It was the first Monday of Spring Break. Mrs. S. packed her notepad and pencil and hit the road by 7 a.m. The sky was blue and clear. Not that it mattered. She had volunteered to spend two full work days in a stuffy library at a workshop on Differentiated Assessment.
“Our students are not learning in our classrooms,” she said, “so we need strategies that reach them and keep them engaged.” The workshop was also big push for Project-Based Learning: assessing student learning through performance in lieu of written testing. The gist of these alternative forms of assessment is to make learning experiential and hands-on.
“It’s extremely logical if you consider the basic nature of humanity: human beings remember experiences.”
Say if you give a person a book about cooking a soufflé. Say this book explains everything about the soufflé-making process from the utensils to the nutrition to the possible hazards you might run across while making a soufflé. And say you tell the student to read it, understand it, and take a test on it. “I guarantee the student will not be engaged, and very possibly will fail the test,” Mrs. S. asserted.
If, on the other hand, you have the student actually make a soufflé, the student will not only be engaged, but will probably pass the test if you give it to him. He wouldn’t pass the test because he memorized everything he needed to know; he would pass the test because he remembered the experience. And as an added bonus, the student would be able to make a soufflé, and then taste the results of his efforts, which is the whole point of learning to make a soufflé in the first place.
“The way classrooms are structured frustrates me because we are not acknowledging that learning is ultimately an experiential process.”
One day this past fall, Amanda, a former student, came to visit Mrs. S. after school. They sat together for over a half an hour talking about life after high school and who was doing what, and who was living where. Amanda recounted how, in typing class, her favorite class in high school, she never managed to type more than 30 words per minute; but that after she got an office job in which she had to type a lot and work against deadlines, her typing went up to 65 words per minute within a month.
“Typing wasn’t meaningful or purposeful until I actually needed it,” Amanda told Mrs. S. “Before that, I was just doing something that someone said was important.”
Mrs. S. described a recent print ad for a school whose slogan was “life experiences don’t always come from classrooms. Of course they don’t!” Mrs. S. ranted. “Life experiences never come from classrooms; and if they do, then something is wrong with your life.”