Experiential learning makes the best classroom

In most public schools in the country, students attend classes five days a week, sit at a desk, take down notes and study for written tests.

This traditional style of learning might be great for kids who retain information through visual or auditory learning, but hell for kinesthetic learners, who struggle sitting at desks and constantly taking notes. The kinesthetic learners are the students who retain information better by actually participating in an activity and sharing their thoughts and ideas on the matter with a group. They say it gives them a better understanding and knowledge of what they are supposed to be learning.

Professor Paul Derby works with students during the Semester in the Southwest.
Liza Meyers/Spartan Contributer

Liza Tarleton, a student who took advantage of Castleton College’s two-week trip to Cambodia over the summer, said there’s no comparison.

“I think the style of experiential learning verses traditional sit-at-a-desk style is far more engaging and valuable. Being able to actually engage and experience what is being taught and learned allows students to relate to the subject matter,” she said. “Students become able to understand how others live and think by actually participating in real life situations rather than being lectured, sitting in a classroom.”  

Unlike a typical classroom, experiential students have access to activities that involve their full attention and physical self while participating in interactive learning.   

Paul Derby and Liza Myers were two of the three professors involved with the Semester in the Southwest this fall.  Both are major proponents of experiential learning throughout the education system.  

Derby said he knows students learned more and grew more while in the Southwest.

“The greatest advantage of experiential learning is that students can make immediate connections of classroom materials to real-world, first-hand experiences of that material. Students are living the classroom rather than being told about and/or shown some abstraction of materials, Derby said. “For example, I could have students read about Chaco Canyon or the Taos Pueblo’s San Geronimo Feast Day celebration and perhaps that could know something vague about these, but when students can go to the sites or participate in the activities, they come alive as tangible learning experiences.”

Myers agreed.

“There is no comparison to learning by actually being there, by experiencing the air, the earth, the habitat where events occurred 750 years ago. Reading about it in a book is so removed from the reality and dry,” she said.

Castleton offers many two-week trips, but the Semester in the Southwest is the longest. This trip took the students’ desire for a different style of learning and gave them an amazing, hands-on learning experience in the four corners region of the United States.  

Student Henry Clark said he believes experiential learning is the future of schooling.

“Science already shows that the best way to learn a language is through immersion. Experiential Learning, and programs like the Semester in the Southwest, are just bringing that to the best level,” he said. “They engage you 24/7 in a culture and a world you’re unfamiliar with and keeps your brain frantically running to keep up. It keeps you soaking up new knowledge, not because a teacher behind a desk tells you to pay attention, but because, naturally, humans pay special attention to their surroundings and when your surroundings happen to be what you’re learning about – you learn a whole lot more than any textbook.”

During the semester in the Southwest students were able to explore the ruins of Ancestral Puebloans all over the four corners region and actually experience how these people lived 1,000 years ago

Leah Barnett, another student from the Semester in the Southwest, said she loved the learning style on the trip.

“It’s amazing being in the environment of what you are learning about because you get to see and feel this, making it real. I learned so much about culture and just about the country we live in,” she said.

One might ask why this type of learning isn’t more prevalent in every school system?  Why not give chances to students who struggle with traditional learning?  

Clark thinks it’s time for a change.

“I got to experience a new place and meet radically new people that opened up my social environment and made me lose some ignorance about the world. If you can do that in a couple months – I think you have a program that works,” he said.


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