Seattle school embraces experiential education over traditional classroom lessons
The Downtown School, located in Seattle and currently in its first year, offers an experiential approach to learning — instead of just sitting in a classroom, the school aims to help students learn by doing, The 74 reports.
The school enrolls 45 freshmen and sophomores who, in addition to listening to guest speakers tie their classroom lessons to the real world, get to explore the community for themselves by visiting businesses, museums and community art exhibits. Juniors and seniors, meanwhile, have local, partial-day internships.
Teachers' roles are also somewhat untraditional, with the staff comprised of the head of school and five teachers — who are also administrators, The 74 notes. And teachers' classroom instruction and lessons plans, in some part, depend on student feedback.
The Downtown School is just one example of less conventional approaches schools are taking when it comes to learning, as well as a newer take on private schools in particular. The Seattle school sits in a highly walkable, arguably safe neighborhood surrounded by biotech startups and research centers — both of which can provide lots of experiential learning opportunities.
However, while most schools don’t sit in the middle of an experiential education opportunity zone, there are plenty of ways districts can still create similar opportunities for their own students. The most important takeaway isn't where the experience may be, but that students are ultimately learning in ways other than listening to a lecture.
Students at the Downtown School get to frequently go on trips and excursions, but some of their experiential learning is relatively feasible for other schools to model. Students, in one scenario, were brought to a random piece of cement sticking out of a sidewalk that sported a faded inscription on an attached plaque. They were then tasked with figuring out where it came from. Through experiential learning, a lesson that may have started with art can morph into a history or science lesson as it progresses, giving them all the more knowledge and skills along the way.
A school that sits adjacent to a waterfront park, for example, could include beach walks into their curriculum — older students could study marine life, collect data or measure water salinity at different times of the year. A rural district, on the other hand, could work with farms.
Using these areas, instructors can develop programs for each age group. In high school, students may be given more autonomy and access to engage in learning about topics in which they are interested. Middle schoolers, on the other hand, could learn about more general topics, including food production and business.
Some warn, however, that too much experiential learning may handicap students. Some argue that information learned in the a classroom environment exposes students to different cultures and ideas that the immediate community around them may not offer. Other critics say opting to educate students only in a school's immediate surroundings could result in a more narrow scope of the world.
Before anything else, administrators and other school officials should work with instructors and curriculum officers to discuss the feasibility and benefits of executing this type of learning style. If experiential learning is deemed the way to go, field trips may check some of the boxes in the practice, but instructional lessons — both on these trips as well as traditional classroom lectures — should arguably never disappear entirely.