Teaching experientially requires time and focus

We embrace experiential education. We believe students — no, humans! — are wired to learn, and we believe that learning is relational. We inspire our students to see learning opportunities everywhere, not just within a four-walled classroom, and we do this through our commitment and focus on student-driven inquiry. Our project blocks — 3 hours on Saturday morning — provide both the time and space for students to engage deeply in an immersive, experiential learning opportunity. Every semester, each class will meet once for a Project Block. This type of learning is what educational thinker and author of What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith, would describe as PEAK:

Purpose- Schoolwork is meaningful and connected to real-world initiatives.

Essentials- Focus on the most important strengths: our Essential Skills and Habits.

Agency- Students own their learning and explore specific interests.

Knowledge- Deep and retained.

To give a concrete example of what students might do during a Project Block, last weekend Rachel’s ceramics class wrestled with the question: What does curiosity in its highest form look like, and what are elements of an excellent question? These are the types of big, overarching questions that we ask. We are living our mission: We are a school of inquiry and engagement. Grounded in our Episcopal heritage, we prepare and inspire students to lead lives of curiosity, courage and compassion. If we want students to be curious, we need to provide them with purposeful experiences that require them to focus on curiosity, time to reflect (since we learn through reflection), and feedback on their experiences. This is the learning cycle Rachel created for her students.

Having an Experience (in curiosity)

Students spent three hours interviewing local artists at the Littleton Arts Festival. We want our students to become active, not passive, participants in a field: I am learning to be an artist, not simply learning about art. To inspire this active engagement, the ceramics students interviewed artists so as to understand first-hand what it means to live the life of an artist. They focused on listening with empathy, on listening to understand someone else’s perspective, and they worked on asking follow-up questions so as to identify underlying needs and assumptions.

Learning through reflection

John Dewey said that we learn not from experiences but from reflecting on them. The ceramics students spent time, after interviewing the artists, reflecting on what they experienced, thinking about what they learned. A student new to White Mountain this year, who because of our exceptional arts program, wrote in her reflection: “Some people’s failures turn into beautiful works of art. This one lady made a dent in her pot and then turned it into something that looked purposeful.” What an amazing lesson to be learned! Another student said: “I loved being in Littleton experiencing the town’s lovely energy and learning the techniques and creativity of local artists. I really have been inspired and would love to start on an art project outside of class.” Project Block opportunities inspire our students, through direct experience, to engage and envision opportunities in the world around them. Project Block builds the intrinsic motivation that inspires ongoing learning and doing.

Feedback to Promote Growth

Feedback is the bridge between a student’s experience and the intended outcome. It is conceivable that a student might go to an art fair and not have the learning outcome that the teacher had intended. However, White Mountain faculty carefully design the experiences and the feedback so as to ensure optimal learning. Rachel wrote: “It’s fun to see students interacting with professional artists in the community. There’s a wealth of knowledge to be gained from these folks, and while I never know what students will learn, I’m always surprised and delighted to hear them report back.” While the students will learn different things depending on who they interview and what they ask, the overarching goal was the same, shared across each student experience: to develop a nuanced understanding of curiosity. In advance of the trip, Rachel explicitly shared with her students that the focus of the experience was to grow and develop in curiosity, one of our Essential Skills and Habits. Knowing in advance that this was the focus, students experienced the fair through the lens of curiosity, reflected on what they experienced in terms of curiosity and Rachel’s feedback to the students focused on how well each student engaged in a process of curiosity through the action of interviewing and documentation.

PEAK Learning

Bringing this back to PEAK learning, let’s look at how the experience met the expectations for a PEAK learning experience.

  • Purpose- Schoolwork is meaningful and connected to real-world initiatives. Our art students connected with local artists so as to better understand what it means to be a professional artist
  • Essentials- Focus on the most important strengths: our Essential Skills and Habits. The focus of the learning experience — curiosity — was one of our Essential Habits.
  • Agency- Students own their learning and explore specific interests. Students interviewed artists that were interesting to them, asking questions to help inform their respective developments as young artists.
  • Knowledge- Deep and retained. Well, we’ll have to wait and see about this…