Experiential Learning

We can call it experiential learning, project based learning, inquiry driven explorations, the nomenclature almost doesn’t matter as much as what it represents.

Some of my favorite experiences with my students have been when we have broken free from the litany of mandates coming from the county and instead took a step back and said, “Yeah, but what if we could?” When we’re working on communication and clarity of thought, we are crafting podcasts and YouTube style videos that force us, by their very nature, to understand our material so deeply that we can now use our knowledge to persuade, inform, and entertain our audience in a meaningful way. When taught in isolation, we learn of these ideas of author’s purpose but have little way for them to take root in our systems, and we end up just regurgitating memorized ideas. When we’re working on researching, note-taking, and executive functioning/organization, we’re building websites, creating a Wiki, or, yes, trying to make a TikTok go viral by examining the systems that make it go. We have built social media profiles for planets, used our knowledge of the water cycle, erosion, and soil conservation to design (and build, of course) water collection systems and culverts around our school playground (and just like that, no more muddy classroom floors!)

That is what our work is all about. We place what we learn in the context of action and product. It is authentic, engaging, purposeful, and best of all, it reinforces the retention of acquired knowledge.

This all sounds wonderful, I hear you saying to yourself, but how does my elementary schooler get to take advantage of this while learning both online and remotely? Whenever we build and design these experiences, we start with two simple questions: What do we need to learn? and What tools do we have available to us? That frames our adventures in an appropriate context so we don’t spend all our time planning hypothetical projects. Virtually, we have never been in a better place with the tools we have available to us for creation. Blogging, video, audio, knowledge management – we’re swimming in them. But keep in mind that just because our work happens virtually, the student’s tasks might not always be in front of a computer. Maybe we’re working on persuasive writing and so decide to craft a flyer campaign to convince people in our neighborhood to be more deliberate with their recycling. Part of that is producing and distributing actual flyers. Maybe we’re studying poetry and writing a song that we hope to perform at a local talent night or kids coffee house. Maybe we’re even designing and (with your help, of course) building a brand New American Ninja Warrior training course in the back yard, using our in-depth knowledge of geometry, elapsed time, and measurement.

When our learning is inextricably tied to doing, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of wonder, experiments, informed risk-taking, and, best of all, joy.

Building a Ritual of Reflection

Use the summer to develop your systems so that you can spend your time focussing on the children this fall, not messing with your back end and data systems. Go reflect the hell out of it.

The Foundation

As an educator, I have always fundamentally believed that one of the major keys to effective, culturally responsive teaching is through the constant and immediate examination and adjusting of our practices. Try this: the foundation upon which a solid craft is built is reflection. This is not a diary. Though there’s nothing wrong with just talking through your day and your feelings as method for processing all the day’s events and examining the choices that you made, this is different. This is (and must be, to be effective) actionable and more data driven than emotional/instinctual.

As I examine my own growth and stumbling as a teacher, I hear a lot of people talking about building good habits and a habit of this or that… to be clear, I have no problem with habits. I think habits can be wonderful. By nature, however, habits are something formed to lighten your cognitive load. They are something that you do almost automatically so that your brain is freed up for processing something else. For example – you don’t need to think about going to the gym to workout – you’ve built a habit and every morning at 5am you wake up and go to the gym. It’s just what you do. there’s no negotiation and no decision making. You’re the type of person who goes to the gym every morning at 5 to work out.

What I am interested in is something a bit deeper. Yes, the act of beginning your reflection is a habit because it is tied to a specific time and place and every time I am in that place at that time I reflect. It’s what I do. The act of reflection, however, I like to think of as a ritual. Something that goes beyond automaticity and into a space of acute mindfulness. A ritual could be thought of as a step beyond a habit. It’s your Habit+ or Habit 2.0. It is present, thoughtful, and considered.

Building a ritual of reflection first begins by building the habit. Building a habit means developing a system. When we fall or slip, we fall back on the systems that we have created. If our system is a mess or (GASP) not developed well, we’re in trouble. So often, when we find that we struggle to build a habit it is because our systems are faulty. With a nod to some of the research of Clear (Atomic Habits), the major pieces of this process for me involve 4 pillars that I use as a foundation to build my practice upon.

  1. The reflection takes place at the same time and location every day
  2. The process is as frictionless as possible
  3. The reflection questions must prompt me for actionable answers
  4. This process must remain consistent to be effective

My Process

In addition to being unabashedly curious about pedagogy and examining the various roles a teacher might take on in the classroom, there’s something else you should know about me… I get annoyed quickly. Especially by repetitive tasks. I’m not joking. I’m that guy that if I have to push 5 buttons to do something on a computer or phone, I go from 0 to fuming in 1.2 seconds, or however long it takes to make all those clicks.

What I came up with was this: every day, I have a 35+ min commute home from work. When I get in the car, get buckled, and pull out of the parking lot, immediately out of my lips comes “Siri, it’s time to reflect.” My virtual assistant (which happens at this moment to be speaking in a terrible Irish accent) then asks me a series of questions. After each question, I answer and Siri transcribes. When I’m done, I have a note waiting for me as I look at planning for tomorrow and what adjustments I need to make to make sure the needs of my students are immediately met. I can pivot quickly and easily, because I know where I need to go – I, quite literally, have a list of what needs to happen tomorrow.

I am on iOS – you can probably do the same thing on the Android platform, but it’s been a while since I’ve been there so I can’t walk you through it… but you can use the link below with your iPhone or iPad. It uses a native app called Shortcuts. You don’t need to know about that app if you don’t already use it, but it’s basically a utility that allows you to automate a bunch of actions you might want to perform on your device without needing to know a whole lot about how to code. This Shortcut will add your reflection into Notes with a title of that day’s date. You can have it ask you any questions that you want, just go into Shortcuts and change the text.

How to do it Yourself

On your iPhone, make sure the following apps are installed, Notes and Shortcuts (These are both native, come with the phone apps, but just double check they are installed – if you don’t have one of them, just go to the App Store to download for free.) and you have updated your firmware to iOS 13 (settings->general->Software Update)

In order for this Shortcut to work, you fist need to go into Settings -> Shortcuts -> Allow Untrusted Shortcuts. (This allows you to use Shortcuts that were made by people other than Apple.)

Next, just click this link: https://www.icloud.com/shortcuts/1d3412cdae5a4e01982f84fdb4185859

The rest should be pretty straight forward. I set it up so that when you initially install it, it will ask you what questions you’d like to reflect on (you can always change these later), so you can enter in whatever works for you. After you enter in your questions, the Shortcut is installed and whenever you run it (in the Shortcuts app) you can choose which of those questions you’d like to answer that day and Siri will ask you those questions, transcribe your responses, and then save your responses as a new note in the Notes app with the date in the title. When you finish responding to a question, just press the red stop button and it will go on to the next question.

This is made all the better by being able to trigger it with your voice. After all, I’m doing this on my commute home and have kids of my own… so safety first. “Hey Siri, it’s time to reflect.”

The questions that I used this past year:

  • What went well today in the classroom?
  • What needs improvement for tomorrow?
  • What evidence do you have that leaning happened?
  • What are your goals for tomorrow?

Voice dictation: there are a lot of different phrases you can use to make sure Siri types what you want it to type, but the most helpful…

  • “Period”

  • “New line”
  • “New paragraph”
  • “Question mark”

In Summary

Whenever I get a chance to work with and speak to pre-service teachers entering their year of internship, the best piece of advice that I always leave them with at the end of our chats – “Reflect the hell out of it.”

So go. Use the summer to develop your systems so that you can spend your time focussing on the children this fall, not messing with your back end and data systems. Go reflect the hell out of it.