Experiential Learning: How 'learning by doing' is making a comeback

The importance of genuine learning experiences for students

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Many parents and educators are advocating for a revised curriculum, one that places a greater emphasis on experiential learning (learning by doing). Teachers can make a meaningful impact in a child’s learning by providing genuine learning experiences inside, and outside of the classroom. 

A number of private schools, such as St. Michael's College School, are implementing experiential learning by including genuine experiential initiatives like robotics, industrial arts, instrumental music, cooking, camping, fine art, and comic books in the curriculum.

“As educators we are too locked into curriculum expectations and focusing on the product rather than the process,” says Manfred J. von Vulte, vice principal at the German International School and author of Comic Books and Other Hooks: 21st Century Education. Von Vulte’s book aims to show educators what a process-driven, enriched curriculum will look like.

“We’re too focused on producing educational products rather than helping students fill in gaps,” von Vulte says. “With curricular developments a lot of things have been tried that are new and some work and some don’t. But a lot of things we have lost or forgotten that we shouldn’t. An example is the de-emphasis on experiential learning. We need to get back to that.” 

Experiential learning helps students retain knowledge by creating “super memories”

According to von Vulte, experiential learning has added benefits to students, benefits that our arts, sciences and liberal arts-heavy curriculum aren’t providing. “Take science as an example—electricity,” he says. “You can teach electricity using movies, or textbooks. But learning is increased when you have students build a circuit in class.” 

Experiential learning is not only more interesting, but it also engages all of a student’s senses, which is an important element to retaining knowledge. “If we use other senses you provide a duality with experiences and it further cements memory,” Von Vulte explains. “When learning is added with a real experience it becomes part of a life experience. It is a working, tactile knowledge and becomes a super memory.”

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Experiential learning in practice in the English classroom

Building circuits is a great way to learn about electricity, but how does experiential learning apply to language arts? At schools like Northmount School, (a Catholic school in Toronto, Ontario) and the German International School, comic books are playing a role in helping students learn the writing process. “Comic books help show the element of preparedness in the writing process,” explains von Vulte. “We use a lot of scaffolding to help students deconstruct the writing process before they start writing. They develop rich characters before they start writing any of their thoughts down,“ he says. “In older grades, we reverse engineer this. We take a text-heavy book and use comic books to de-compartmentalize the process.  The process with language art instruction really teaches sequential thinking and planning”.

Many teachers use comic books as part of a literary strategy aimed at engaging reluctant male readers. However, von Vulte’s techniques for using comic books in the English classroom are beneficial to all students. “Comic books really benefit both genders. Both are enthusiastic to participate in the learning process and have real experiences,” he explains. “Teaching pure content instead of the mechanics can be a disservice to students.  To help reluctant readers it just takes a different tactic”.

For von Vulte, the learning benefits of comic books began as a personal experience. As a lifelong collector, comic books have helped him connect with the wider world, acting as a gateway to history, economics, science, social sciences, politics, etc…  

As a student, comic books helped von Vulte become “a sequential thinker, providing a nexus approach to reading and writing”.  As a teacher, he has seen “comic books help reluctant writers and readers improve their skills.  It is a great learning tool for all learning levels—from struggling students to gifted students.”

Parents can provide experiential learning opportunities too

Experiential learning continues to take place inside and outside of the classroom, continuing after school and on weekends. So how can parents provide genuine learning experiences for their children at home?

The first step is to turn off the video games. “There is a false logic that a virtual experience is a genuine experience,” explains von Vulte. Instead, parents can focus on providing their children with real experiences.

Help children read better by reading with them and reading around them. “Children need to see parents doing ‘real things’ like reading, fixing things, building things, cooking,” says von Vulte. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, either. You can take them fishing or bake with them. All of these real experiences are learning experiences and are not related to a screen.”

—Kimberley Fowler

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