The Transylvania Times -

By Anne Hardy
Everyday Education 

Experiential Learning Offers Different Benefits


February 27, 2017

Karma Stevens and Nicole Muse from Katie Bland's fifth grade class prepare to welcome guests to the class' Poetry Slam at Pisgah Forest Elementary School. (Courtesy photos)

"I want to try it!" is one of the first and most common requests we hear from our toddlers as they begin to grow and learn. Whether a young child sees an adult play a game, prepare food, or use tools to fix something, chances are high that the child wants to try it, too. That instinct to learn by doing is one that stays with us all our lives, and our children are better served in their school-based education when they have opportunities for hands-on practice and real-world application.

Experiential education is an approach to learning that invites students (of any age) to go past learning about something to get their hands dirty and try something. One of the hallmarks of experiential learning is that the students do something that is real and meaningful.

This past Friday at Pisgah Forest Elementary School we got to witness two great examples of what education looks like when we make the shift away from just learning about something and start using our learning to create something.

What could have been an unremarkable unit on characteristics of poems, figurative language and poets turned into something special when fifth grade teacher Katie Bland decided to use an experiential learning approach to poetry. Rather than just studying elements of poetry and then taking a test, she and her class created a poetry slam in which they performed their original poems for their classmates, parents and guests. In addition, the students made digital videos of their poems which were shared safely with a wider audience online.

That authentic purpose and application of skills is the cornerstone of experiential learning. Students have a real audience and reason to be involved; it's not just rote learning.

"I think studying poetry this way is definitely more engaging," said Bland. "They know people are going to watch their performances and see their work, so it's more meaningful for them."

"A lot of times kids like me might not want to do something like write poems," said fifth grade student Aiden Freeman, "but with something like this where you know your friends and the parents are going to see you do your poem, it makes it pretty cool. You want to make it right."

The same day the poetry slam was underway in fifth grade, all the school's second graders were dressed in various costumes and carrying posters down to the cafeteria for their Living Wax Museum of Famous Americans. In the cafeteria, more than 90 second graders stood still in their costumes waiting for parents, community members, and school staff to press the "power button" on their hand to make them come to life and tell first-hand the story of their famous figure.

The room was abuzz with 8-year-old versions of Clara Barton, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Mae Jemison and many more, and each character told about their life and major accomplishments.

The social studies standards require second graders to learn about the contributions of a variety of historical figures. Instead of assigning a paper or taking a test, these second graders got to think about how to bring their subject to life for others.

"I like it." said second grader Jason Crawford. "I'll remember all of this about Martin Luther King Jr. for the rest of my life, probably."

Second grader Zia Brown portrays astronaut Mae Jemison during the Living Wax Museum of Famous Americans at Pisgah Forest Elementary.

In addition to helping students learn new concepts or ideas, experiential education naturally fosters other important academic and life skills. Research, public speaking, problem solving, collaboration, and planning with an audience in mind are just a few. We know that future careers for our young students will very likely require them to know many of these "soft skills," in addition to the hard skills of knowing math, history, poetry, etc.

While there is significant pressure on schools and students to achieve high scores on standardized tests, these type of experiential learning opportunities are truly our best path forwards to create students who can excel not only on tests, but also in real-life situations.

(Anne Hardy is a life-long learner and the instructional coach at Pisgah Forest Elementary School.)


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