Arts and Education: Experiential Learning

I had the opportunity last week to participate in a symposium on Arts & Education last week in Harrisburg, PA. I spoke on a panel about Experiential Learning. My main contribution was to connect the arts and sciences through a hand-on approach.

So my point of view is not focused on technology, but uses technology as a lens to change the culture of a school – to encourage collaboration between teachers and students where the learning is being co-created – to give students opportunities to do meaningful and important work, and what schools can do to encourage those kinds of learning environments.

A prevalent view of education is that young people are empty vessels and schools simply open up their heads and pour in knowledge. Unfortunately this is a vision of education that is not serving us well in the 21st century. For a few students, this clearly works, but for many, this is a futile effort — made worse by an increasing focus on testing a few subjects at the expense of high-interest subjects like art and music.

Project-based and experiential learning has been around for a long time. You might say that the classroom is the new-fangled technology here. You certainly don’t see lion cubs sitting in desks in rows. For thousands of years people learned skills through apprenticeship and showing that they could do simple tasks, and gradually more complex ones until they became the masters.

Projects are not simply longer versions of traditional school-work, nor are they crafts. The presence of glue and scissors does not create a project. Nor is a project simply following a recipe.

It’s interesting that the word “project” is used both for the process and the finished product. And it’s important that it remain true to both. The process – the planning, production, construction, sharing is crucial. A project needs to be personally meaningful to the student – more than just for a grade. Having an audience that extends beyond your classmates and teacher is great for this. A project should not have a right answer (or one answer).

One question from the audience asked how arts could be incorporated into projects. My response was that students will naturally incorporate their own aesthetic into projects they care about. Respecting that is crucial.

Arts teachers know this, but it’s hard to articulate. Our culture places arts on a lower level than “academic” work. Like art, projects require judgment to assess, which means that the teacher has to be trusted to make those judgements.

Our experience with Generation YES  is that when kids are challenged and guided with expertise, they rise to the challenge and exceed expectations. In our schools we ask students to shoulder the burden of changing education with technology. It’s not a surprise to me when these students step up and regard this responsibility with great seriousness. PBL needs to be a school-wide culture shift – don’t forget that students are the key stakeholders. You can’t change culture by just telling teachers to change.

One problem with PBL is it can get very burdensome to the teacher. Share the burden. Allow students to help with the logistics, planning, even assessment. Don’t let yourself be the bottleneck that leads to being overwhelmed and then to failure. Good intentions go out the window when you have 300 projects to grade and you are the only one looking at them.

Students should be asked to be allies, advocates and leaders in our collective effort to make civilization better. They want to help. They need our guidance and wisdom, and we need their enthusiasm, passion and buy in. We make each other better.


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