Strategy Share: Creating Experiences Rather Than “Lessons”

Our Strategy Share series features innovative ideas, projects, and approaches from inside and outside our community of educators. The following post was written by 2018 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Becky Schnekser, an elementary science teacher from Virginia Beach, Virginia.

In the world of education, approaches, theories, and research change as swiftly as the wind. It can be exhausting to keep up and frustrating to implement. I suggest a new way of thinking about education—one that does not require you to convince someone at your school or within your district to invest in textbooks or materials.

The Explorer’s Mindset is a powerful teaching lens through which to approach education in any subject and with any grade level of students. Students are naturally curious and adventurous. They are responsible, feeling a connection to the world around them and a call to be involved, as well as empowered to make a difference. Students are natural observers, communicators, and collaborators, who can solve problems and challenges set forth for them. Engaging these student qualities is the essence of The Explorer’s Mindset.

How can you engage the Explorer’s Mindset teaching strategy? I’ll share a recent example from my own classroom.

When I begin to grapple with my content, I begin with the end in mind. Ultimately, what standards, skills, or outcomes do I expect my learners to achieve? Many educators do this already, but it’s what comes next that is the shift in metacognition.

With the end in mind, I focus on the experience. What can my students DO that will immerse them in the content and outcomes I desire them to reach? Answering this question is often the relevance and real-world connection piece. I am not interested in worksheets, pen-to-paper, or drills to have my students master content and standards. I want them to learn and practice authentically, not in a contrived way that checks boxes in my lesson plans. I want my students to experience the content and skills.

Consider this situation: My third graders study landforms of North America, which can happen any number of ways. But what exactly do they need to know? What is it exactly about landforms of North America that would be important for a professional? Who cares about landforms? Well, let’s see: architects, engineers, scientists, vacationers, archaeologists, paleontologists, geothermal scientists…I think you get it. A lot of people care about landforms. So what angle do I want to use with my learners? How will we explore?

I chose biodiversity surveys of landforms as an experiential entry point. Anyone can complete a biodiversity survey (seriously, anyone!). Since my learners are in third grade, I wanted the experience to be authentic but simple enough for them to understand, enjoy, and complete without me as the leader. I asked myself: what is a great landform for biodiversity surveys? Which landform would be unique for my learners? What would really get them excited, engaged, and ultimately provide an experience that would bond them with the content?

Caves! There are none near us and I used to go spelunking in college. I have experience, photographic evidence, and know this would hit kinesthetic learning out-of-the-park. What next? Well, I couldn’t bring my students to actual caves, but I could use authentic data to inform a survey designed by me.

Students wait to enter a classroom that has been turned into a cave.
Students enter Schnekser cave system to complete their biodiversity survey.
Photograph by Becky Schnekser

I decided to set up the six lab tables in my room as separate caves within one cave system. I used data from an actual biodiversity survey to fill each cave with a unique set of living things. I hyped my students by telling them to bring headlamps and camping lanterns (if they had them) but did not tell them exactly what they would be doing. Before this experience, we used imagery and my stories of caves in class to identify cave characteristics and talk about how caves are formed so students would have the necessary background knowledge.

Friday came, and the laboratory was dark. Its entrance was blocked save for a hole through which students needed to crawl. My students used flashlights for light in the cave system, because I turned our classroom lights off. I built an entrance to the cave system which they needed to crawl through to enter, as well as the caves themselves. They brought their field notebooks and pencils with them.

Earlier in the day, I had grabbed bulletin board paper for each table to cover three sides and filled each cave with creatures. Each cave was completely different inside from decor to creatures. The student scientists needed to keep track of each cave system and the biodiversity within. Before entering the cave system, we had our briefing where I told them their task. They needed to enter each cave, record the biodiversity, and exit before the end of class. Instant engagement.

A student wears a headlamp.
A student records the biodiversity of a cave within the system.
Photograph by Becky Schnekser

The cave system was full of life for 45 minutes at a time. I have three third grade classes and each went spelunking that day to complete their survey.

Spelunking in the classroom is an experience—not a lesson. Students were immersed in field science protocols and did authentic tasks. In a perfect world, we would have ventured to the belly of a chilly cave in the mountains of Virginia, but alas, we did not have that option. Not every experience you plan and implement has to be this involved. But could you go outside of your building and complete a biodiversity survey of one area on your campus? Yes, you can!

Not ready to take the leap alone? A few great resources to get you started are: Blue Holes: Being and Explorer, Field Based Environmental Service Learning, and School based Service Learning. You can use them as inspiration, a jumping off point, or just use them as they are to create experiences with the Explorer’s Mindset for your students. If you want to learn more, check out these online courses for an in-depth study into The Geo-Inquiry Process and The Service Learning ToolKit.

Now that your wheels are turning, what experience(s) will you create for your students?

Rebecca Schnekser is an educator and traveler. Expedition Schnekser is a podcast dedicated to empowering students and educators by connecting classrooms to field science, field science to classrooms, and harnessing the power of sciencetelling (science storytelling). Find out more at Expedition Schnekser and on Twitter @schnekser.

7 thoughts on “Strategy Share: Creating Experiences Rather Than “Lessons”

  1. I love this idea of experiential learning! I’m very impressed by how you brought the caves to your students when bringing the kids to an actual cave was not an option.

  2. The best ideas are often simple. Inspiring teachers to shift their thinking from lessons to experiences can have powerful impacts on learning. Love everything about this post!

  3. Reblogged this on Mr. Walsh and commented:
    Awesome experience. Engaging and memorable. I love starting with the question, “Who cares about _____” to give focus to what you want the kids to take from the lesson.

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