Inspiring a Curious and Engaged Approach to the World

By Tim Bazemore, Head of School

As an eighth grader in the 1970s, I experienced a “new” approach to science in my upstate New York public school. In a well-intended effort to strengthen science learning, my classmates and I were rewarded with an “activity” when we completed lessons in our color-coded workbooks. Activities were opportunities to do canned “hands-on” science demonstrations that illustrated the concepts in the lesson. These activities were rarely memorable or meaningful, but I give the teachers credit for trying to relieve us of the daily tedium of toggling between the chalkboard and our workbooks.

Fortunately, we now know much more about how to create effective, engaging learning that develops knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that last a lifetime.

Our strategic planning work led to two priorities: deepening our commitment to experiential learning and being an unrivaled educational laboratory. These priorities are inspired by our mission, our history as a progressive school, modern educational and brain research, and our professional experience. 

Experiential learning is more than learning by doing. It is a complex method of teaching and learning that, when done well, provides more benefits to students than traditional teaching methods.

Traditional classroom lessons are often organized around content and recall, and the emphasis is on efficiency, pace, and volume. Concepts and information are introduced and explained, and generally employ reading, listening, and working memory to practice the concept. Teachers have a set body of knowledge and skills they want students to master in one way on a linear path to completing the course.

In classrooms where learning is more experiential, however, teachers introduce meaningful experiences and questions that inspire students to investigate and understand. Teachers guide the learning and provide enough information to move the students forward, while encouraging them to ask questions, experiment with processes and solutions, and collaborate with classmates. Most important, experiential learning aims for students to deeply understand concepts and skills and be able to apply what they know and can do to novel experiences or questions.

What we mean by experiential learning is not a 70s science “activity,” vaguely defined and assessed “projects,” or letting students do what they want. We mean vigorous learning with clear academic and noncognitive goals that are achieved through complex experiences. It should equip students with discipline-based skills, develop adaptive intelligence, and inspire a curious and engaged approach to the world. Our goal is not to make all learning here experiential; there are some academic skills and information that can be taught directly and efficiently and are necessary to master prior to more self-directed learning. Our goal is to become more skilled and intentional in embedding academic learning in experiences that students find relevant and meaningful.

In the 2016-17 school year we will articulate what we mean by experiential learning; ask all teachers to redesign aspects of existing curriculum to be more experiential; expand our network of Portland-area partners to create more community-based learning opportunities; and examine what schedule and school year changes may be necessary for deeper learning.

Throughout our school’s history, we have challenged our students, from preschool through twelfth grade, to be engaged with the world around them. Catlin Gabel students and alumni know this well, and as this issue illustrates, our gifted teachers are finding ways to introduce powerful and memorable experiences into the curriculum at all grade levels. We fundamentally believe our students are competent and capable, and that they can do remarkable things when given the opportunity. Our goal in becoming more experiential is to marshal our considerable expertise and resources so that they can show themselves, and the world, what they can do. That’s what the future will require of them–and that future must begin here and now.

Follow Tim’s blog. Follow him on Twitter @TimBazemore.