By Peter S. Williams, Academic Dean
At Greensboro Day School, I see our elementary-aged students return from our pond with dirt on their hands, smiles on their faces, and a deeper appreciation of science and the natural world. I watch students in our Lower and Middle Schools in our makers’ spaces, breathless with wonder and deep in concentration as they make working circuits or combine form with function while designing chairs. I hear our teachers and administrators marvel at the work that our elementary-aged students do when they reach beyond our campus, like when they lead a project for hurricane relief, and I have seen our oldest students return from their senior internships radically changed; they emerge sharper, more mature, and ready for the world.
It is increasingly easy to get lost in the debate about education. More is written about what students should learn, when they should learn it, and how they should use it now than at any other time. Some of this is solid educational research, conducted by professionals under exacting standards. Some is well-formed thinking and observation, composed by experts in the field after years of practice. And, of course, as with any topic, some is pure opinion from people following their guts.
What we do know is that children learn by doing. The developmental psychologist Piaget knew this, the educational reformer John Dewey knew this, and contemporary experts know it still. The eminent Modernist and scholar T.S. Eliot perhaps said it best in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, when he observed that “schools can transmit only a part [of education], and they can only transmit this part effectively, if the outside influences, not only of family and environment but of work and play…are in harmony with them.”
At Greensboro Day School, we rely on experiential learning to encourage students to dig deep into engaging concepts.
Each of our Middle School grades takes a class trip, whether 5th graders to Betsy-Jeff Penn or 6th graders to Camp Tekoa, where they put science to use, or the 8th grade trip to Washington DC, where students see history before them and recognize architectural styles they have studied. Our older students travel to Iceland after taking a rigorous course on climate science, and they travel to universities with our college counselors in order to learn about what different schools have to offer.
I studied Classics and spent the beginning of my career as a Latin teacher, so I know the benefits of traditional classroom work and of reading and writing. However, across my 18 years in education, both in public and independent schools, again and again I have seen the power of experiential, hands-on education.
Our students do not do this work instead of traditional classroom instruction, or doing projects in small groups, or solving practice problems. Our students do this in addition to the above. This connection between the academic and the practical is the gold standard in education, and we make a commitment to that standard every day. True learning happens when students connect the abstract to the concrete, and when they take what they have read or learned and make it their own through practice.
Six years ago I took a group of high school students to England and Wales. As part of the classroom preparation for this trip, the Latin students had translated inscriptions from ancient tombs. Months later, while in a small Welsh town exploring Roman ruins, a group of students ran to me, breathless, a look of wonder in their eyes much like I see with our younger students in our makers’ spaces. “Mr. Williams!” they shouted, “She’s here! The lady whose inscription we translated – we found her!”
I smiled and congratulated them on the find.
“No, Mr. Williams, you don’t understand. She’s here. She was real!”
Discover the benefits of experiential learning at Greensboro Day School’s Academic Open House on Sunday, January 26, from 3 – 5:30 p.m. Dissect an owl pellet, tinker in our makers’ spaces, play a game of mallet ball with the physics teacher, or test your legal knowledge in Moot Court. RSVP at greensboroday.org/openhouse.
Sponsored by Greensboro Day School