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The Power of Learning through Doing

February, 2011
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imgp7699e589afe69cacRecent international standardized test scores, which saw randomly selected Shanghai 15 year-olds outperform their peers in multiple countries in Math, Science, and Reading, may partially vindicate the Chinese approach to learning. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that research suggests that Chinese students spend less time than students in many other countries on athletics, music, and classroom activities not explicitly linked to success on exams in their core academic subjects. This begs the question, what type of teaching and learning produces results that translate into success in life beyond academia and exams?

Shanghai’s amazing test results are testament to the hard work and dedication of local teachers and students. However, to paraphrase the thoughts of John Abbot – co-author with Terry Allen of a book entitled The Unfinished Revolution, Learning, Human Behavior, Community, and Political Paradox -  it is easy to measure what a child has learned using a standardized tests, but much harder to assess the impact of the way a child has been taught.

Adam Crossley, a Humanities teacher at Shanghai Singapore International School, agrees. “Students can often grasp and remember a concept much more powerfully after experiencing it.”

In the 20th century, educationalists such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget have thrown their weight behind the experiential approach to learning, while Crossley attempts to bring it to his classroom in the 21st century. One of his trademark techniques is facilitated through his website rockingtheworld.net where he has written original songs and has produced a series of videos that he promotes as “a fun and participatory way to learn about geography.” They encourage students to master geography skills and the history of places by singing along and simultaneously plotting locations on downloadable maps, making learning more engaging, active and involved. 

The word active is worth restating, as it is a key component to the experiential approach. Active learning is also referred to as “Kinesthetic” or “Tactile” learning, and involves students conducting some sort of physical activity while learning. As Rhys O’loughlin, a Shanghai-based primary school teacher puts it, “Children don’t just learn through their ears.”

adam-teachinge589afe69cac“Kinesthetic learning allows the learner to make something their own, and isn’t that the ultimate goal from the teacher’s point of view?” O’loughlin asks. It also stimulates multiple senses, which is crucial when learning, according to the research of British professor, Dr. Tracy Alloway, from the University of Stirling. Alloway’s research focuses on what she calls “working memory” or “the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally.” With a well-developed working memory, an individual will be more adept at taking in new material, processing it, implanting it, harnessing it and then creatively using it as a means to an end. Many brain researchers suggest an advanced working memory, which can be trained through a combination of active and experiential learning, is a better indicator of future success than exam scores.

louise-gregorye589afe69cacThe testament of Louise Gregory, an international educator with over 40 years of experience who is now based in Germany, suggests such learning through doing is not the sole territory of younger educators. “My first graders are eager to cook with me every Friday,” she begins. “This … builds the concept of teamwork, and I pack a lot of learning into the activity.” The combination of Crossley, O’loughlin, and Gregory’s testimony might be enough to convince some that a more active approach to learning can bear fruit, but being well acquainted with these three educators, and knowing that our views on education are similar, I sought deeper insights. On a recent trip to Israel, I heard about a kibbutz in the middle of the country that was embracing a unique experiential approach. I made time to visit and interview its teachers and students.

Ramot Hefer High School is in Kibbutz Ma’abarot, situated in Israel’s Hefer Valley. Like many schools in China, Ramot Hefer has a thoroughly documented written curriculum that must adhere to the local educational ministry’s rigorous standards. However, in most subjects two themes each year are explored through a unique process called the “Creative Dialogue.” School documentation suggests, “This technique encourages creativity, independence, group cooperation, and self-confidence.” As Ben Goweta, now completing his final year at Ramot Hefer, explained, “You have to think more, as [the Creative Dialogue] raises arguments, but you learn from it and the result is more than a conclusion, it’s kind of an epiphany.” However, all is not so rosy. One “challenge can be the teamwork aspect,” added Goweta. A Drama teacher from the school, Nelly Sobol agrees that there are some issues that need to be overcome. “Teachers are sometimes afraid of the creativity part,” she contends. The difficulty is that when it comes to experiential learning, many teachers are more comfortable dominating the classroom and have a hard time letting go of their routines. Rhys O’loughlin also spoke of this, “I think there can be that feeling that the lesson should be the teacher’s, that the teacher should be in control,” he told me. However, he also said that, “with a well planned and prepared lesson it’s easy to share the lesson with the students, or even completely give it over to them.” Sobol confirms this is the situation at Ramot Hefer, noting that once the school committed to such an approach, teachers “eased into it.” What’s more, “We often learn as much about a topic – and about teaching the topic – as the children do,” she added. Recognizing the values of the method, Israeli education authorities have accepted it as a legitimate way to earn credits towards the Israeli High School Diploma.

Another hurdle to overcome is explaining a more active curriculum to parents who may not have experienced one as students, and perhaps fear that it could lead to lower exam scores. “Particularly Chinese parents - we are quite score-oriented,” remarks one local father. Nevertheless, we must “think about the wider, longer and ultimate learning objective, something more important beyond the scores,” he elaborates. In his progressive opinion, “actively participating in a group and convincing people in a group” might be of more value to his child in later years, and if these skills are not learned in school he wonders “what will be the cost on their career?”

What’s more, utilizing multiple approaches to learning – what psychologists call meshing – may even produce superior results. Take, for example, students at Ramot Hefer High School, who only explore selected topics through Creative Dialogue, while others are examined more traditionally. They consistently attain very high marks in their national matriculation examinations. For this, among other accomplishments, Ramot Hefer was awarded the prestigious educational prize of the Israeli Ministry of Education in 2005.

Finally, as we enter a new year, if not a new era of learning, it is worth taking time to consider reports that Chinese students who recently outperformed the World were positively motivated by being told their results were important for China’s image. As China’s image as an educational leader solidifies, it is high time for the World to learn from China, but also time for those of us living and working here to reflect on what learning through doing is also about. At the end of the day, it is keeping people excited about learning that translates into success in life in a rapidly changing global community. The more approaches we combine to achieve this end, the better.


By Richard Eaton

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  1. Louise Gregory
    March 1st, 2011 at 21:56 | #1

    Brilliant article! Very well written, and strong in theory and documentation.

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