experiential learning

Measuring Curiosity & Creativity in India

Many educational organizations want to know their impact in terms of test scores and quantitative metrics. I’m more more interested in the qualitative. Are children learning? Are they curious? Are they creative? Are they solving problems that matter to them?

In January I spent three weeks at the Agastya International Foundation, near Bangalore, India, observing educational programs designed to increase children’s curiosity and creativity via STEM. The government (public) schools in India are eager for supplemental science and math curriculum, which is how Agastya gets in. They send tens of thousands of teachers around the country in vans filled with science experiments with the aim of “sparking curiosity” through hands-on learning during science and math lessons.  

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Hamsa Latha, who leads the Impact Assessment team at Agastya, is seeking to assess the change in students’ curiosity after being exposed to Agastya’s hands-on science learning. Hamsa and her team have designed questionnaires for students before and after engaging in an Agastya program to see if they become more curious, more creative, more interested in the natural world. Last year they assessed 66,515 middle school students in 1,697 schools.  They found that on the whole, after completing an Agastya program, students believed that they learn best through hands-on experiments and model-making. Overall students showed 10-15% increases in awareness (of science in the world), curiosity, confidence and science knowledge. This impressive study is one of few being done in the education sector focused on traits and habits of learning rather than solely on content.

The Innovation Hub, one of many programs on the Agastya campus, focuses on how students learn, not just what. The aim is on solving community problems using technology, teamwork and innovation. Groups of students are led through a series of workshops that help them identify and rectify community problems, using a project-based learning approach. One of the brilliant innovations the children came up with is to  add pictorial symbols to village names to help illiterate family members know when to get off the bus. Another innovation deals with walking home from school in the dark and needing your hands to hold siblings hands, groceries, and books. Instead of also trying to hold a flashlight to be able to light the way, students created LED strips for backpack straps so that you’d have a hands free way of seeing if you’re about to step on a snake. It is projects like these that not only impact communities, but also teach children a way of learning. Children who complete a program at the Innovation Hub move through the world with the tools to change their world.

The Art Lab, another innovative program at Agastya, is designed as a journey of observation and imagination using nature at the medium. Students begin by drawing their idea of a tree and then spend days outside talking about the tree and what they see and notice. Who lives there? How does it change? What textures are evident? What shades and tints of colors are present? How does it move? What can and can’t you see? Students then make another drawing and compare the image in their mind with the one they’ve observed. The unit finishes with students designing their own trees, using creativity and imagination. Other units repeat this process with leaves, the sky, and animals. Through this process students really learn to see and observe. They begin to understand nature. They are learning how to learn.

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Sometimes in education we spend so much time focusing on content and forget to think about the process of learning and providing experiences for students to figure out how they learn best. By trying different methods like hands-on science experiments, solving community problems, and closely observing nature, Agastya has achieved their mission. Curiosity has been sparked.

What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning?

My friend called to say she’s going to start teaching her 4 year-old ‘pre-K stuff’ because he’s not ‘getting it’ at school. His school day and his teachers are focused on playing and being outdoors and they aren’t as academically centered as her daughter’s pre-K experience. Her daughter knew ‘everything’ before entering kindergarten. She is fearful for her son. School is not such fun for him and he still lacks the ability to count a set of objects or recognize all numbers and letters. She is seriously thinking about doing fun activities and playing games with him at home to get him ready for kindergarten. She called to ask my advice.

From my observations of pre-K through 2nd grade classrooms around the US and world, there is significantly too much focus on the academics and not nearly enough time to value children’s learning through play and exploration of their environment. It sounds like his pre-K teachers are ballsy and I admire them.

This is my counsel to my friend:

1.     YOUR CHILDREN LEARN DIFFERENTLY.
2.     What’s being taught in pre-K to 2nd grade is not developmentally appropriate. Until you turn 8, those things we call “academics” don’t mean much to you; you aren’t feeling a need for them in your daily life. Plus the same things are taught year to year, so IF YOUR KID ISN’T READY FOR IT NOW, IT’S COOL, THEY’LL BE EXPOSED TO IT AGAIN NEXT YEAR. 
3.     TELL YOUR KID IT’S OK IF HE DOESN’T GET EVERYTHING RIGHT AWAY. Explain that people learn things at different ages and it’s OK if he’s not great at it now.
4.     TELL HIM IF THERE IS SOMETHING HE WANTS TO LEARN, OR GET BETTER AT, HE CAN ASK YOU FOR HELP. This is not obvious to your child. This will plant a seed to help him become a learner, know what he can do if he’s passionate and wants more of something, and create his own process for seeking information.
5.     No matter how much fun you try to make formal learning at home, it will probably feel like ‘school’ to your kid and make him not enjoy learning as much. Since it isn’t really appropriate that he master all of these things this year, then it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that he GROW TO LOVE LEARNING. That should be your goal, not hitting school benchmarks.
6.     What we should be looking at, then, is: What are his friendships like? What activities is he drawn to? What does he talk about more in school? At home? NURTURE THOSE THINGS. 
Yes, there are options of other kinds of schools you could send your kid to. And yes, a revolution in schooling is on the way, but in the meantime, HELP YOUR KIDS NAVIGATE THIS WONKY SYSTEM!
Show your children how you are a learner. Do you do an internet search first when you want to know something? Do you read a book dedicated to it from the NYT best seller list? Do you call an expert friend and ask their opinion?
Ask your children questions, serious questions, in discussion of things they bring up, like:
TOYS/GAMES/ACTIVITIES: What makes you happy about playing like this? What are you imagining when you’re playing? Is there anything you don’t like about it? How would you change it?
IDEAS/ABSTRACT/PHILOSOPHICAL: Speak like you would to a friend or peer. Ask the same kinds of questions. If your kid doesn’t have answer just keep going. Talk. Listen.


What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning? 

What if students were connected to working experts in the field of what they are learning?

How many times do you hear students say, “when am I ever going to need this?"

When I was teaching I tried to bring experts into the classroom to talk about their work in light of the content or skills I was teaching. But it’s hard! All of that scheduling and making sure the experts know how to talk to children. Oy.

I dreamed of a world where I could contact experts at my fingertips and video-chat with them in my classroom for 20-30 minutes of sharing about their work, making what I was teaching relevant to my students, and broadening my students’ ideas of the jobs and careers that are out there.

Last week I attended the NYC Education Forum where 11 startups in the education-technology sector presented their projects for a chance to win $10K. Nepris, the winner, recognizes this need and has done something about it! Teachers go on Nepris and look for experts who use what they are teaching in class and then schedule a time for them to video-chat with your class. The brilliance of Nepris is that it leverages the LinkedIn community to find industry experts, vet them, and connect them with students.


What if for everything you learned in school there was an expert who uses that content waiting to video-chat with you?

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

At a family celebration this past weekend a friend shared that her daughter had just been accepted into a Gifted and Talented kindergarten class at their local school and she wanted to know my thoughts about putting her child there vs. letting her child experience, what she perceived would be, a less anxiety-producing mixed-ability classroom environment. Here are my thoughts (and research):

What is tracking? 

Tracking is the practice, traditionally in high schools, of grouping students with similar ability and then teaching to that ability. This often looks like the "higher ability" students being given more complex work and asked to think more critically than the "lower ability" students who are treated with lower expectations.

What are the perceived benefits of tracking students? 

Some people say that students in all tracked groups (high, middle, and low-ability class groupings) will learn more and be pushed out of their comfort zone into a more challenging zone of learning if they are with like-peers.

Some people also say that it is easier for a teacher to teach one thing to a group of students rather then have to differentiate instruction for students with differing abilities.

Some parents say that their Gifted child was used as a teacher for lower-performing peers and didn't get the chance to shine with like-minded peers.

What are the proven-through-research detriments of tracking students? 

There are just so many so I will highlight what I think are the most important:

- Students learn from each other!

- Students develop communication and life skills by learning to explain, listen, and ask questions of their peers.

- Students develop relationships with more of their peers.

- Students begin to see themselves and each other as teachers!

- Teacher expectation changes student performance. This means that when students are grouped by ability teachers teach them differently and students who are perceived as "lower ability" will not be as stimulated or engaged by the teacher, or be treated as capable learners.

- Tracking only highlights tested academic skills. Many students have other skills that lend themselves to a school setting where they might have a deeper understanding of a concept that doesn't show in tests. For example, a student who understands music may be very good at math, and be not so great at taking math tests.

- Listening to students teach each other adds more strategies and ways of thinking to a teacher's toolbox. This makes them better teachers.

Something to note when you hear from parents and students who disagree (based on experience) is that they probably didn't have teachers who were excited about the differences among their students. GREAT TEACHERS will capitalize on all of the skills and abilities of their students and seamlessly create a feeling of community in the classroom. It is extremely unfortunate that there are teachers who are not willing to embrace all of their students and who complain that mixed-ability classes create more work for them. We have to always remember the goal: to teach students to want to learn, create, and make a better world, which includes all kinds of equity (and not complaining because something seems difficult).

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

For more info read: Why Ability Grouping Doesn't Work, What Tracking Is and How to Start Dismantling It, Tracking (in Wikipedia), Can Tracking Improve Learning? (study done in Kenya)

What if students designed their own schools?

“When Sam Levin was a junior at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., he realized that two things were in short supply at his school: engagement and mastery. He also noticed that he and his peers were learning plenty of information, but not much about how to gather or create their own data. And he noticed that students were unhappy. So he took it upon himself to design a school where students would feel fully engaged, have an opportunity to develop expertise in something, and learn how to learn.” (source)

The program Sam designed, The Independent Project, debuted in 2010 and is still going today. Students applied, proving that they could manage their time well. The majority of the semester is structured into half-days. For half of each day, per week, students choose a question to investigate and then share with the group at the end of the week. The other half of the day is filled with a semester long individual project that could be learning a musical instrument, writing a book, etc. The last 3 weeks of the semester the students work collaboratively to create a project for social impact. The only requirements of the various projects are “effort, learning and mastery.” There are no grades; it is pass/fail. 

This student-guided experiential education is the key! Parents of students at Sam’s school were concerned about not having letter grades for the project, but colleges were excited to read about students who did something different. Not only that, the project helped students develop skills: they were more proactive, self-motivated, good with managing time, focused, collaborative, communicative, curious, and engaged. 

For me, one of the unexpected positive outcomes of this project is that it has shown the teachers what the students are capable of, and has encouraged teachers (of regular school subjects) to give ALL of their students more choice- what to read, which topic to study, how to present. And through this process the teachers are also discussing their own roles in student education. Holy reflection, Batman! The teachers are trusting the students to make decisions about their own learning! 

“Students who have gone through the program ask more questions and have a greater awareness of how to answer them; construct their questions more carefully; became more thoughtful in the way they consider ideas and evaluate sources; and became better at managing their time.” Win. 

What if all students had a digital portfolio that recorded their learning experiences?

I am supremely interested in how we present ourselves to the world, how we categorize our experiences, how we value what we’ve learned, how we see ourselves over time.

I grew up being a great test-taker and therefore always being at the top of my class. I had friends, much smarter than me, who froze during tests or did poorly one time and were plagued forever by those numbers that dictated much of their future, not to mention self-worth.

As I developed into a teacher I noticed more and more the value in documenting my students learning experiences. I began making an annual class website that I updated weekly to show off the multitude of learning that was happening in each of my students: photos of their art, writing, and creations, photos of their interactions with each other and nature, videos of creations in action, readings of stories they wrote, poems and songs we collaborated on together as a class, and invitations to events where we could celebrate the students’ learning in person.

Parents thanked me for giving them a glimpse of the variety of learning activities happening throughout their child’s day. They congratulated me for celebrating more of what their children had to offer than purely academic-lensed accomplishments. The students shared with me their reflections upon viewing their experiences - hearing how their reading had changed over time, seeing how their drawing skills developed, celebrating that math problem they solved as a team and remembering the poster they made that explained how they solved the problem differently from everyone else.

I found these students to be more celebratory of each other’s strengths and accomplishments, and less focused on who was better at x or y. There is always something to celebrate about everyone. My class website validated all kinds of learners and learning.

This got me thinking. It’s great to share these learning experiences on a cozy little class website, but what if every student had their own digital portfolio that captured their learning experiences as a way to reflect - to see patterns and sparks, to document other kinds of learning, to celebrate learning both in and out of school?  

Imagine your family moves and your child begins attending a new school: think about the implications for your child’s transition if the teacher could see what kind of kid they are, the kinds of friends they seek out, what kinds of things they are interested in learning.

Imagine you’re a teacher and it’s August and you’ve just received your class list: think about the implications for you as a teacher to see your class as a set, find commonalities among experiences and interests, help you brainstorm activities and lessons that will be interesting and meaningful to this new set of students.

Imagine you are applying for a job or internship: think about looking over your portfolio, choosing a few experiences that highlight who you are and why you’d be a great fit, and then sharing them as your application.

Imagine you are applying for colleges: think about what you would share of yourself, to complement your transcript (that’s filled with one-time-measurements), to give the college a better understanding of who you are and what you bring of yourself.

Imagine you are a parent: think about all you know of what makes your child great and how it would feel to have a record of this that your child could use to validate his/her experiences instead of relying solely on test scores.

Imagine you are an after-school facilitator of music, arts, sports: think about the value of being able to add this to an on-going record of who these children are, another facet of their life that while you find valuable, rarely makes it to “permanent records.”

Imagine you are a student: think about all you’ve added to this record, this digital portfolio, over the last 10 years. Can you see how interests have developed into others? Can you see how you’ve grown as a learner? Can you see certain skills you keep coming back to? Can you spot a single experience that led you to develop a particular skill? Can you see passions that always find a way into your experiences? Does this reflection help you think about your life, your choices, and what’s next?


What if all students had a digital portfolio that recorded their learning experiences?

What if all learning experiences “counted?”

I am sitting in the lush forests on Kauai, Hawaii, after several days of hiking up to mountain ridges and walking along narrow pathways to glorious ocean vistas. On the hikes I am sharpening so many skills - balancing my weight, navigating though a variety of terrains (sometimes quite slippery), and making innumerable snap decisions regarding safety and exploration. I stop often to admire details of the flora and fauna - touching, smelling, and comparing. The moss is tremendous. I am constantly astounded by the variety and texture. The rocks, too, many which have bits of lava from different stages of volcanic eruption within them, are exceptional and though they look strong, easily crumble in my fingers.

I am learning about myself too - endurance, strength, preparedness with food and water, how to protect myself from the elements with minimal gear, and to remind myself to look up from the path and admire my surroundings. 

I knew from an early age that what I learned and sought outside of school was just as valuable, and sometimes more so, than what I was learning in school. In my senior year of high school I created a half-day internship for myself at an educational television show. It was there that I learned about public speaking, speaking professionally, how to develop relationships with co-workers, how to do specific and detailed research for on-air deadlines, how to produce a television show, how to splice tape and create pre-recorded segments, and the list goes on. 

In 1999 I began attending one of only a handful of co-op universities in the US, which offer programs that are half academic, half real-world work experience. When I began as a freshman at Northeastern University, I was most excited about the yearlong schedule: 6 months of classes split up into two, 3-month semesters, and then 6 months of working in the field of my major or one I might be interested in. Within these paid internships I was able to work in a variety of departments to understand each field. At a PR firm I did cold calls for our database, spent a few days with the bookkeeping team, sat in on meetings, shadowed an executive for a day, and learned the culture of the organization. At a pop-rock radio station I worked in several departments each for a week at a time: music, promotions, news, and the office. These experiences gave me the perspective of work-culture, what it means to be proactive, how to show you’ve learned something by applying it appropriately, and, maybe most importantly, how to sell myself. Tailoring a resume, writing a cover letter, and going on an interview were things I began to just know how to do, and they set me apart from other recent graduates. 

Emily Rapport, in her opinion piece for edSurge titled Why Course Credits Don’t Reflect What I Learn, explains as a current undergrad how the learning experiences she pursues outside of her classes are offering her more learning and skills that apply to her interests and passions than the learning and skills she is getting from her classes. More so she is pushing that these out-of-class learning experiences be credited, acknowledged, and appreciated by her university. These experiences are clearly what her future employers will value. 

She offers some solutions: 

1. “Introduce experiential learning frameworks into students’ first-year experiences.” Teach students to reflect on all of their learning experiences and value them as such. 

2. “Create courses that use students’ outside-the-classroom experiences as texts.” Classes that apply theory to required internships and community service projects. 

3. “Structure an undergraduate experience so that it moves from classroom to “real world,” with opportunities for student-driven capstones other than academic theses.” Allow students alternatives to a thesis to apply their skills before graduation and as their requirement for graduation. 

I am a huge fan of, not just talking but, taking action. It is one thing to privately value the variety of your life experiences, knowing you are using them and getting the most you can from them, and it takes those experiences to a whole new level to advocate for their legitimacy in the academic world. 

Maya Angelou said, “You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there.”

So what if all learning experiences “counted?”