Pre-K and Kindergarten are lively years in the classroom. Not only are students full of energy, curiosity, and wonder at every discovery, but the teaching itself is infused with interactive opportunities. Painting, drawing, song and dance, and colorful, engaging experiments are all typical and encouraged methods at these grade levels. While students are learning traditional methods of output gauges, such as reading and writing, their success is measured through more creative methods. Experiential and kinesthetic learning among these young students is celebrated in the academic world. It allows each child to not just learn information, but to discover the world around them. Facts are presented not as empty words from an instructor, but are proven through first-hand evidence. Students learn by engaging their world, not just hearing about it.
Spending a day in a preschool classroom recently, I was reminded of this passion. Students giggled and wiggled with excitement as instructions were given on the day’s activity. They would learn about the water cycle by placing dyed water in a cup that was then placed in a bag and taped to the window. They could hardly contain their excitement to place the small droplets of color in the small cups and to watch their bag on the window for any activity with pride. As they observed their experiments, the information they had been taught came to life. They could not only recite a vocabulary word, they could point to the water droplets in a bag as evidence of the concepts they had learned. These students did not grudgingly move from one activity to the next. They engaged in each moment with excitement and suspense. Learning was not a dreary experience for them, it was a tantalizing adventure. Experiential learning methods had them on the edge of their seats, excitedly devouring any opportunity for participation.
Learning was not a dreary experience for them, it was a tantalizing adventure.
My question is, why does experiential learning have to stop after kindergarten? Perhaps it does not completely disappear, but, as students progress in grade levels, drawings and engaging experiences are often replaced more and more frequently by papers and exams. While I believe traditional measurement methods of learning outcomes do have benefit and can aid in developing important skills, I do not believe they should completely replace interactive methods. Consider the traditional high school classroom for a moment. It will most likely include a few eager, front-row students, but amidst the crowd you will also find many disengaged or perhaps even disruptive students. Several of them dutifully and grudgingly attend classes and complete exams. They attend because they must, as they complain to their parents and peers, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” Class time becomes a monotonous means to an end, something to endure rather than cherish and enjoy.
What if we could change that though? What if we could create environments, lessons, and activities that would spark inspiration in students? What if we could prove to them that learning does not have to be uninteresting and boring? What if we showed them how principles of our courses did actually benefit them in life beyond high school? I believe implementing more experiential learning methods in high school classrooms can accomplish just that. Allowing students to engage their creativity and problem-solving skills and to experience a more kinesthetic approach to their studies can create passion and excitement again. I have witnessed this in my own classrooms many times. When I teach, one of my favorite things to do is create assignments that require my students to not just listen to my content, but to engage with it. I have done this through hypothetical scenarios for students to role play, assigning various concepts to groups of students and asking them to research and present it to their classmates, hosting debate sessions, and more. As students are required to not just listen to information, but to discover it, learn it, discuss it with their peers, and even teach it to their fellow students, their eyes light up with interest.
As teenagers, students are at a stage in life where they are eager to achieve independence. Parents are often viewed as dictators and oppressors. Authority figures may be seen as annoying, demanding, or simply too involved. Teenagers are restless in establishing themselves apart from authority. They do not want to be told what to do. They want to decide what to do with their own lives. I believe this is one of the reasons experiential and kinesthetic learning in high school is so beneficial and has the potential for high success. Allowing students to discover concepts and truths for themselves lets students feel their learning experience has a degree of separation from authority. They are not simply spoon-fed facts, they are given the chance to explore and discover on their own.
In America today, young adults are also quite passionate about causes. They are quick to proclaim allegiance or support for a particular cause they truly believe in. Youth are eager to not just attend functions or be one of many, they want to bring change. They want to know they are a crucial and beneficial part of what they are involved in. Teenagers want to make a difference. They are desperate to feel like what they are doing matters. I believe methods of learning that involve peer interaction or teaching to fellow students help to satiate that appetite. It creates a degree of responsibility. It allows the student to not just exist in a room each day, but allows them to participate and to possibly even affect change.
“This all sounds wonderful!” You may say, “but I’m just not that creative.” Or you may be thinking it is impossible to employ these methods in the subject you teach. Perhaps you think your topics are simply too theoretical and cannot be translated into hands-on assignments. I would argue that every subject can utilize creative and interactive approaches with a little brainstorming. If you feel ill-equipped to create such assignments, remember you are not alone and there are plenty of resources available to you. You may try reaching out to fellow teachers for some inspiration or simply utilizing the internet to borrow what others have found successful. Make it fun and make it engaging. One of my favorite assignments in an ethics course I taught was having students apply the steps of ethical decision making to a hypothetical dilemma where turning to cannibalism of their best friend could dictate their survival. As you develop your own assignments, I recommend implementing a few things that make you laugh a little and utilizing modern, familiar aspects of the student’s life as much as possible. For example, you could have students write a blog from the perspective of a historical figure or literature character, create a short video promoting a particular geographical location, or complete a statistics project on the demographics of Facebook users.
An experiential and kinesthetic approach does take more work. It does take more planning, more creative thinking, and, often, more time. Is it worth the effort? I would argue that it certainly is! While I do not think such assignments as papers and exams should be completely removed, I do think implementing activities that engage and involve students in their learning would be hugely successful. It may take more work, but I believe it will produce much greater outcomes of inspired and interested students and information and concepts retained at higher rates. Are we, the educators, committed enough to our profession to make these changes?
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, aarongilson.