Progressive educators John Dewey and Ruth Catlin believed that the best learning happens through experience, an interaction between an individual and the environment. In schools, the interaction and environment are designed by the teacher, who selects materials, methods, subject matter, and surroundings that will engage students and inspire them to learn.
I was reminded of the importance of the learning environment recently when I attended the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network (ISEEN) Conference on Oahu. Joined by over 100 educators from around the country and overseas, we focused on the concept of “place-based education,” which speaks to Dewey’s belief that teachers should become “acquainted with the conditions of the local community, physical, historical, economic, occupational, etc. in order to utilize them as educational resources” (Experience and Education, p. 40). Over three days, leaders of outdoor education, service learning, global education, and sustainability programs gathered to share ideas and to learn how Punahou School and Iolani School are improving teaching and learning through a deep commitment to the culture, history, and ecology of their island home.
I went for two primary reasons: to learn more about best practices in the experiential programs we offer, and to learn more about how we can make our academic classrooms more experiential. Accompanied by Becky Wynne, Upper School global ed director, and George Zaninovich, director of our PLACE urban studies and leadership program, we examined what we mean by “experiential education” and how and why it benefits our students. Simply put, we want children to understand skills and concepts deeply and be able to effectively transfer what they know to novel situations. That happens best when learning experiences engage the intellectual, physical, social, and emotional domains, and have meaning and purpose to students.
Experiential learning is a familiar feature of school in our younger grades. Children in the Beehive and Lower School interact with a wide variety of carefully selected materials, settings, social situations, and questions, in and out of the classroom. Teachers keenly attuned to their developmental stage know how to design an active environment and a series of experiences to teach cognitive (i.e. academic) and noncognitive (i.e. character) concepts and skills.
Catlin Gabel middle and upper grades teachers also work hard to sustain the power of relevance, practical application, and student interest in their lesson planning. That is a challenge, because in the upper grades in most schools, subject-based graduation requirements, content coverage, and college admission criteria push experiential learning to the margins. I see my colleagues holding fast to our progressive principles, however, in the curriculum topics they choose, the wide range of assessments, and the degree of choice we offer to students. And I also see powerful off-campus experiential education programs, including global trips, outdoor education, urban studies, entrepreneurship, service, senior projects, and many more.
One aspect of the two schools we visited that impressed me was their sincere, respectful effort to incorporate their Hawaiian setting into their curriculum. Children at Punahou and Iolani are learning the human and natural history, culture, and ecology of Oahu, not from textbooks, but from community members, campus projects, Honolulu partnerships, and frequent experiences in their remarkable natural landscape. This deep grounding in the place where they live and learn is creating shared values and a commitment to community that was palpable.
I’m back in Portland now, and it’s a little cooler and wetter than Oahu. I’m inspired by the time we spent together at the ISEEN Conference. I know that experiential education can increase student engagement and understanding on and off campus at Catlin Gabel. I’m thinking that a deeper commitment to our campus place and our Portland place will benefit our students and those places. I believe we have the courage and imagination to overcome the familiar impediments of time, logistics, and comfort to become more experiential in our teaching and learning. That means we need to become better at integrating, illustrating, and assessing what is “academic” about these experiences, as well as more specific about how critical thinking, communication, resilience, collaboration, and cultural skills have value in college, the workplace, and in life.
One ISEEN experience I’ll remember was the afternoon we spent competing in traditional Hawaiian Makahiki Games, which require balance, strength, and skill. In her introduction to the games, one of our Iolani hosts shared with us a Hawaiian saying that stuck with me: “Ma ka hana ka ike,” which she translated as “In the doing is the learning.” In Oahu, in Portland, and in our lives, we know that learning through experience is the most memorable and valuable way to learn. We will continue to push forward in being a school that doesn’t just preach that; we teach that.