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Native Pathways to Education
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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning


by Clara Carol Potterville
Copper River Schools


This is my second opportunity to attend the Rural and Interior Alaska Instructional Improvement Academy. While I have taught many years and have been involved in an extensive variety of teaching levels and assignments, there has never seemed to come the time when I felt like I knew enough, had the best approaches and techniques down pat, and could "wing it" on my expertise and experience. As we set out to prepare students to participate successfully in an ever changing world, we educators should be the first to admit that the field of education too is an ever changing stage with new theories, new approaches, new techniques, new subject areas, and even new challenges of students at risk, students with cultural differences, students with shattered homes and dreams at an ever increasing young age. However, in a truly positive vein, these challenges can be addressed with optimism and success by keeping several goals in mind and working diligently toward them, not singularly, but as a team. Sharing and caring and working together to make schools better. 

I would add that not only schools as such, but the whole learning environment can become an integral part of a meaningful experiential learning approach. We express concern and desire to change our teaching styles and formats to deal directly with real life situations, including all those places which touch one's daily life (some educators are now using the term, bioregions). I began teaching in the early sixties and recall a very special handout which showed a pyramid of effective learning, the broad base of which consisted of active participation as the most meaningful of all. This would include field trips, experiments, special projects and activities in which the student was involved personally. Midway up the pyramid, would be represented the vicarious experiences involving many of the senses, such as a movie, slide presentation, flannel board display, pictures, bulletin boards, etc. At the top was represented the least effective method of all, listening to a speaker, or an activity involving one sense only. In those days emphasis was strongly in favor of the utilization of many senses and later multi-sensory approach became the password for how to reach each student. For many years, "Hands On" activities were and are still purported to be the best way to involve and impress students with meaningful experiences.

We educators have done much with educational jargon through the last 25 years, but what is important is that through these years, never mind the catchy title, it becomes very apparent that the closer we can relate learning to a student's daily life and what is meaningful and important to him or her, and the more we actively involve that student, the more meaningful and successful the learning experience is going to be.

I have particularly enjoyed Judy Hoeldt's article in Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned titled "Learning Through Experience." She states, "An elementary school that would be ideal for a rural community would use a process-oriented curriculum with a project-centered approach to experiential learning." My own teaching philosophy and style totally support this approach.

My week of workshop training in "Hands On" Experiential Science has provided a most delightful collection of experiential learning activities. The instructor, Professor Verne Rockcastle of Cornell University, has done a superb job in giving us training in both content and process-oriented experiences. In this workshop I learned much in the way of the practicality, the motivation, the integration possibilities for across-the-curriculum teaching, my favorite mode of instruction. Just as Judith Hoeldt points out the value of project-oriented learning, I have used the approach in my classroom and found the students and parents to be highly successful and enthusiastically supportive respectively. It is educationally inspiring to have the opportunity to have a person like Professor Rockcastle share literally hundreds of projects for the purpose of exciting and motivating students and teachers in their pursuit of problem solving, process learning, and broadening content mastery through experiential discovery and cooperative learning techniques.

This summer I plan to develop an "Integrated Curriculum Unit" using a process-oriented curriculum with a project-centered approach to experiential learning. In the context of an experiential framework, I intend to teach the students to develop a keener sense of observation, to extend their creative thinking and problem solving, and to affect their behavior by causing them to be more aware of their environment (or bioregion). Further goals are to help them realize how they are an intricate part of their environment both in what they do in it and in what it does to them. The manner of reaching the students would be to appeal to their senses and to relate all things as much as possible to their own daily lives. Thus, directly, I would involve students in experiential learning activities upon which to build a foundation of principles and understandings for content mastery, basically in science, but extending actually across the curriculum.

The Hands-On Experiential Science was a marvelous workshop. The enthusiasm and expertise of Professor Rockcastle is exemplary of motivated, process-oriented, and project-centered learning. Evaluation of projects was contingent not only on following directions, but on experimentation and seeking ways to make something work. Further exploration and experimentation provided opportunities for gifted and talented students to continue on the learning spectrum. At the same time, students low in verbal skills but high in observation and analysis of their experiences had a chance to experience success and an opportunity to excel. Professor Rockcastle cited many examples of urban underprivileged children who were able to really turn on to Hands-On activities in science and because it was meaningful and personally experiential, motivation carried on to other integrated curricular activities. I believe this would be very true for Alaskan rural students.

The Science Workshop meshes nicely withScollons' Axe Handle Academy proposal in the area of curriculum, especially the area of Bioregional Studies. The article in LT/LL states that "We believe that it is equally important for the professional academic researcher and the manager of the local hardware store to understand the effects of his or her work on the bioregions of the earth." In other words, each person has a responsibility to and for his bioregion. Another supportive position to this proposal is the idea of Cooperative Competence. The teacher instructs one individual or group and allows chain or peer teaching, thus freeing one self to work with others who are ready to move on.

One additional comment in response to theAxe Handle Academy article - Planning vs. Preparing. Planning is our most frequent defense against the unknown, limiting our imagination of the future and our responses to predicted outcomes. "With a plan we seek to control outcomes, to eliminate change, to eliminate the random and the wild." Preparing is different. We always expect diversity of outcomes. In preparing, we assume we do not know or cannot predict what future conditions will be. In preparing, we enlarge the future in our own imagination. We seek to make ourselves ready. In preparing we express our belief in our adaptability, our responsiveness, our willingness to accept what comes." I support this philosophy strongly and was so pleased to find it expressed so well.

I intend to compile a teacher's resource book following this workshop and prior to fall's re-entering the classroom. This will consist of 1) a systematic organization of Professor Verne Rockcastle's handouts, 2) my tidied-up workshop notes, 3) a section on experiments with recommended grade or age level and materials needed, and 4) suggestions for integrated curriculum follow-up activities. Best of all, I will outfit a container (probably a large fishing tackle box) with most of the basic materials for a large selection of the experiments, with models to represent my understanding of how to do the project and something to show students and other teachers. The resource book which I make will also point out the experiments' practical principles as related to daily life. A materials list will be included at the end as well as a comment to address project completion and cooperative competence as a means of evaluation.

In closing, I would point out I plan to share this material and approach with co-workers as well as students, and hope to acquire administrative sanction and financial support to assist in purchasing materials for students. I would like to encourage our district to become involved with the Science Consortium and would extend appreciation to them for their participation in the Rural and Interior Alaska Instructional Improvement Academy. I am most grateful for the opportunity to attend. There is a real feeling of unity and cooperation in coming together with teachers from around the state sharing common goals of searching for the best ways to meet the needs of our students, and to share a camaraderie with those in our chosen profession as we become once again charged to go out and do our best. The Academy was great.

 Killer Whale


Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits



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Last modified August 18, 2006