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Why K-12 Schools Should Embrace Experiential Learning

Michael Nutter

January 8, 2020

Experiential learning allows students to actively participate in their education, which makes it a great fit for young learners.

Just over five decades ago, Brazilian educator Paulo Friere coined the term “banking model of education” to describe the way teachers educate their students. Teachers deposit their knowledge into their “banks” (students), and their students store that knowledge for future use. The banking model of education, or the “transmission model,” now refers to conventional educational thinking, in which a teacher delivers instruction and measures a student’s grasp of this instruction.

In recent years, however, the transmission model has been criticized for being a one-way, authoritarian learning process. While it remains the most popular approach to teaching, many have argued that this model prioritizes standardized test scores over real learning. What’s more, evaluating solely around standardized testing frequently leaves certain groups of students behind. Studies have shown that students of color suffer from equity traps in traditional K-12 learning environments, which critically impacts their ability to succeed in school.

This is not to say that traditional education models should be done away with entirely. Rather, today’s learners deserve an education system where they are empowered to learn to the best of their ability. To dismantle equity traps and accommodate a diversified range of learning styles, the American education system should consider supplementing the transmission model with alternative education models — experiential learning foremost among them.

Experiential Learning Explained

Experiential learning is a pedagogy that promotes learning through direct experience and focused reflection. Although learning can take place in a traditional classroom, experiential learning operates on the concept that students retain more information and develop a wider range of skills when they work through ideas themselves. Students are encouraged to ask questions, solve problems creatively, and connect more meaningfully with their education.

This teaching model unfolds in stages: challenge, reflection, abstract thinking, and application to life. A teacher might start by designing a lesson around a personalized task — perhaps teaching high schoolers about economic inequality by asking them to plot out a plan to sustain a family of four while living below the poverty line. After the activity, students reflect on how the concepts they learned apply to their lives and the lives of others. In the example above, once the students realize how hard it is to live on $26,000 per year, they might think about how wealth is distributed and consider what economic policies they would enact to balance the playing field.

In addition to keeping students actively engaged in their learning process, experiential learning fosters collaboration, critical thinking skills, community involvement, and other qualities that make for not just better students, but better citizens.

Who Benefits From Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is most often brought up in conversations about higher education and internships. It’s common for colleges to stress the importance of gathering real-world experience to supplement what’s learned in the classroom, especially since students are expected to apply their education to careers after graduation. In this context, the relevance of experiential learning is clear: students who have hands-on experience stand out from those who cling to the classroom.

However, it’s no coincidence that the experiential learning paradigm closely matches the way young children learn about and experience the world. Studies have shown that students are best at soaking up languages and other cognitive skills before they turn 18 because they’re naturally curious about learning new concepts and likely to use movement and play as a tool for learning. As such, the benefits of experiential learning programs would similarly be best absorbed by K-12 students and should be incorporated far earlier than higher education.

The Iowa BIG program is a great example of how experiential learning benefits both students and educators. When Nate Pruett toured Iowa high schools, he found disinterested students in courses that didn’t connect to them personally. In response, Pruett founded Iowa BIG, a half-day program in which students collaborate on self-designed community projects in lieu of formal coursework. Iowa BIG students still meet state-designated curriculum requirements, but they receive comprehensive growth evaluations rather than letter grades. The program has been well-received by students and teachers alike, and similar experiential learning programs have since popped up in Rhode Island, Kansas, and Massachusetts.

Empowering Students and Changing the State of Education

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” By taking education back to its roots and applying experiential learning methods to younger learners, educators can meet students where they are and equip them with the tools to succeed.

Of course, the main obstacle to implementing initiatives like these is that they are often complex and expensive. Fortunately, Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform can help educators secure the funding they need to support experiential learning programs in their K-12 schools. CheckPoint is a centralized platform that consolidates reporting data in one place, eliminating the need for messy, inaccurate spreadsheets. Vinson helps school districts ensure they receive every last penny to which they are entitled, enabling them to power the innovative experiential learning programs that Ohio’s young learners deserve.

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