It was a brisk February morning when my Ornithology class first ventured outside in search of birds. There was little promise of a sighting, yet the stillness of the day amplified the slightest movement or sound. The students eagerly scanned the landscape for any evidence of our quarry. There were a few glimpses of fleeting silhouettes and the random disembodied call for which we could not locate the source. Our class time was running short and we still had little to show for our labors. It was at the end of the hour as we headed back towards campus that a moment materialized in front of us. There on the side of the road was a majestic Pileated Woodpecker.
It’s not difficult to learn about the largest woodpecker in North America. We could simply grab our Chromebooks and search for information. Once online, we could watch videos, listen to vocalizations and find countless methods to enlighten ourselves with facts. Although the students would discover that the Pileated Woodpecker is a rather spectacular specimen, their education in the classroom might be considered somewhat passive. The reality is that much of our education could be classified as indirect learning. With our wealth of books and increasing technology, we are able to read and model most of our knowledge from a virtual perspective. Although it is amazing that we can learn so much without ever actively experiencing something ourselves, experiential learning is perhaps the most instinctive way for us to gather information. We are driven by our observations to ask questions, gather information and understand the world around us. Of course, I’ve taken away a great deal of knowledge from indirect methods, but who wouldn’t prefer to feel, touch, smell and sense what is around us in order to navigate our learning.
As we neared our first woodpecker, there was a sense of adrenaline-fueled anticipation. It was only the first outing and each of the girls seemed transformed. I watched them creep through the trees with all of their senses fully activated. Suddenly, the most important task was just to be present in that moment. Each class, we saw something new. It could be new species, a new behavior or something that was not even part of our search. As the list of known and unknown birds expanded, we gained insight, appreciation and a common knowledge that we could share. A connection grew between the students and their experiences and they could not help but expose themselves to the wonders of nature.
This was the bridge between theory and practice. Once the girls could put their knowledge to use in the moment, they developed a relationship with their education. Experiential learning shifted the responsibility of learning back to my students. The girls no longer looked to me to lead the lesson, but stepped into the driver’s seat and assumed ownership. With the students taking wing, I have found that our classes have become more meaningful. We still spend time in the classroom gaining information through lectures and using our text, but there is an undeniable infusion of our field work in every lesson. I question whether all of my students are provided the opportunity to become active learners through experience. Are they able to construct their own knowledge from direct learning? As the semester continues, I hope to carve a larger space for the experiential approach in my teaching. It has been the most useful tool for bringing science to life and moving my students forward in their understanding.
By Kerri Sutkus, Science Teacher at Chrysalis School in Montana