Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
My Story: Becoming an Experiential Educator
I almost dropped out of teaching school. I don't like to say that because I'm not a quitter. I never have been, but it's the honest truth. I wondered if I could have a full time career doing something that just wasn't sitting right with me. My own experience was telling me that learning comes from direct involvement, but I wasn't observing that in practice. Here's my story:
I got my undergraduate degree in biology and proceeded to work with environmental protection programs for three years following graduation. Education wasn't even remotely on my mind. It didn't even occur to me. I didn't grow up in a family of educators. I was at a selfish time in my life when I didn't care much for kids to be honest. I was still a kid myself.
Working in the field was amazing for so many reasons. I met wonderful people, saw places I wouldn't have otherwise seen, and gained practical experience for a career in environmental science. I learned more about science in three months in the field, immersed in the content, than I did over the course of my lifetime. Content that I studied in college paired with active involvement in the field was a powerful learning experience for me.
Several years of working in the field was exhausting, however. I was constantly getting hurt. I literally had a handful of near death experiences, one of which was rolling an ATV down a mountain with me inside, another getting chased down by a nesting female alligator. I'll save the details of those stories for another day. I felt like my personal life was a revolving door. I would become close to my coworkers like family and then we would go our separate ways six months later. All of the jobs were temporary assignments. I was exhausted, hurt, emotionally and physically broken, and I was lonely. I decided enough was enough. It was time to go home.
I went back to Minnesota where I was raised and still had family. I applied to get my teaching license at the University of Minnesota, was accepted, and started the program within days of returning home. The program itself was great, but things went downhill when I started my high school student teaching experience.
I was torn. What I was learning in my teaching program was starkly different than what I was observing as a student teacher. My teaching program trained us to take a student-centered approach. We spent almost the entire year practicing inquiry-based learning strategies, which I thought was amazing at the time, and still do. Then I would go student teach under the supervision of an instructor that was very teacher-centered. Many classes that I observed were of her writing notes onto an old-school overhead projector, using a note-taking template that was photocopied out of a textbook. The students sat in their seats for 40 minutes copying her notes verbatim.
I don't believe this to be the fault of my cooperating teacher. She was doing what she felt she needed to do to fit in all of the standards, meet testing requirements, stay under budget, and "educate" the 180 total students that walked into her classroom each day. We would talk occasionally about how she felt a little stifled and restricted, especially when it came to experiential learning activities such as field trips. The logistical nightmare it was to transport 180 students to the science museum, for example, limited learning beyond the walls of the classroom. She was a seasoned teacher and she was intelligent. I have to believe that she felt there was no other option. I felt it too when I started doing the teaching myself.
I knew I couldn't operate that way for the rest of my career. My experience working in the field was always in the forefront of my mind when trying to work out my educational philosophy, along with the "student-centered" theory I was learning in teaching school. I knew as a student myself, that a strictly teacher-centered, lecture-based philosophy would not be effective, especially with 21st century students. We don't have the need for notetaking of that kind or rote memorization anymore. At one time that was more important, as access to information hasn't always been what it is today. The information is at our fingertips quite literally. What the students need, I thought, is to learn how to learn, as I did in the field - how to problem solve, think critically, navigate sources of information, question current lines of thinking and adjust thinking based on new input and experience.
I decided I needed to check into some things. What other options did I have? A lot of options it turned out. Not only were there a lot of schools and educational organizations doing things differently, but teachers in traditional classrooms were mavericks as well, trying to promote active and involved learning experiences while under the same restrictions as the rest of us. Those educators that went above and beyond, that were creative and reflective, that tried new educational approaches that were supported by research despite restrictions and obstacles, turned out to be my inspiration and mentors over the course of the next decade.
As I was researching my options, I came across a website for an experiential learning school in St. Paul. I didn't see that they were hiring, but I decided to connect anyway. I called them up, asked if they were hiring, and I started teaching there a few months later. I taught there for nine years thanks to the staff, students and school philosophy.
The students in these pictures are engaged, observing, problem-solving, creating. Of course it wasn't perfect all of the time. But I watched the impact that experiential, student-directed learning had on my students, the same impact experiential learning had on me when I was working in the field. I started writing this blog a few months ago, and in that short time have discovered through research and networking, the abundance of experiential learning going on out there right now. I'm floored by the speed and force by which project-based learning, inquiry, problem-based learning, student travel programs, maker education, stem, and other forms of experiential learning are appearing on the educational scene.
The dramatic emergence of these experiential learning approaches is because we know from experience and research that they're effective learning tools. If you hop on a search engine to find educational quotes, none of them will be about the profound greatness of direct-instruction.
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.