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Allowing students to learn through direct experience

Allowing students to learn through direct experience  

Notes on experiential learning at Catlin Gabel

by Aline Garcia-Rubio '93 

Catlin Gabel Head of Upper School 

Catlin Gabel believes in students having direct experiences, and engaging in reflection, analysis, and experimentation as a way to learn deeply. Such processes encourage deep understanding, inspire personal growth, and promote active citizenship.

In the Upper School, experiential learning happens in and outside of the classroom, sometimes in the robotics lab, on our athletic fields, and in mock trial or other extracurriculars; it also happens on trips (local, regional, global), and during our focused Winterim weeks. Experiential learning is part of our student’s daily work, whether they are building a fine table in the woodshop, executing a kayaking trip, writing poetry, interviewing Portland immigrants, or collecting water samples that run off from our fields. One could pick a number of learning activities that exemplify our effective pedagogy; here are a few recent ones to highlight:

In the Advanced Chemistry class, students studied the electromotive force—the maximum potential difference between two electrodes of a galvanic or voltaic cell. They understood the equations that relate between voltage, temperature, pressure, and the concentrations of the solutions involved in this device. Students developed a conceptual understanding of the relevant electrochemical process through their readings, dialogue, and applied mathematics. However, we want students to have a direct experience of this phenomenon and to engage in active experimentation as well. We know this will deepen student understanding. With that goal in mind, the experimenters in that class applied their knowledge to create a galvanic cell and determine the voltage generated by it. Through their collaboration, they analyzed their own learning and cemented their understanding rather than sticking to the memorization of the Nernst equation or the facts associated with a non-rechargeable battery.

In the realm of engineering, our InvenTeam identified a need in our community, then designed and implemented and workplace solution for Jon, who works in our media department. Jon is incredibly passionate about film, Star Wars, and Captain America; he also has a cognitive disability and struggles with reading, writing, and transitioning between tasks. Our students had the initiative, skills, and motivation to write the code for a simple-task management app (including images, audio, and other features) that increased the ease and efficiency of Jon’s work. This app was recognized nationally upon its completion and students have been refining it to make it usable by more people who, like Jon, have cognitive disabilities. Through their experiential work, our innovators applied technical skills, learned how to interact with someone different from them, and worked with a non-profit organization called On-the-Move. In the reflection of their learning, they stated, “We feel empowered to use our skills to make a difference in people’s lives and hope to spread awareness about this community.”

Students in our Leadership Action Lab (an elective course) explored the theory and practice of leadership and change. They knew at the start of the class that they would have to select a community issue to work on (and they chose to explore homework load) but they first developed insights and understanding of their individual, interpersonal, and group dynamics, through a systems-thinking lens. Having studied the theory, practice, and models for affecting change, they engaged department chairs and other academic leaders to further their goal while refining essential communication and collaborative skills. Their final project, submitted to the Upper School administration, is being considered by the academic and student deans for future decision making.

Before spring break, students had in-depth learning experiences of various kinds: some made quilts while others learned to cook, check the tread on their tires, iron, plan a budget, or sew buttons. A few practiced mindfulness through a series of exercises and habitual practices, learning about themselves while developing tools for self-regulation and self-care. A subset traveled to Guatemala and used their language and life skills to teach and learn from children in Chajul. A group refined their outdoor skills while backpacking down the coast, and many others explored aspects of our city, developing resilience, patience, stamina and understanding of our local culture.

And before all that took place, a group of student actors learned characters, choreography, stamina, and resilience; examined a historical event, and brought forth their creative energy, quick thinking, and teamwork in collaboration with peers who built a set and manned the lights and sound for an impressive production of Newsies.

These experiences allow for trial, error, and failure; they require students to apply knowledge and skills; they have authentic purpose and meaning, and they include opportunities to reflect and make sense of learning. We believe that these characteristics lead to meaningful, long-lasting, and empowering growth in our students in their academic and life skills. We have thus recommitted ourselves to refining our experiential learning practices as part of our progressive approach to teaching and learning at Catlin Gabel. It is exciting to feel and grow alongside our inspired faculty and hard-working students.