This September the school took a big step forward in offering a Grade 10 experiential program that blends into everyday classes, applies the lessons in real situations and challenges students to try something new. School Ties takes a close look at the student-driven evolution of a landmark program.
When Caitlin Farquharson ’10 thinks back to her time at SMUS, there’s one highlight that really stands out: her Grade 10 year.
That was the year, 2007 to be exact, that the school launched a pilot experiential program. Taking a group of Grade 10 students out of the regular curriculum for ten weeks in the spring, the pilot’s first group of 20-or-so student participants had the opportunity to expedite their in-class learning to make way for some unique experiences, like hiking the West Coast Trail, learning how to repair a bicycle and writing songs to perform as part of a rock band.
“The outdoor element was what attracted me to it. I came to SMUS from Banff, and I really enjoyed that part of my education there, so to be able to have that opportunity in Victoria with the school was pretty enticing,” says Caitlin, who graduated in 2010. “I liked the different experiences you’d get to have, while still being in an academic environment. Also, the timing of that program was pretty interesting: you’re right on the cusp of really having to buckle down for academics for university, but you’re still academically advanced enough that taking a semester of an experiential program isn’t detrimental.”
The pilot program was deemed a success and continued to attract a capacity group of students in subsequent years. While the outdoor element was just one piece of the experiential program, feedback from students who didn’t sign up indicated they, too, wanted out-of-the-classroom learning, but there was a misconception that outdoor education was the focus and they didn’t want to spend so much time learning in nature.
Becky Anderson, Director of Leadership Development, recalls those students telling her, “I like the idea of getting out of the classroom and exploring different areas, and I really like the idea of being with my classmates in a different environment,” but not everyone gets excited at the prospect of spending a week sleeping in the wilderness.
“So we asked, ‘What are you interested in then?’” Becky says. “We learned there are kids who really know what they’re interested in and they would just like to spend more time out of the classroom getting to focus on that. And there are lots of kids who have no idea what they’re interested in, and they’re having to make pretty big decisions in a couple of years that guide them into possible future careers, but they haven’t really had too much exposure beyond their academic experience.”
“Our goal is to give our students a time-out from what can be an all-consuming march toward university so that they can get to know themselves and the world that much better.” – Becky Anderson
While the original Grade 10 program, which ran until the 2014-15 school year, became known for its outdoor education offerings, its scope reached far beyond that. Students participated in experiential afternoons to gain hands-on skills, such as bike mechanics, sewing, organic gardening and painting. The outdoor expeditions were another part of that experiential learning piece, as students gained firsthand leadership, teamwork, perseverance and goal-setting skills.
“I didn’t take away a huge academic benefit from it, but the educational value in terms of being a human being, and getting life experience, and learning how to problem solve, and learning life skills that aren’t easily taught in a classroom far outweighed what I may have missed in a math unit,” says Caitlin, now 23 and working for an investment firm in Vancouver.
This September the school took a big step forward by offering an experiential program to all Grade 10 students. The new Grade 10 Experiential Program centres on providing students with a variety of opportunities to get outside of the classroom to learn and to apply what they’ve learned in a classroom setting to real-life experiences (and vice-versa).
“It’s about exposure to interest areas and making real-world connections with the academic foundation that students have been given,” Becky says.
What that means is students can choose to pursue opportunities that are based on their interests or curiosities. Experiential learning is being applied in myriad ways, from a weeklong outdoor trip earlier this year to integrating an experiential unit into all the Grade 10 subjects.
“We’ve had math teachers taking kids outside to learn trigonometry by applying their skills in real-world situations,” says Math teacher Steve Bates. “All the Grade 10 science teachers are collaborating on creating an experiential forensics unit in June. They will set up crime scenes around campus, and students will be tasked with solving these crimes using the skills they’ve learned throughout the year in Earth Science, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. The students will have the academic background to solve these crimes, but they’ll be expected to build upon their communication, collaboration and critical thinking skills.”
The highlight of the program, however, is the 16 afternoon expeditions and a weeklong trip in June, when students get to leave campus to immerse themselves in real-world activities and environments to learn by doing. These experiences – from living and working on an organic farm to spending a week at the Gulf Islands Film and Television School to learning how to build an electric guitar – are designed to be multidisciplinary and to impact students in a meaningful way.
“A student might choose a woodworking experience, which brings in the geometry they’ve been studying in math, and uses physics to look at the strength of the wood. Now all of sudden going back to Math class and Physics class creates an additional level of meaning for them because of that experience,” Becky says. “The way a guitar makes music is all about the properties of physics put into practice. The students learning how to build a guitar are going to be kids interested in music and physics. They’re not just building a guitar, they’re learning the science behind it, too.”
“I’m definitely trying to use this year as an opportunity to experience as much as I can so I better understand what I enjoy, what I’m skilled at and what I want to keep doing.” – Saje Griffith, Grade 10
The concept of experiential education is not new to SMUS, and it’s certainly not new to the teaching world. In fact, experiential learning has been going on in some capacity at the school for more than a century.
Former Biology teacher Peter Gardiner recalls a time in the early ’70s when University School informally offered some experiential opportunities. “One year we built kayaks – we had the use of a mold and we taught the students who were interested how to make fiberglass white water kayaks. They really enjoyed that,” Peter says.
From a pedagogical perspective, the benefits of experiential education have been well researched over the last 40 years, much of which has been documented in the academic Journal of Experiential Education.
Robert Kolb, an educational theorist deemed one of the fathers of experiential learning, emphasized in his writings the benefits of experiencing something firsthand versus an education solely focused on content and outcomes.
“Learning is the major process of human adaptation. This concept of learning is considerably broader than that commonly associated with the school classroom. It occurs in all human settings, from schools to the workplace, from the research laboratory to the management board room, in personal relationships and the aisles of the local grocery. It encompasses all life stages, from childhood to adolescence, to middle and old age. Therefore it encompasses other, more limited adaptive concepts such as creativity, problem solving, decision making, and attitude change…,” he wrote.
As the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence succinctly explains: experiential education is “learning that is based on students being directly involved in a learning experience rather than their being recipients of ready-made content in the form of lectures.”
While the formalized grade-wide experiential program is still in its infancy at SMUS, Becky believes that the benefits of the program will pay off for Grade 10 students in the coming years.
“Our goal is to give our students a time-out from what can be an all-consuming march toward university so that they can get to know themselves and the world that much better. By exposing them to a wide variety of experiences at this important juncture in their lives, we’re giving them a strong foundation on which to make the important decisions that are coming their way,” she says.
Already, only a few months in, feedback from Grade 10 students participating in this pilot year is positively pointing in that direction.
“I’m definitely trying to use this year as an opportunity to experience as much as I can so I better understand what I enjoy, what I’m skilled at and what I want to keep doing,” says Saje Griffith. “It’s easy to see the point of the program is to help us experience things. Even if it doesn’t explicitly fuel my career choices, at least I’ll have more life experiences and I’ll know more about myself and my passions when I’m making decisions after high school.”
Reflecting on her Grade 10 experience, Caitlin agrees entirely. She says it was during the experiential program when she forged some of her closest high school friendships and when she learned the most about herself as an individual.
“I think it allowed people who normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to become close to develop really meaningful relationships in an environment where that’s really possible because people were discovering who they were; it was a very genuine experience,” she says.
“Really take advantage of the opportunity the school’s giving you,” Caitlin offers as advice to the current and upcoming Grade 10 students. “Use it as an opportunity to do something that is your passion or something you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do. Look at options to broaden your horizons. Appreciate the fact that you’re still learning and you’re still learning about yourself.”
This article appeared in the Winter 2015/16 edition of School Ties. Click here to read the complete magazine.