What is Experiential Education?

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An exploration of why Catlin Gabel values learning by doing

By Paul Andrichuk

Middle Schoolers pull ropes on the Adventuress
Involving the teenage child
In activities rambunctious or mild
The brain, hand, and heart
Meld event into art
With results both long-lasting and wild
Experiential learning’s dependent
On variety rich and resplendent
Connecting the dots
Both the real and ersatz
Leads to knowledge that can be transcendent

—Tom Tucker ’66, Middle School arts teacher

Tom shared these words on the subject of experiential education as we—the Middle School faculty—struggled to make recommendations on this topic. It was a great way to capture the ambiguity of the phrase so central to Catlin Gabel’s mission. Does experiential education refer to out-of-class experiences such as Lower School Experiential Days, Middle School Breakaway, and Upper School Winterim? Class trips? Service learning? Or all of these?

Because I spend my time with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, I’ll give you one example from Middle School to chew on:

Eighteen Middle School students boarded the Adventuress in Port Townsend, Washington, the week before spring break for a Breakaway trip. In addition to learning the basics of sailing, these kids were responsible for day-to-day chores ranging from trimming sails to nighttime anchor watch. Pictures show lines of Middle Schoolers tugging at sails in a coordinated manner. A 7th grader had to wake an 8th grader at 2 a.m. to go up on deck as she goes to bed herself. Cooking crews prepared the simplest of meals. Consider one part of that image: 3:12 in the morning, and you are alone on watch aboard a historic ship with nothing but the sounds of water and creaking wood. You see the shimmering Sound, low clouds, or stars if you are lucky. I bet you’re tired and there’s a little doubt, but you know that the crew and your teachers are close by— and you know exactly what to do.
Learning to sail—cool. Proving yourself in the middle of the night—sweet. Learning how to work and play with people in a cooperative way and better understanding how to balance individual need with what is right for the group—awesome!

At its core, experiential education is about learning by doing. In addition to the trips off campus, carefully crafted lessons are distinct experiences, and they happen in every class at Catlin Gabel School. Students continually make connections between what they learn in their classes every day, from algebra, to English, to art and history.

I will give you three examples from Middle School, but it’s important to address the connection in all grades between authentic experiences and student motivation. When experiences are combined with student choice, students of all ages are more likely to:

* Be cognitively engaged—“I’m interested in this, and I’d like to understand what it means for me.”
* Take on more challenging tasks—“I wonder what would happen if I used a negative number here?”
* Work through frustration and failure— “I don’t get this right now. I wonder if I can find a different strategy.”
* Show creativity in what they do—“Is there a different way to solve this math problem other than the algorithm?”
* Find links to other disciplines—“There seems to be a way to connect art and math. Can I illustrate this geometric proof in art class?”

So back to the examples:

Carol Ponganis creates a crime scene during a forensics unit in 7th grade science. Students arrive to a taped-off crime scene, one that includes evidence. In addition, they review source materials about the science of fingerprinting. Like science, a crime scene presents several different versions of the truth.

Students circle the taped-off scene with the evidence inside. This is the observation stage. Based on what they see, students begin to ask and answer questions. Dead ends and answers help these investigators get to a working theory or hypothesis. The 7th graders must now experiment and test the evidence of this new truth—at least their version of it.
The trial is something you do not want to miss—gripping!
I also recently sat in on a 7th grade English class during their poetry unit. Christa Kaainoa’s students read independently from different genres throughout the year. To celebrate National Poetry Month, she asked 7th graders to choose a poem to read to classmates. Christa also invited faculty and staff readers to class, and 27 adults shared poetry, either their original work or old favorites by other authors. Christa also gave students a menu of local poetry events for them to attend if they chose.
In this case, the concept of who a teacher is (or should be) radically changes. Better still, 7th graders get a sense of the range of poems out there. Some are originals; some are by famous poets they have never heard of. The poems are long and short, uplifting and depressing, humorous and poignant. The students get a new sense of the possibilities.
A final example:

Hannah Whitehead begins the 6th grade year with a unit centered on “The Mind That’s Mine.” Students consider and formalize the way they learn. Questions they ask themselves include: Can I link new knowledge and learning with what I already know? Can I pay attention when things are not interesting to me?

Do I know what is important and what is not when I hear it, read it, or experience it? Can I organize rules, patterns, and groups of similar knowledge? This metacognitive understanding—which cognitive psychologists identify as critical to learning—requires time for experimentation and reflection.

So experience is at the core of what we do here, from Beginning through Upper School, whether we are skateboarding during Breakaway, climbing mountains during Winterim, spinning yarn during Experiential Days, or determining solubility in an 8th grade science lab. There are guiding principles that help determine what happens before, during, and after these experiences.

* Failure and success are valued in equal measure, as long as reflection and processing are included. Uncertainty—and the sense of risk that accompanies it—is seen as a healthy part of discovery and subsequent learning. Consider the 6th grader on deck watch.
* Students are asked to take control, make choices, and be accountable. They are responsible to their own learning as well as the group process. Progressive educator John Dewey emphasized the expression and cultivation of individuality rather than imposition from above.
* The emphasis is on personal learning as students construct their own knowledge based on a designed experience. This personal construction of knowledge becomes the foundation of the next day’s or the next year’s lesson.
* Teachers and other adults at Catlin Gabel design learning experiences, set expectations, and prompt deeper learning. Texts and teachers are learning partners and elements of the experience, not the experience.
* Kids are always learning, whether they are sailing or reading history. This being the case, teachers and students recognize the value of spontaneous learning.
* John Dewey also focused on topics and skills that made “direct and vital appeal.” Teachers here are continually asking themselves: What is relevant? And what is important for our students to know in a changing world?
* Time for reflection is critical.

In addition to founder Ruth Catlin’s principle that the student is the unit of consideration, she emphasized that there be conditions—experiences—in which students might develop to their fullest powers both as individuals and group members. From the time of our founding, experience has been at the core of Catlin Gabel’s mission.

Paul Andrichuk is the head of Catlin Gabel's Middle School.