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April/May 2007

Learning by Doing
A Hands-On Approach
by Carrie Whitney

Who doesn’t remember dreary days in grade school, reading textbooks in a quiet

classroom or plowing through homework that did not really seem to apply to the day’s lessons? Such tried and true methods are the foundation of many an education. Although often successful, they are also increasingly relegated to just a small aspect of the classroom experience. As ideas and expectations of education broaden, many educators

and parents are recognizing the value of a hands-on approach to learning—they are taking advantage of applied methods and opportunities to teach with what is commonly known as experiential education.

In some cases, experience is used as a supplemental tool, but in many others, it is truly fundamental. Imagine the excitement of your child playing the role of an early-American colonist, struggling for survival in a classroom simulation as the students study American history. Witness analytical skills honed and a business sense developed as your eighth-grade student’s class takes on the challenge of running a mock business. Admire the creative vision driving your tenth-grader as he or she creates a documentary film—in comparison to traditional classroom experiences, today’s students have scholastic experiences that tend to mentally…stick around, as the facts are innovatively interspersed with fun-filled memories.

In its simplest form, experiential education is nothing more than learning by doing, and it certainly isn’t a new idea. In colleges, experiential learning has long been utilized in the form of internships or co-ops, but for elementary and secondary school children who probably won’t be taking on jobs any time soon, it naturally takes a different form. For children, experiential education consists of methods that not only allow them to learn through experience but also enable them to take that learning and apply it to new situations. Rather than adding two and two in a book, students might use objects during math lessons, and instead of just reading about the American Revolution, students take sides and put on an extemporaneous play set in their own hometown in 1776.

“You can get a child to memorize about anything,” says Kara Elkadi, owner of FasTracKids of Buckhead, an enrichment program and preschool designed to help kids think critically and problem solve. Memorization can be beneficial, but if the child cannot use learned information to think critically, what is the point? “We want the child to be able to take their experiences and use them.”

Intown Community School
What this means is that even a four-year-old can begin to learn about economics. One activity used at FasTracKids involves conducting a make-believe marketing survey in order to fashion a monster toy. The children all give their input and then actually design the monster and a poster. They then put together a skit advertisement.

Monster-making sounds like fun to children, but later when they are at the toy store with their parents, they understand a lot more about producers and consumers. “We are engaging them in a way that is active,” says Elkadi. “You can take almost any kind of information and find a way to teach it using experiential learning.”

At the Intown Community School, low student-to-teacher ratios coupled with half-day school for children in the first and second grades allows students and families to actively participate in their education. During first and second grade, parents teach Friday enrichment days, expanding on the subject being taught that month. For example, when one class was studying the 13 colonies, students were asked to play the role of a Pilgrim, choose a destination in the Americas and then make the trip (across the room). During their “voyages,” they encountered circumstances that kept them from landing in the places that most of them had picked, forcing them to reevaluate their decisions. “King James” then visited the class to discuss the choices the Pilgrims had made. Later, these first graders also wrote a class constitution.

Susanne Swing Thompson, a parent of three Intown Community School students in the third, fifth and sixth grades, says she has seen her children continue their love of learning because it is made interesting to them. According to her, such an education helps the students understand the value of knowledge. “Instead of learning something for a test, students make the knowledge their own,” she says.

Outdoor Academy
At the Outdoor Academy in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, experiential education is not just outside the box—it is literally taken outside. Up to 32 students from all over the country spend a semester of their sophomore year at the academy taking academic courses in a close-knit community, but in addition to college-prep work in subjects such as math and French, they might also take Appalachian history, explore science in the nearby forests or learn about American authors such as Wendell Berry, Alice Walker and Walt Whitman, who all took their artistic inspiration from the natural world. Students also explore music and art and create hand-made projects using traditional crafts such as woodworking, blacksmithing and weaving.

“We consider experiential education a very pragmatic approach to learning,” says Ted Wesemann, acting head of school and science teacher. “It’s something we recognize works well. Whenever possible, we go toward experiential learning here.” And that can mean hands-on activities, but is also means experiencing what has been learned in a deeper way than answering test questions. “This method involves taking a topic and turning it into open discussion,” says Wesemann.

While most students would benefit from experiential education, for some it can be critical. “The benefits and rewards are substantial for those who don’t learn at their highest potential in traditional programs,” says Dr. Arlene Rotter, school director of the Chrysalis Experiential Academy in Roswell. The school’s experiential learning program engages students in grades four through 12 with unusual projects and resources, helping students build on knowledge, often in a multi-disciplinary way, in small classes where individual attention is key. Students may travel to a marine lab or read Cold Mountain before taking a trip to Asheville, NC to meet with a forest ranger. The success of the program is evident—97 percent of the students graduate from college.

However your child learns, experiential education not only adds layers of comprehension to a topic, it makes students look forward to the classroom experience, and for many students and parents, that is experiential education’s most valuable asset. When the value of learning is recognized, when connections are made and knowledge remembered, and when school becomes fun—then a true education has been realized.


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