Learning by Doing

I like to talk a lot about “experiential learning” and why it is so important as an element of any curriculum. But what does this term really mean? As you can imagine, there are multiple definitions. A formal definition from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that, “Broadly speaking, experiential learning is any learning that supports students in applying their knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations where the instructor directs and facilitates learning.”

To me, the real essence is “learning by doing, not just listening.” Don’t get me wrong—there is nothing wrong with good, careful listening—we could all use a little more of that in our world. Where the idea of “experiential” begins to transform traditional classroom learning, though, is in application, extension and reflection. Good experiential learning isn’t just simply “doing something” (in or out of the classroom), it also includes applying learned knowledge to a novel situation, embedding a reflective process in an activity that solidifies a lesson and suggesting areas for further exploration.

I saw this in action as my family departed for Spring Break. As we sat on the plane, looking out the window before takeoff, my 3rd grader began pointing out the different parts of the wing. I was keeping up when I heard about flaps—flaps I’ve heard of–but he began to lose me with mention of ailerons and spoilers and how they worked to lift the plane. “Where did you learn all this,” I asked. “Launch-A-Palooza,” he replied. Launch-A-Palooza was the culminating experience of 3rd grade’s study of flight in science class. They studied and made prototypes and tested their paper airplane designs several times, incorporating their learning and putting it into practice.

Third graders putting their paper planes to the test during Launch-A-Palooza.

We have experiential-learning opportunities woven throughout the entire North Shore curriculum: Interim Week in the Upper School, for example, or the Over the Rainbow project in 5th grade. Science Olympiad, which the entire school saw at yesterday’s Morning Ex, is a wonderful activity that can demand planning, construction, iteration, calibration and reflection. Much of our Lower School curriculum depends on this approach as our youngest scholars learn by experiencing the world around them.

Where could we go next—literally or pedagogically? We are actively investigating and dreaming big dreams: more community partnerships, research trips, design projects, more gardens, a large hadron collider? (OK, maybe not that last one.) The drafting of our 2017-2021 Strategic Plan is encouraging such innovations, and the recent Purple Wave fundraising event was geared towards supporting experiential learning.

I don’t want to give the impression that “experiential learning” is some newfangled thing on the fringe of educational theory. Before the development of the formal school system in 19th Century America, learning was mostly doing—apprenticeships, for example. Even within schools, these concepts aren’t new—just newly rediscovered. North Shore and schools like it, founded out of the Progressive or Montessori Movements, were built upon these ideas. It was John Dewey who wrote, “Experience plus reflection equals learning.” Today, those sentiments are back “in fashion” as we learn more about brain science and how learning actually occurs.

I like to think that much of the educational world is striving to become what North Shore has always been—a place where learning is multi-faceted, active and embedded in the world around it. You might even say we’ve been doing “21st Century learning” for almost 100 years!

North Shore Country Day School is a private, college-prep school for high school, middle school and elementary school students in Winnetka, IL, a suburb of Chicago.

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