Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
I almost failed out of my freshman year of college. I struggled to stay afloat academically, with grades that nearly put me on academic probation. I did well in high school, so why were the same efforts inadequate in college? I studied for my college exams, wrote the papers, prepared for debates. I did everything I thought I was supposed to do. Something was amiss, and I wasn't sure what that thing was.
One day I got a test back from my conservation bio teacher, one that I was certain I aced. This class WAS my major after all. I failed the test miserably. But why? I studied all night for this test. I went to talk with my professor about my score. She told me that I would never make it in the field of biology if I didn't change my approach. My answers to the questions on her test were not what she was looking for. She wanted me to be able to show her that I understood the material by applying the concepts to real-world situations. I needed the skills to be able to look deeper than theory alone, and apply theory to real conservation issues. It wasn't enough to memorize facts and regurgitate them on a test. I needed to know the content, as well as be able to problem solve in an unpredictable environment, to think critically and creatively, to be able to locate information when the answer wasn't right in front of me, and be able to adjust my thinking when thrown a bogie, because that is the reality of this career and life in general.
I developed some of the skills I needed as I went through college and was thus able to pull myself out of my college rut. I did this through trial and error, a lot of hard work, mentorships with professors, asking a lot of questions, reading books about my field outside of the required readings, and taking on independent studies and research experiences that were not required for my degree. I had to seek out these learning opportunities, they weren't handed to me, which is an important skill in itself. I resented my college professor for a long time for suggesting that I might not make it in the field of conservation. Now I thank her. She changed my path and my life in the best possible way.
My story is almost 20 years old, and it still applies. Today more than ever, in fact, in a rapidly evolving world where information is readily accessible, skills are as essential as content, arguably more. Twenty first century learners need a combination of content knowledge and skills. People often ask if my students, experiential learners, go off to succeed in college and their careers. The answer is a resounding yes, because our curriculum is heavily skills focused. They problem-solve their way through tough college assignments and exams. They are resourceful and observant. They know how to identify problems, brainstorm solutions, and find information. They know HOW to learn. They have developed the skills to persevere through the realities of college, their careers, and their lives in general.
The skills I am referring to are often called soft skills, the 4 C's, 21st-century skills, or at my school, transformational outcomes. These transformational outcomes are at the forefront of our mission, teaching philosophy, and even every activity. The good news is that there are a lot of learning activities that organically foster skill development. You can also make those "skills" part of your daily lexicon. Give these skills whatever term you desire, 21st-century skills, for example, and bring attention to them often, before every activity, in the goal-making process, throughout learning experiences, and at the reflection and assessment phase. Create learning activities AROUND the skills, and the content knowledge will naturally follow.
For more details on the benefits and value of 21st-century skill building, check out some past posts by clicking the "21st-Century Skills" category to your right.
How to Add 21st-Century Skills to Your Curriculum
Bring skill-building to light right from the start. Educators can and should make goals part of the process for any learning activity. My project-based learning resources, particularly my Tool Kit and PBL bundle, include goal writing in the project-development phase. Encourage students to create at least one goal per activity that is skills-based.
Ex: I will work on communication and collaboration skills by contacting at least one community expert for this project to shadow or interview.
2) Learning Experiences:
Growing in 21st-century skills is far less likely to occur as a result of lecture, worksheets, packets, and other teacher-centered learning activities. I talked with a parent the other day that defended worksheets with repetitive math problems. He said, “well it’s practice right?” My answer was that that depends on what it is he would like his son practicing? What he would be practicing is rote memorization, a strategy that might result in the "correct" answers, but not necessarily an understanding of the concepts. Rote memorization is unnecessary and ineffective if deep learning is dominant objective.
There is a plethora of teaching methods and learning activities out there that emphasize content AND promote 21st-century skill building, an ideal combination of outcomes. You don't need to choose content or skill building. Take them both on by trying some of these tactics.
My TpT store is loaded with resources that promote 21st-century skill building through student-directed, experiential learning. These resources are designed to make sense in any learning environment - the classroom, at home, in your backyard, or traveling around the globe.
Work 21st-century skills into any assessment. Rubrics are great assessment tools that can include relevant skills as an assessment category such as public speaking, use of new tech, creativity, etc. My generic project-based learning rubric includes skills categories as well as content. My student-generated project-based rubric leaves room for self-directed learners to add their own assessment criteria. Students would consider their goals made in the design phase of the project as a category in their self-generated rubric.
Reflecting is an essential part of the experiential learning process. If students are making goals about 21st-century skills, those goals aren’t relevant unless they’re revisited and reflected upon. Include reflection opportunities in as many learning experiences as you can, experiential or not. All of my resources have a reflection piece.
There are many ways to build 21st-century skills. Life in itself is the best learning tool, which is clear from my personal story above. Because I wasn’t given the opportunities in high school to build these important transformational skills, I had to figure out how to so on my own. Give learners an advantage, a head start, by making 21st-century skill building the norm in your curriculum. Help students build the skills they need to succeed in their academic, career, and personal lives as they relate to the 21st-century. This is not the same world that it was 100, 50, or even 20 years ago. Give them the tools to adapt as the world continues to evolve.
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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.