Teaching Today

Experiential Learning

By Susan Miller, Head of Lower School

“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.”  — John Dewey

Learning by doing. That simple definition of “experiential learning” is characteristic of much of the learning that happens in the Lower School here at Tower Hill. We believe that hands-on, active doing that takes place in a broader context is an essential ingredient in meaningful and comprehensive student learning. It is because of this that our teachers intentionally design learning opportunities that encourage students to be exploratory, expressive, creative and communicative—all with the intent of stimulating deeper understanding. At its heart, experiential learning is a very natural and intuitive way to learn.

Schooling is about preparation—preparation for life ahead. And experiential activities are instrumental in developing the key skills that ensure our students can be successful both in and beyond the classroom. We know the 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, creative and critical thinking, flexibility and reflection will be necessary as our children progress through life, and there are ample opportunities to develop these skills through authentic learning experiences while children are young.

Increasingly, schools are needing to adjust their approach to teaching to adapt to the way students learn and what they need to be successful in the future. Through designing classroom projects that permit student choice related to content and exhibition of their learning, planning field trips that provide a context for new information and allow deeper investigation into a topic of interest and getting students involved in the community via service opportunities, our faculty are committed to preparing students to be analytical and creative problem solvers and helping them to better internalize new knowledge and skills through real world experience.

Experiential education, in or out of the classroom, requires the following:

1. Equal parts previous skill, theory and investigation — Activities set up so that students have the previous skills and knowledge needed to then investigate a situation with an open mind. This type of scaffolding is critical to ensure students have the right “tools” to navigate an experiential learning activity.

2. A safe environment — The teacher must create a safe space for students to go on a journey of self-discovery. This takes careful planning to allow students the freedom to explore without the fear of things going wrong.

3. Time to reflect — Experiential learning activities are not linear and don’t always go smoothly. Reflection is a vital part of the learning process so students have the opportunity to think about what worked and what didn’t.

4. Meaningful and relevant activities — Students are the learners as well as the “self-teachers” in experiential learning; therefore, activities need to have meaning and be relevant to fuel motivation. Students should be driven and fully immersed in the experience; emotional investment in the activity is key to this happening.

5. Big picture perspective — All learning activities should maintain a big picture perspective so that real world connections can be made. Students should begin to understand the complex relationships between different subjects and across different aspects of life outside of school.

On any given day you can walk through the classrooms and see each of these components in place. Students may be researching important change makers in preparation for a Wax Museum presentation or assembling jars of soup ingredients to be donated to a local charity for further distribution in the city of Wilmington. Students may be rehearsing a classic fairy tale in Spanish in preparation for a performance or exploring different types of chairs, how they are made and the purpose of design.

Or take a walk through our Experiential Outdoor Classroom where you can find third grade students examining the garden and conferring with one another to ensure they pull only the errant weeds, not the young plants that are poking their heads through the soil. Kindergarteners explore their creative side as they notice the nature around them and use their observations as inspiration as they paint. Our youngest Tower Tots eagerly collect water from the water feature to use in the Mud Kitchen as they stir and assemble and bake many concoctions in preparation for their afternoon tea. And all the while, there are additional children drawing masterpieces with sidewalk chalk, creating music as they strike the pagoda bells and telling stories from the stage to the applause of their audience.

We know that learning is transformation and growth. We know that children learn by interacting with knowledge and materials in meaningful ways. And we know that students are motivated to continue the learning process when the lesson at hand is relevant to their lives and adds immediate value. Through a combination of intentional design of learning opportunities and letting go of prescribed learning paths, our students are engaged in meaningful learning while developing self-awareness, self-confidence and self-esteem. Experiential learning allows children to see purpose and to enjoy their learning experience while building a strong foundation that will set them on a path to success.

Susan Miller
Head of Lower School