Hooked on a feeling

Buckminster Fuller once observed: “I call intuition ‘cosmic fishing.’ You feel the nibble, and then you hook the fish.” These days, local educators are increasingly turning to experiential learning to help students feel that nibble.

John Dewey, a leading 20th-century educational theorist and reformer, pioneered the concept of learning by doing. As early as 1938, Dewey saw that learning through direct experience, action and reflection enabled students to immerse themselves in real-life consequences.

Through action, Dewey found, students make discoveries and personally experiment with knowledge, instead of merely passively hearing about others’ experiences.

By the ’70s, this hands-on learning technique had gained more acceptance among school administrators, due in part to the success of the Foxfire books: Through interviews, photographs and recordings, students from the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in the mountains of northeast Georgia documented a vanishing Southern Appalachian subculture. What began as a simple oral-history report blossomed into an internationally recognized method of learning that’s engaging, rewarding, creative and fun.

And having been involved in outdoor experiential education over the past 20 years, this reporter was eager to see how well this learning approach is working inside local classrooms.

Have bus, will travel

Alida Woods, assistant principal of Isaac Dickson (K-5), is no ordinary school administrator. Students flock to her with enthusiastic questions, hellos and quick hugs. Colorful artwork and school photographs adorn the hallways of Dickson, one of Asheville’s six public elementary schools.

Isaac Dickson’s 330 students come from widely varying backgrounds. “Given the diverse population we teach, we try to connect them to real-world experiences,” Woods reflects. “Our second-graders are currently learning about jobs, while third-graders have annually engaged in planned camping trips that blend field studies with life skills.”

Experiential learning encourages students to play an active role in both the classroom and society. At Dickson, students help make decisions on such matters as class rules, group projects and school government.

Can hands-on learning function effectively as part of a standard curriculum? Woods believes it can. “Experiential learning — through creativity, multiculturalism and active participation — fits nicely into the students’ overall educational experience,” she maintains.

Isaac Dickson’s commitment to experiential learning is evident in the school’s recent decision to buy its own school bus: Thanks to a combination of grants, PTO efforts and private funding, Dickson now has a direct link to off-campus educational resources. The Cradle of Forestry’s outdoor learning laboratories, the WNC Nature Center and the N.C. Arboretum serve as extensions of the classroom — and, more importantly, provide access to places that some students might not otherwise be able to visit.

Isaac Dickson’s 17-acre campus includes a garden, a nature trail and a bird blind. The nature trail meanders though open meadows, a mixed-hardwood forest and stream habitats. These unique facilities provide fun yet effective opportunities for teaching science, wildlife studies and cooperative skills.

“Children are naturally curious and want to learn,” says Woods. “We realize that kids learn in a variety of ways, so we provide methods, activities, experiences and environments that engage the whole learner.”

Unity in diversity

John Shackelton, curriculum director at Rainbow Mountain School (K-8) in West Asheville, echoes this holistic philosophy of learning.

“Our interdisciplinary approach to learning recognizes the multiple intelligences of how we learn,” he explains. (Harvard Professor Howard Gardner developed the theory of multiple types of intelligence.)

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