Letting kids get their hands dirty

Learning by filming a documentary or travelling across Canada

The concept of experiential learning, commonly thought of as “learning by doing,” has been recognized as one of the best forms of education since antiquity. In The Nicomachean Ethics, for example, Aristotle writes: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

But how is this notion best applied in modern-day Toronto? As far as education of children and adolescents goes, experiential learning often means getting students out of classrooms or otherwise introducing them to new situations.

For example, students at Bayview Glen were tasked with designing a toilet that could work with the limited natural resources available in a Third World country. This project was accomplished through a partnership with the University of Toronto’s Global Ideas Institute. Students are given a challenge — like the toilet design — and work in groups to complete it.

“It’s probably intuitive to most of us that, although lots of great learning goes on inside the physical school, there is also lots of great learning that goes on outside of it,” says Christopher Federico, director of teaching and learning at Bayview Glen’s prep and upper schools. “It’s about bringing concepts that often just sit on the pages of a textbook to life for students.”

While working on a project, the students are mostly self-guided but receive mentorship from their high school teachers. They also attend lectures from relevant experts at U of T once a month.

“It’s about integrating the perspectives of multiple subject disciplines,” Federico says.

At Toronto’s the York School, the motto is “Experience teaches,” a point perhaps best exemplified by the school’s integrated Canadian experience (ICE) program.

Students in the ICE program might go on an excursion to Toronto Island, visit neighbourhoods around the city, work with various experts or go winter camping. The program culminates in a visit to another area of Canada — such as Squamish, B.C. — and in the production of student-created documentaries.

“We give them a lot of freedom,” says Sara Gardner, an ICE teacher at the York School. “They feel like masters of what they’re doing.”

ICE teaches students about Canadian identity by integrating several different high school subjects — such as geography, history and English — into one immersive class. This allows students to spend more time with their teachers and also allows for more experience-based learning.

“It means we can engage our students in meaningful activities that are relevant in the real world,” says Gardner. “When students can use their problem-solving skills and apply knowledge, they’ll remember stuff.”

For Luke Coles, principal at Lawrence Park’s Blyth Academy, experiential learning defies a simple definition. It’s much more pervasive, he says, than getting students outside of classroom walls.

“Experiential education often gets misrepresented as being field trips,” he says. “A lot of the time, when we exit the school, instead of doing real learning, we have a ‘safari,’ where the kids go out but nothing sticks. And everyone in education is trying to create some stick.”

Coles says that experiential learning is a philosophy that can be incorporated into all aspects of education, including within the classroom.

Reading comprehension, for example, is better measured by asking students engaging questions that relate to human experience as opposed to relying on rote memorization.

“If you ask a question such as, ‘Is there someone in your life who has experienced what the protagonist is experiencing in this chapter?’ that is experiential,” he says. “The child is sitting in their desk at home and they are having an experience thinking about their life.”

Experiential learning is not an end goal, he says, but a process through which teaching is improved one step at a time.

“To me, experiential learning is a spectrum, and if we can move it one tick forward from what we’ve done in the past, then we’re doing something of value,” Coles says.

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