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The Impact of an Experiential Learning Environment on Secondary Students

Janice Hendry and Beth Warkentin

When Janice Hendry accepted her first teaching position, she found that traditional teaching methods were common practice in most high schools. These methods contrasted with her own belief in a student-centred curriculum and the value of experiential learning. Traditional lecture methods seemed to lead to the kind of school climate described by Hopkins (1994), one that would

deny students empowerment and the coping skills necessary to realize themselves as autonomous agents in a democratic society, suppressing curiosity, autonomy, social criticism, and intellectual enterprise. (p.7)

Experiential learning, on the other hand, offered "meaningfulness, connection, interest, and purpose in the place of memorization, abstraction, remoteness and isolation." (Hopkins, 1994)

Hendry's first years of teaching in a high school were a time of great anxiety for her, as she was torn between common teaching practice and her own beliefs. After her second year, she felt that it was necessary to study the impact of the experiential learning environment she was trying to provide in order to show that it really did meet the needs of her students.

She began a collaborative research project with Beth Warkentin, an experienced primary teacher and now a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina. A strong advocate for experiential teaching and learning in all grades, Warkentin saw the project as an opportunity to assess the impact of an experiential learning environment in a high school setting.

The researchers related their ideas about teaching and learning in high schools to the instructional directions advocated by the province's new core curriculum. The "Vision for Saskatchewan Secondary Schools" (High School Advisory Committee, 1994, p. 4) recognizes that students learn best when they play an active part in their own learning and are connected through experience to what it is they will learn. Hendry and Warkentin decided to employ experiential learning, student-centred curriculum and active learning in a high school setting and then assess whether or not these strategies were effective, using the statements about experiential teaching and learning in the "Vision for Saskatchewan Secondary Schools" as criteria.

In 1995-96, the year of the study, Hendry was teaching 61 students who lived on farms or in a small town. Her assignment included Science 10, Biology 20, Physical Education 20&30, Chemistry 30 and English 10A&B, 20A&B, 30&31A, and 30&31B. Student-centred, experiential and active learning strategies were implemented in all subject areas. Learning activities included multimedia and computer-assisted projects, research projects, group presentations, field trips, class meetings and discussions, assignments, simulations, writers' and readers' workshops, dramatizations, role plays, cooperative learning groups, contracts, peer coaching (Phys. Ed.), and integrated studies. Student assessment was carried out through anecdotal notes, tests and quizzes, with students in cooperative groups given a group mark as well as individual marks. Process was as much a consideration as product, and students were always involved in the planning and implementation of learning and aspects of assessment and evaluation. Every effort was made to individualize programs to meet diverse student needs. The teacher took the role of facilitator, constantly circulating throughout the classroom, clarifying questions, challenging students and extending learning.

Warkentin visited the classes as often as possible, and also held planning and discussion sessions with Hendry over the telephone. Her role in the project was to take a more theoretical perspective and support Hendry's experiential teaching with literature, material, and resources. Together the researchers discussed what worked and what didn't, and why.

With the consent of students, parents and administrators, they also collected data on the impact of the experiential learning strategies in Hendry's classes. Data collection took the form of classroom videotapes, field notes, students' reflective journals, work samples, test results, interviews, and questionnaires for students and parents.

Students outside

Above: Students take their learning outside the classroom.

Conclusions

From the data collected, the researchers conclude that "there was overwhelming evidence indicating the positive impact of an experiential/active learning curriculum for secondary students." Whether gathered around the classroom computer centre during the noon break to talk and work on assignments, or planning and carrying out impressive Grade 12 graduation ceremonies, the students involved in the project appeared responsible, confident, self-reliant and caring. They "became independent, responsible, self-motivated problem solvers and critical thinkers who were, above all else, excited about learning. The greatest impact was the building of self-confidence; the students were not afraid to voice their thoughts and opinions, to share ideas and help each other." The average marks achieved by the students in Hendry's classes were high, and students' preference for an experiential learning approach was clearly and enthusiastically expressed in their questionnaires. In comparing the written feedback from students' and parents' questionnaires to the criteria for experiential teaching and learning provided in the "Vision for Saskatchewan Secondary Schools," the researchers found statements that addressed almost every criterion.

They noted, however, that few parents responded to the questionnaire. Conversations with a number of parents indicated that they did not feel they knew enough about the teaching approaches to make meaningful comments. Hendry and Warkentin believe this lack of knowledge needs to be addressed and recommend further efforts to make parents aware of the types of teaching methods and strategies being used in their children's classrooms.

Both researchers report a tremendous positive impact on their lives and careers from their involvement in a collaborative research project. According to Hendry, "the opportunity to reflect in greater depth on my teaching methods" and "to interact with individuals on a professional basis at conferences allowed me to grow intellectually and gain knowledge of different research methods that have enhanced the final outcome of our research." For Warkentin, the "project was one of the most rewarding and exciting educational endeavours of my 35 year career in teaching. To see experiential teaching and learning in action at the secondary level and to see it 'really work' was quite an overwhelming experience."

Hendry and Warkentin hope that their colleagues will undertake similar action research projects in order to improve upon teaching practice in Saskatchewan high schools. To encourage educators' interest in experiential learning, they have produced a video and handbook entitled "Creating Student-Centred Curriculum in Secondary Classrooms."

References

Saskatchewan High School Advisory Committee (1994). Policy directions for secondary education in Saskatchewan. Regina, SK: Saskatchewan Education, Training and Employment.

Hopkins, R.L. (1994). Narrative schooling: Experiential learning and the transformation of American education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Students work together

Above: Students work together in the classroom.

 

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