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Schools must evolve for the 21st century

Lyft recently announced that it would be going public. Uber isn’t far behind. In little more than a decade, the two companies have upended the transportation sector — and transformed how we think about both transportation and work.

If only we could bring that sort of innovation to our nation’s education sector. American schools have scarcely evolved since the days of the horse and buggy.

Our educational system incentivizes memorization and rote learning in the age of Google. It prizes passivity at a time when entrepreneurial zeal is crucial for personal fulfillment and creative collaboration is needed to address global challenges.

Our schools must evolve. It’s time to switch to an “experiential learning” model that cultivates intellectual and emotional skills — and prepares today’s kids to be tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.

Today’s students need to hone their creative and critical thinking skills, as well as their ability to communicate and collaborate, according to the Cambridge, Mass.-based Center for Curriculum Redesign.

The World Economic Forum has concluded that by next year, “persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching others . . . will be in higher demand across industries than narrow technical skills.”

Unfortunately, most schools expect students to sit silently while the teacher fills them up with facts. Everyone learns the same subject, the same way, on the same schedule. Topics are siloed — math class, science class, and so on — and students are rarely afforded the time and resources to follow their passions.

In the approximately 500 public schools that emphasize experiential learning, students learn by doing. They undertake cross-disciplinary projects outside the classroom to learn from the people, places, and businesses in their communities. The end goal isn’t to ace a quiz or homework assignment but to gain a holistic understanding of different subjects and master problem-solving and collaborative skills.

Teachers serve as guides, while students work through challenges driven by their natural curiosity — not the threat of a bad grade.

Consider logarithms. Most people remember taking a quiz on logs at some point and then instantly forgetting what they were.

But what if a math teacher told students they had to learn logarithms to determine the pH of a solution in science class? The science teacher could set up a project to measure the environmental health of a local river.

In this way, experiential learning creates a direct, emotional connection to the subject matter.

A growing body of research suggests that the emotional intensity of experiential learning improves brain development and decision-making.

Researchers at Purdue University found that eighth-graders who participated in hands-on learning science classes “demonstrated a deeper understanding of the issues than the traditional group.” One researcher noted that the study “proves that with some students the book-and-lecture format may not be the best way to engage students in learning.”

Some private schools make experiential learning a fundamental part of their curriculums. The United World Colleges, for instance, sends high schoolers on month-long humanitarian projects in far-flung locations.

Here at the Whittle School, we’ve built an “Expeditionary Day” into our weekly calendar, so students can pursue long-term experiential projects off school grounds.

America has evolved over the last century, but its schools haven’t. Adopting an experiential learning model will empower young people to succeed in our rapidly changing world.

Andrew Meyers is co-chair, Education Design Team and global head of Experiential Learning for Whittle School & Studios. Tom Vander Ark is the author of “Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart.” This piece originally ran in Fox Business.


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