Uphill Battles and Experiential Education: Inspiring Teens to Learn

I had a really frustrating period with one of my 11th grade classes recently: Less than 1/3rd of the students turned in their projects on time (absolutely shameful, as I told them) and then a handful exhibited less-than-desirable attitudes throughout a hands-on, creative lesson plan I had spent a long time putting together.  I dismissed them that day feeling very irritated and was all set to come in the next day and give them the lecture of their lives.

Instead, after coming across an article titled How A Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash A Generation of Geniuses that was being tossed around on Facebook by my teacher friends, I printed off copies and passed them out.  I did so without context, merely saying that we were going to push back what we had planned for the day, and I gave them time to read the article in class.  They were completely silent during that time– no one was whispering to their friends, fidgeting in their seats, or sneaking peeks at their phones.

Although the article doesn’t mention the phrase specifically, much of what it’s talking about is experiential education, or learning through hands-on experience and problem-solving.  Often this involves presenting students with a problem or task without explaining it, having them hash it out on their own or within pairs or small groups to see what they come up with, and then explaining the concept behind it and coaching the students to reflect on their process.  Another key element is having students teach each other.


This approach involves active thinking from the students rather than passive reception of facts or knowledge from teachers and has been proven over and over again to be highly effective.

I admittedly gave the article to that class as a less-than-subtle “hint hint, nudge nudge, shape up” and with a “discussion” afterwards about how they need to make the choice between participating in hands-on learning with a good attitude or doing grammar worksheets quietly at their desk all year, which is the alternative.  And it worked– I overheard one student say “This is really messing with my head” as he left, and it prompted several of them to talk to me privately over the next couple of days about things they’re struggling with or apologizing for the way they’ve been acting– and just opening that door for communication has been good, plus I’ve noticed a definite uptick in their behavior in the week since.

I found the article so interesting that I decided to have my other classes read and discuss it.  I work at a small, interdisciplinary public charter school where the students come from a wide variety of educational backgrounds– most either were homeschooled or had bad experiences in large public schools, with a few coming from Montessori or Waldorf schools.  We sat around and talked about their different experiences with education and school structures, what our school does well and what it could still work on, and what some of the roadblocks are with public education right now.  The conversations were interesting and enlightening, and there seemed to be a consensus among my high schoolers that they learned best by problem-solving and doing hands-on activities rather than worksheets or lectures, during which they have a hard time staying focused and interested.

As a writing/English teacher, I am the first to admit that sometimes traditional ass-in-chair, pencil-to-paper lessons are a necessity.  However, I’m lucky to work at a school that lets us build our own curricula and not teach to the test, and I take advantage of that and push myself to be creative in how I structure my class periods and teach topics.  This doesn’t mean, however, that I’m completely immune from the pressures of getting my students to “perform” in traditional ways– for instance, all North Carolina juniors are required by the state to take the ACT, which they are now using as a standardized test for that grade, and I find myself having to spend much more time than preferred teaching them how to write ACT essays even though colleges agree that the five paragraph essay structure on these exams is counterproductive to students’ writing and my professor friends bemoan that they have to teach students how to un-learn that kind of essay writing once they get to the next step in their education.  Still, my school is graded on how well my students do on those essays, so– I teach them, through handouts and boring lectures.  It is what it is.

With schools and class sizes expanding (even at our small-by- comparison-but-getting-less-small charter school), funding being cut, resources taken away, and ever-increasing demands put on teachers, it can be easy to lose your motivation and just hand out worksheets and push the students through.  These discussions have made me recommit to the kind of experiential learning that students prefer and that, lets be honest, is more fun and engaging for me too.  As long as I’m here, that’s how I’ll teach, standardized tests or no.

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3 thoughts on “Uphill Battles and Experiential Education: Inspiring Teens to Learn

  1. This was a terrific and very informative post — thank you for writing! and thank you for your dedication to promoting student learning (as opposed to simply teaching them for the standardized exams as is so often the case today)

  2. Jeanette says:

    I always hated that five-paragraph essay construction. After a couple freshman-level college courses, I never used it again and, as you mentioned, had to unlearn it as a means to enhance my writing skills. I suppose it has its merits: evaluation, analysis, organization, etc., and there’s that saying that you have to learn the rules before you can break them.

    Wait. I think I just talked myself into supporting the five-paragraph essay. At least for beginners. Ha. But I still despise standardized tests!

  3. […] Uphill Battles And Experiential Education: Inspiring Teens To Learn […]

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