains are not sponges, they are complex organs that have been shaped by millions of years of evolution. We need to be active contributors to our learning rather than passive receivers of information for many reasons. Active learning involves interacting with peers, experimentation, play, practice, discovery and reflection. Even if lecturing works (it doesn’t always), active learning is much more likely to plant a seed of interest which might grow into lifelong passion or appreciation.


We want our students to succeed in life and to make positive contributions, so in developing curricula we think about all of the important topics that they might need to understand. We keep piling on topic after topic until all we have time for is note taking and tests… It’s quite impressive actually - a grade 12 chemistry student is supposed to understand organic chemistry, atomic chemistry, thermodynamics, chemical systems & equilibrium and electrochemistry. Before we pile on more topics, I think we should take a moment to examine what we’re doing. What are we preparing our students for? We’re preparing our students for an unpredictable future by teaching them what we already know?

A more productive approach might be giving students an opportunity to learn and practice critical thinking, the ability to look up information, problem solving and creativity. Specific topics should be a means not an end. Ken Robinson defines creativity as “original ideas that have value”, something that we could use more of given all of the problems that we currently have (global warming, energy crisis, economic inequality, bad education, etc.).


We have more knowledge, more data and our problems are more complicated. Scarce are the instances when an individual can make a major contribution without the help of others, yet we’re still preparing individuals, not team members. The internet is ”transforming the nature of our collective intelligence and how we understand the world”, so we need to prepare students for this new world.

A good start would be providing collaborative learning places. We need to also teach students how to effectively use the collaboration tools that are at our disposal. Teachers of course can’t teach collaboration unless they do some of it themselves in their own professional life - an issue I hope to address in a future blog post.


Learning is not a boolean value (yes or no), it’s a journey and students are at different points in this journey. Students have different experiences, interests, personalities, family life, etc. We can’t give them all the same learning experience and expect them to succeed. There needs to be a focus on equity not equality, a focus on giving each individual what they need to succeed even if they require more.

Understanding students can help educators create an education that is more relevant and engaging because a variety of instructional techniques are used. In differentiated learning, students are given an opportunity to choose how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning.

That’s all I have for now but if you’re reading this then I’m interested in hearing your opinion. What makes an exceptional learning experience?