Experiential Learning

As a progressive school, we believe that children learn by doing. When children employ their minds, bodies, emotions, and social skills to understand a new concept or experience, they are fully engaged.

By enlisting all of these domains, they strengthen their analytical thinking and their attention, memory, and communication skills. We strive to make lessons experiential so that students can better understand, remember, and apply what they learn. In the black box theater, in the Beehive kindergarten room, and in the Middle School science lab, I see children moving about, interacting with fellow students, engaging with teachers, voicing their ideas, and sharing their work. They are constantly developing, or as we educators say, constructing, new understandings about the world and themselves.

In an effort to highlight the value of experiential learning for students and faculty alike, every spring features “WEB” week. Special sessions called Winterim, Experiential Days, Breakaway, and Wonder Week take place in the Upper, Lower, Middle, and Beginning Schools respectively. Students and teachers fan out all over the world to learn new things in new settings with new people. I am amazed at the variety and richness of the offerings and impressed by the additional work required to design and execute these unique learning adventures.

During this year’s WEB week, I sampled several local courses. On Monday, I joined a dozen Upper School students on the challenge course on our wooded campus. Cheered on and belayed by each other, we successfully navigated three high elements, including the rickety bridge, the high V, and the staple climb. 

On Tuesday, I stopped by to help glue the chine log on a flat-bottomed skiff that Lower School students were building in the woodshop. In another classroom, amateur young architects were designing and building models of their ideal bedroom before heading downtown to meet with grown-up professionals. 

On Wednesday, after a guided meditation session, I traveled with an intrepid band of Middle School girls to Mt. Hood. We snowshoed around the slushy mountainside and then caught a snowcat ride up to Silcox Hut. At sunset, they settled in to spend the night as I headed down the slope to my car at Timberline Lodge. 

On Thursday, I joined a panel of architects and designers to hear two groups of Upper School students present design concepts for furniture and fixtures in our new multipurpose, multiuser urban studies PLACE center in NE Portland. 

Across the four days, I saw a wide range of cognitive and noncognitive learning. Students learned new vocabulary, skills, and processes. They learned concepts of math, physics, geography, design, and dendrology. They learned about knots, safety, woodworking, and weather. They practiced collaboration, patience, empathy, persistence, and resilience. In Cambodia, Portland, Astoria, Peru, Vancouver, New York, and other points far and wide, students across the grades embraced WEB week. The week was another reminder that learning can, and should be, a joyful lifelong adventure. That’s our goal all year long at Catlin Gabel.  


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The Future of Education?

This spring’s pivot to full-time remote learning sparked many questions about school, from the profound and challenging to the mundane yet urgent. The most fascinating question to me during this time has been: What will this mean for the future of education?