Experiential Education: Making the Classroom Relevant

By Scott Simonds

I’ve been a fan of experiential education since I was in high school.

I remember sitting in algebra class factoring quadratic equations, thinking, “Why am I learning this, how will I ever use this in the future?”  The teacher didn’t explain what a quadratic equation was used for (determining the area of a rectangle if the sides are increased).  That would not have mattered to me unless I was expanding the floor area of a room and had to determine how much ‘70s-style linoleum I had to order.

Although I can do the math now, over the past 63 years of my life, I never had to use it.  I have difficulty remembering events and dates, except those that recur in historical movies, like “The Guns of Navarone” or Ken Burns’ documentaries.  Movies, biographies and historical novels have been more helpful to me than history text books.

Robert Fulgham wrote All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  Learning to read and write, and a little math, opens the door to lifelong learning.  Certainly, classroom instruction has its place — I wouldn’t want to be operated on by a surgeon who learned only by trial and error — but even the surgeon’s book learning is connected to observing surgical techniques.  The surgeon acquires volumes of knowledge pertaining to the art of saving lives and improving health through a combination of study, observation and practice.

I’m partial to experiential learning because I had the good fortune to be born into a family that urged us to push the boundaries of exploration from an early age.  Our family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, when my father was appointed to a position in Washington, DC, by Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine.  I was 13.

Dad got me a job working at the Smithsonian.  I was very excited.  I pictured myself putting dinosaur bones together or hanging space capsules and bi-planes from the ceiling of the Air and Space Museum.

The job turned out to be cleaning up and organizing the pharmaceutical division of the Museum of Science.  It was interesting to see spring-loaded gadgets used for bleeding, hand-cranked drills for relieving pressure on the brain and remedies derived from animals burned to ashes (lizards that retained their shape).

But the lasting impressions I have are about what was happening outside on the grassy mall.  There were anti-war demonstrations and marches on poverty.

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