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March 4, 2021

The Coach’s View: Immerse Your Students in Experiential Learning

Learning about WWI can be more engaging with a few planning adjustments.

Make learning about WWI more engaging with a few adjustments in planning.

As an AUSL coach, I have a great opportunity to see teaching and learning from both a bird’s and ant’s eye perspective.  Something special usually happens when the teaching and learning are in sync; not only can one see and hear learning happening but also feel it.  The inner history teacher in me is always seeking out that educational “sweet spot” where for 50 minutes the lesson just seems to take flight, and for me, more often than not it happened during an Experiential Exercise lesson.

As teachers, we spend a lot of time dissecting how students think and learn, and as a history teacher, I spent a lot of time creating ways to move my instruction and my students’ learning beyond direct delivery and pencil-paper retention.  Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences proposes that students are all intelligent but don’t always learn in the same way. While some students may learn through a verbal-linguistic modality, others may learn and generate thinking through more logical-mathematical ones.

I wanted my students to not just learn history but also become absorbed in it, and in this case, the Experiential Exercise helped me tap into students’ kinesthetic-body intelligence. I learned that I was more of a musical and interpersonal learner and often needed to be hands-on to really grasp new concepts, so I wanted to make sure my students had that opportunity too.

The idea of getting thirty students up and out of their desks to “experience” history was initially frightening but ultimately rewarding and memorable.  Companies like Teachers Curriculum Institute (TCI) helped lay out the groundwork for managing the lesson:

  1. Use short, memorable experiences
  2. Prepare your students and the environment for a safe, successful experience
  3. Make the experience as authentic as possible
  4. Allow students to express their feelings immediately afterwards
  5. Ask carefully crafted questions to help students make connections between their experiences and key concepts.

Can you imagine rearranging your desks to simulate two opposing trenches in World War I in which students crouch and kneel with their diaries as they hear excerpts from All Quiet on the Western Front? Or what about turning your classroom into a make shift monastery where students take a vow of silence (and they do) while they rotate to monastic life work stations listening to Gregorian chants?  With good planning, precise expectations and a little bit of modeling you can create memorable lessons that attend to diverse learning styles.

Don’t confuse experiential learning as just something fun and diverting from relevant instruction.  Remember that “hands-on” should also parallel “minds on” where students not only live the experience, but can also talk to, debate or evaluate it.

Do get your students out of their desks and into the learning.

I would love to hear how other content areas have used experiential lessons to reach the different learners of their classrooms. Let’s start a conversation about experiential learning!

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