Personalization and Experiential Education

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At SMUS we talk about personalization and experiential education as two distinct themes that will shape education in the next decade or more. While they are distinct, they are not separate, however. Three weeks ago my blog post remarked: “more and more learning is going to be focused on students’ strengths and passions, more and more it will be experiential, and more and more it will be an unfolding of the conversation among student, teacher and parent – with the student asked to lead the way.” Much has been made of how technology makes personalization possible by facilitating access to learning beyond the classroom. This learning is powerful because it is an encounter between the student and the world as it unfolds outside the classroom, rather than as it unfolds in a book or on the whiteboard. Learning beyond the classroom, where the student “learns by doing”, is experiential.

In our current academic program, we use the term “experiential” to describe explorations we have been undertaking most specifically in our Grade Ten year. In many people’s minds, experiential education is most clearly connected to what has traditionally been outdoor education. But that has simply been our avenue into it; experiential education applies to every academic discipline. This current academic year we have fully implemented in Grade Ten experiential education across the curriculum, the fruition of about eight years of pilot programs, of discussion and planning. Experiential education is not just the domain of Grade Ten. We recognize that it’s everywhere, throughout the School, K – 12. The Reggio Emilia-inspired curriculum in the Junior School is very much an encounter with the world on the part of the student; the student interacts with his or her environment, documents it, absorbs it and re-creates it. In the Middle School, the widespread use and power of project-based learning operates on the same impulses: a student’s explorations, discussions and solutions are efforts to understand, absorb and reconstruct the world he or she encounters. These are all part of an experiential continuum that is complex and sophisticated and not as accidental as it appears.

Susan MacDonald, one of the members of our Personalization team, visited the Hawken School, in Cleveland, Ohio, where the interweaving of personalization and experiential education provides much food for thought:

Personalized learning is not as much at the fore of Hawken School as is experiential learning.  However, at the same time, there are many opportunities for personalization at the school, notably in student choice of courses or activities, as well as the development of e-portfolios (learning pathways) and e-continuums (assessment). Their purpose is “Forward-focused preparation for the real world through the development of character and intellect.” They aim to offer progressive, exciting learning opportunities for students in an academically rigorous environment. In the Senior School, they operate on a semester system and offer a range of exciting required and elective courses, based on teacher passions. Students then choose their courses and can proceed at their own pace (e.g., a gifted grade 10 math student could take an AP course, provided s/he had the prerequisites). One of the most exciting innovations at Hawken Senior School is the ”Intensive,” a three-week-long credit course offered at the end of each semester. Students get to choose their Intensives (in some cases of popular Intensives, there is a competitive application process). Middle School students have a “Week of insight” that is similar to the Intensives. Highlights of Hawken’s innovative programs include a STEMM experiential mentorship (the last “M” is for “Medicine” – students can shadow doctors or researchers) and an experiential entrepreneurship program, in which students work with real businesses in Cleveland.

More to come next week.

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