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Should I Teach My Kids Through Experiential Learning?

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Like most aspects of our society, the American education system is a work in progress. Heavy emphasis on test scores and memorization instead of real, deep learning has started to take over most schools, and progress has been slow to incorporate more meaningful academic experiences for students. With scholars and the media showing the public the weaknesses of our current education system, it comes as little surprise that parents are looking for different ways to educate their kids.

Experiential learning has popped up as a potential solution for the problems with our education system. We still need to work within the existing framework – colleges will need to see grades and test scores for their applicants, for instance – but experiential learning could be a great supplement to your child’s academic life.

What is Experiential Learning?

The short answer is that experiential learning is “learning through doing.” Educators – which, in this case, can be parents – help guide students to use their lived experience instead of passive learning to learn and apply concepts. In other words, instead of having a kid learn a concept by reading about it or having someone explain it to them, she can have an experience that will help her learn the concept in a more natural way.

Based on Kolb’s Cycle of Experiential Learning, the idea behind this movement is that experiential learning is a more enjoyable and more effective way to gain understanding of complex subjects. Instead of just memorizing or observing something, a kid gains a connection to the material by living it. Kids learn naturally, on their own terms – and, people argue, it works a lot better than how schools teach.

Here’s the scholarly theory behind it: a kid has a concrete experience like exploring a forest or making up a game. He then reflects on the experience, like writing about it or talking about it with a parent. He is then guided towards thinking of the experience in more abstract ways, like changing his mind about a general concept related to the experience. At that point, the child works on applying what he learned about that experience to the world around him, and masters the concept.

For example, if you want your daughter to learn about how plants grow, you could encourage her to grow her own tomato plant. Chat with her about what the plant is doing throughout the process, then go to an arboretum so that she can see how different plants grow. Have her pick out similarities and differences between the plants – and make sure she thinks about why those patterns might exist. Then, you can ask her how other plants might grow based on what she learned, helping her apply this concept to the world. The learning is deeper than just memorizing facts about plants, which means she’ll understand the ideas better.

Why Bother?

Many parents might think that this process is more trouble than it’s worth. Although some schools are starting to include experiential learning in the curriculum, most are not – and the experts should know better than us, right? The problem is, taking the easy way out is what got us into this educational mess in the first place.

The truth is, research backs up the idea that experiential learning works better than more traditional styles. Memory and movement are intimately linked, and self-directed learning (allowing kids to move freely and do activities that they choose) has been proven to be more effective than being told what to learn. Further, experiential learning has been shown to boost independence, make kids more comfortable with failure in order to learn through trial and error, and even develop a stronger sense of morality.

Unfortunately, a study from the University of Virginia has shown that kids are spending less time on self-directed learning and more time in a passive learning environment because of how our schools are set up.

It’s not that the people running schools don’t want our kids to learn – it’s that many schools, especially public ones, often don’t have the resources necessary to include experiential learning in their lessons. This means that it’s up to parents to help them out by setting up experiential learning experiences for their kids, if they can.

Schools certainly do a lot for our kids. They help them develop social skills, gain role models, and explore subjects that interest them. However, parents can greatly help out with their children’s education by incorporating experiential learning whenever they can. When your kids start mastering concepts and gain a deeper understanding of the world around them, you’ll see the results inside and out of the classroom.

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