Learning by doing

Author: Patrick Baker  • 

Try to remember the first time you ever played with Legos, dolls, action figures, or Tinker toys. What do you remember?

For me, I remember an interesting blend of excitement, confusion, and even frustration. Maybe I wanted badly to build something amazing, but had no clue what or how. Maybe I wanted my Star Wars Han Solo and Princess Leia figurines to marry. Maybe I was looking for that one green 4×2 Lego brick. Or, acting as the executive producer and choreographer, maybe I wanted to co-mingle various toys in an epic Toy Story-esque scene.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I later came to know that those sessions underscored the ultimate learning process: learn by doing.

As the great educator John Dewey suggested, this concept allows the brain to connect ideas, formulas, or other pieces to deeper understanding of a concept.  Be it stacking colored mini bricks to create a building, a town, or a vehicle of some sort, or having two dolls engaging in conversation, demonstrating understanding of human interaction – the learning process was deep at work.

For the majority of us, school (K-12) taught us important skills like socialization, being dutiful and respectful, and facts, figures, and formulas. But did we actually learn? Sadly, what most of us missed was learning by doing.

Ever ask yourself in junior high or high school: “How does this relate?”  “Why is this important?” “Am I ever going to use ____ again in my life?” If the schools we went to just intentionally spent a little more time allowing us to get our hands on it, see it, mess with it, and dream of how it might be of use – maybe we would have been more engaged. Maybe we would have remembered why that person, event, or formula was so important after all.

Last week, I attended an event at the Bush Library where a veteran teacher shared that for decades, she stood in front of the classroom, delivered the lesson, and walked around the room to see what they learned. But in the last few years, she realized that the most important thing she could do was to introduce the lesson, and set them free to dream, create, and learn… by doing.

I’m sure you’ve heard the proverb that goes something like, “Tell me, I’ll forget.  Show me, I may remember.  Involve me, I’ll understand.” Dewey’s philosophy on quality teaching and learning was no different. And over the past 14 months, this philosophy has been embraced at Allen Academy.

Have you walked by our preschool? During a study of apples, students printed in paint (tactile), rolled apples and measured the distance they roll (observation), dissected it (science), and then created a model then labeled the parts and following a simple recipe to make applesauce (application). They will also learn how an apple tree grows and then draw sequence pictures (art) that demonstrate understanding. The culmination is synthesizing their thoughts and understanding into words and pictures.

Walk through Lower School and you will see the Interactive Science program in Lower School promoting a hands-on approach to science education. Each grade is doing more with centers and learning stations to enrich and strengthen the constructs of differentiated instruction and the ethos of learning by doing.

In middle school, none of the middle school science classes have a textbook.  “What???,” you say? It’s not that there are not resources, both print and digital that are used to introduce students to concepts or terms, but Mrs. Hanover has these students constantly creating experiments to test, re-test, hypothesize, fail, and ultimately learn that which is the aim of the lesson. That’s learning – that’s how school should be.

Upper School students are grappling with robotics, learning how to film, interview, edit, and self-govern in the video production class. Is there a book?  No.  Are there hours and hours of messing with iMovie, Adobe after effects, doing microphone checks, learning Sony Vegas studio? Yes. And guess what… Mr. Vanadore doesn’t have to force them to read a manual or “do homework.”  These students are passionate about learning something new because it is fun and engaging.

This summer, the faculty and staff read a book called “Teaching Like Your Hair is on Fire.” As we continue to grow and learn to become better educators, we chose this book to discuss the importance of adaptive expertise, engagement, and deep learning. I’m excited to report that I’ve seen lots of hair on fire. The energy is present throughout campus.

Teachers are being encouraged and supported to bring their A-game to class each day. Students are connecting to each other and to their learning, not only in the classroom, but on the fields and serving in the community. And we’ve only just begun. Year 130 at Allen Academy is off to a tremendous start and I can’t wait to see where we go.

Hey, there’s that green 4×2 block, so I’m headed back to tinkering and learning!

Best,
Matt

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