I often remark that not all teachers are parents, but all parents are teachers. And lately I am acutely aware of the fact that when we practice empathy and compassion and listen to each other's needs and interests, parents and teachers are also learners, and students are not only learners but can be our best teachers. This is particularly evident to me today, as I witness the power of authentic education in action.
Authentic Learning in Action
As I listen to the voices of young people speaking out against gun violence and I watch them organize, walk out, rally, and march for their lives, I am reminded about the power of experiential learning in educating and raising our next generation of leaders and citizens. What civics class, lesson plan, worksheet or textbook could ever have the same impact on learning about how laws are enacted, political change is made, and how the government works, as these real life experiences? How can reading or hearing about a historical event replace participating in one?
But the purpose of this post is not to advocate for more children and teens to demonstrate and protest for gun reform, or to become social activists -- although there certainly is value in allowing young people to become empowered to clarify their beliefs and express their views through exercising their right to free speech. I am arguing, however, for more authentic learning opportunities for our students. For more attention paid to offering ways for our kids to immerse themselves in experiences that bring lessons alive. And for providing as many opportunities as possible to engage their hearts and minds in meaningful experiences inside and outside school.
Building Empathy through Meaningful Experiences Outside the Classroom
As a parent, I have seen first-hand the power of learning by doing. My child and all of his friends always looked forward to the one day of the year that was designated as "Take Your Child to Work Day." Most years my son chose to go to court with his father who practices law. He got to see where cases are tried, judges render their decisions, papers are filed, and attorneys represent their clients. One year he opted to learn how the retail business operates, going to work with his friend's mom who manages a clothing store. There he got to fold shirts for display, bag customer's purchases, and try his hand on making change using the cash register. Another time, he waited tables at a friend's restaurant, learning not only to balance trays and set tables, but to engage in friendly customer service and work for tips.
After each "Take Your Child to Work Day," I noticed how kids came home with newly found enthusiasm for learning, having experienced what it is like to have purpose, to get closer to imagining how they may contribute in some way to their community. They were excited about and empowered by learning new practical skills, and it was obvious that their imagination was sparked. What was even more notable was that when their parents helped them process their day, what impressed them, how they felt, what they enjoyed most, it deepened the experience for them in terms of clarifying their values, solidifying their knowledge, and making meaningful connections with their own lives.
But why limit our children's experiential education to only one day a year? No, I'm not saying that we should take our kids to work with us more often. But we can be more intentional about providing opportunities for their authentic learning experiences, and helping them reflect on those activities so that they are meaningful for them. According to David A. Kolb's Theory of Experiential Learning, it's through reflection that the learning really sticks, and what we learn from doing can be applied to other contexts and situations.
Practical Tips for Any Parent, Teacher or Learner
For every authentic learning experience we facilitate for our children, we help them learn more about themselves as people, and about our own interests and strengths as well.
Here are some practical tips for parents to become ongoing co-teachers and co-learners in their children's experiential education:
1. Have a conversation with your child about what they want to know more about. What are they interested in? Most children have lots of questions about how and why things work, where things are made, how and why things happen. At every age, we all can learn a lot from anyone in our community who is doing something that relates to our lives in some way: the shopkeepers, the street cleaners, the first responders, the school board members and commissioners, the teachers, the artists, the writers, the software engineers, bridge builders, the truck drivers, the doctors, nurses, and veterinarians, the landscapers, museum curators, the restaurant workers, the bakers, the salespeople, the architects...and the list goes on.
2. Identify resources in the community and your immediate network of friends, neighbors, and colleagues. We each have more connections than we think we do. Or, the activity may be right inside your own home: cooking or baking with them, building or repairing something together, gardening or cleaning. All have opportunities for rich experiential learning more about science, art, math and other disciplines, and about those who work professionally in those areas, or participate in them as hobbies.
3. Schedule a visit. Or drop in at your convenience, if the situation allows. Or, better yet, don't add another task to your already busy life -- instead we can use any of our kids' "real world" experiences outside the classroom as authentic learning opportunities.
For example, when we take them to the park, or to a museum, discuss what purpose and value they think those spaces serve in our community. Who built the playground? How did they plan it? Who decided what paintings to hang on the walls of the museum?
When we take our pets to the vet, we can discuss what it might feel like to help animals get well, and what type of training and character strengths they think it would take to do that type of work.
When we facilitate reflection, the possibilities are endless for building empathy and practicing how to put ourselves in other people's shoes.
Keeping it R.E.A.L. through Reflection
No matter what the setting or context of the activity or observation our kids participate in, we can make sure to help our kids make the most of their experience by encouraging them to keep it R.E.A.L.:
Review and reflect with your child what they just experienced.
Engage them. What did they enjoy? What impressed them?
Ask them follow up questions to keep the conversation going.
Learn from each other. What lessons have they learned and can share?
Here are some sample questions to help guide your R.E.A.L. reflection:
What made you curious today?
What did you notice?
How might we find out more?
What do you think it might it be like to be a ______?
What do you think they need to know how to do to work at ______? To do that job?
What skills do you think they needed to have to do ______?
How do you think ______ was able to ______?
What problem do you think they are solving as a ______? How do you think they are contributing?
Do you know any other people in our community who also work on solving the same problem?
Do you think you'd like to learn more about ________? What else would you like to know?
Imagine yourself doing that job. How do you think you would feel?
You may even want to encourage your child to keep a journal of their outside the classroom learning experiences, using some of the questions above as writing prompts.
Angela uses reflective questions on a regular basis during lessons and at the end of her writing workshops with students. You will find more examples of reflective questions that Angela has used in the classroom setting which you may adapt to any experiential learning situation inside or outside of school.
Whether you're a parent, teacher, student, someone who works with kids, or all of the above, we would love to hear from you. Join the conversation by subscribing to our site, and follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman.
focused on connecting what students are taught in school to real-world issues, problems, and applications.