Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Connection to the Community: Experiential and Active Learning

As a part of our network campus program, Holy Family Academy students are learning in locations across the city. There is a lot of talk in education about "authentic and experiential learning" yet many schools have barriers to making these experiences happen. We are committed to helping students pursue their personal passion pathways and sharing our model and learnings with other schools, administrators and teachers. In addition to our work study program where students work one day a week across the city, we value curricular partnerships with a variety of organizations, museums, and even just the land and free resources across the city itself. By leveraging partnerships and getting students off campus we intentionally focus on building active and experiential learning into our program. 

Experiential learning is active learning or learning by doing in which students apply their theoretical, classroom knowledge through “real world” experience and application. By
Students in the Oakland Section
of Pittsburgh on a Field Study 
immersing students “in the field” and giving them opportunities for hands-on active learning, whether studying water quality in the rivers of Pittsburgh, building a food distribution system to help resolve food deserts in the City or designing a website for a non-profit organization, experiential learning provides an immersion experience where learning comes alive. Field based study provides context, connection and creates the space for students to co-design learning. We know that 21st century career and culture skills require this type of learning yet our schools haven't widely shifted to adopt this type of learning. 
The US Department of Education says that approximately half of the students entering college are not ready even though their diplomas say they are. Employers are saying the same. This points to a discrepancy between what students are doing in school and what is defined as college and career readiness.   

We believe that field based learning provides real career-oriented experiences for students to assist in defining career goals, deepening and enhancing classroom learning, and increasing student attractiveness to recruiters for both college and directly to employment. We work with over 50 corporate and non-profit partners in our Corporate Work Study program and without hesitation almost all highly value active and experiential learning. 

Some key pieces of field based learning at HFA:
  • Provide projects with relevant work experience for students
  • Provide insightful, creative, and professional work products for companies
  • Create linkages between recruiting companies/organizations and students

Many of our field based learning expeditions support social action and integrative learning (SAIL) through our Integrated Design Lab. Similar to some programs happening at the college level, SAIL fosters integrative, innovative, and experiential learning opportunities on our HFA campus, throughout the city of Pittsburgh, regionally, and eventually globally that educate and activate towards a more equitable, just, nonviolent, and sustainable world. While this program is new - we are very excited about the model and have this as a core part of our curricular program. 
When I describe the vision for this our Network Campus Program and our field based learning requirement some folks instantly tell me "that would never work in my school." I was interested to learn why. Some typical responses:
  1. Time and transportation
  2. Fixed mindset about the value of experiential learning in an age of standardized assessment
  3. Worry of student behavior and dedication to "non-graded" and untraditionally assessed projects
While these concerns can all be valid - I would ask those considering or intrigued by this model to think about creative work-arounds. Call me - talk to me.. I would love to brainstorm with you and maybe our students can work together. There are ways this approach to learning can be integrated into a variety of schools: both public/charter and private/independent. In public schools it may be harder but its possible with planning, administrative support and dedication of teacher innovators. What about a virtual field study? What about starting after-school or using public transportation if bussing is not available? What other solutions might you share. Please add comments below.

By shifting what the school day looks like in terms of schedule, being committed to alternate forms of assessment and providing transportation, students at HFA are taking steps to pursue their personal passion pathways. Our students will also design ePortfolios to showcase their experiential learning and field based studies and will have the potential to earn digital badges or micro-credentials that can be attached to their traditional transcript. 

Some recent field based learning spots were:

  • The Oakland section of Pittsburgh to explore historical sites, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, public art spots and the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh where they recorded their responses and reactions to sites they visited with small groups of peers and created reflective pieces while back on campus.
  • The City Theatre Young Playwrights festival where students are forming their own voice through our writers workshop and connecting learning to cultural literacy classes (our joint English/History block). 
  • To Duquesne University for the Presidential Conference on the Integrity of Creation and Climate Change where students in the 9th grade Integrated Design Lab will gain the knowledge that they can apply to their social action and integrative learning projects
Graphics Designed and Field Study run by Coordinator of
Cultural and Educational Affairs, Jennifer Lanas.

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