In August of 2007, I found myself studying a new curriculum, getting to know a new classroom and my new coworkers, experiencing the culture of a new workplace, and trying to prepare for my first teaching job ever. The only thing I knew for certain was that I had no idea what I was doing, and even this was a vague notion. I did not have an understanding of what skills I lacked or what skills I even needed to be good at this important new job. My last hands-on experience in a classroom was as a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology, where I was provided stacks of reading materials for self-teaching following a series of long, dry lectures.
In fact, I cringe to admit that during my first couple months of teaching I was under the impression that spicing up my lectures with PowerPoint presentations was a heck of a good idea! My new audience was composed of 8th grade girls and I knew very little about them, including how to keep them engaged, how to relate to them, or what exactly they needed to learn.
Thank goodness for experience! Here I am 12 years later, ready to start my first administrative role at a place that values experiential learning as much as I do.
What is Experiential Learning
As the name suggests, experiential learning is about experiencing learning outside of the traditional classroom setting. It provides students with opportunities to engage with new content and skills on multiple levels: intellectually, physically, socially, and emotionally. For example, think about how people approach learning to play a new board game. Some will read the instructions but most will jump into the game and figure it out as they go.
Both engagement and clearly visible context, the reason for learning the knowledge and skills; are hallmarks of experiential learning. We, as educators, must make sure that our students learn from the experiences that we design for them. How do we turn experience into insight and ability to apply it? We must teach our young people to think by providing opportunities to reflect on learning, to synthesize and analyze experiences, and finally to make decisions and produce work.
At Blyth-Templeton Academy, we will provide opportunities to learn from failure and to improve, creating an environment where the process of learning rather than the product is emphasized. After all, when students build a bridge, the bridge itself is not the point. The point is the learning of physics and mathematics and civil engineering and local history and themselves as learners.
So let’s take a closer look at the ubiquitous bridge project and how we might transform gluing popsicle sticks into an authentic learning experience. For students, the project must start with a Why. Why are we doing this? Why is it important?
At Blyth-Templeton Academy, we rely on our students’ kindness and empathy. So we answer the why with “because it will help your wheelchair-bound neighbor cross the culvert in front of her house and go for an outing.” Now there is excitement and purpose.
Now they are asking: What do we need to know to do this well? Here is the opportunity to enrich the learning experience by connecting the intellectual, physical, social, and emotional levels of learning. The students visit their neighbor and get to know her needs and her space. They discuss the impact of their bridge on various stakeholders. Students study the ways forces act on a bridge and learn to calculate forces on bridge members using trigonometry. They get to visit and interview experts at Vanderbilt and Lipscomb Universities’ Civil Engineering departments. They might visit the Nashville Zoo to make observations on at least 3 different types of bridges located there. Students design experiments to determine strengths and weaknesses of the basic types of bridges and then build and test models of those bridges.
Our students will do all this learning and build the bridge. That will be the time for the teacher to model reflection: What did we learn? How did we learn it? In what ways does what we learned help us grow as humans? What worked well for you and how could we learn it better?
At Blyth-Templeton Academy, learning experiences are designed to provide our students with tools that will equip them to be successful learners and global citizens for the rest of their lives. We do this by building an atmosphere and space where student voice is heard and where the process of learning is valued and emphasized.
To learn more about experiential learning, check out our digital resource, Beyond the Desk: Why Experiential Learning is Crucial at the Middle and High School Level!