Children learn deeply and cultivate a life-long love of learning through experience. At Baker, children master grade-level reading, writing, and mathematics skills, as well as inquiry-based skills through the Next Generation Science Standards. The vehicle for their learning is experience, rather than completing worksheets, memorizing, or listening to a lecture.
Let me paint a picture of experience-based learning at Baker.
Each Wednesday, rain or shine, the kindergarten class heads outside. Sometimes they walk the half-mile from our Baker campus to Lighthouse Beach in Evanston. Other times they walk to the Linden Street Station and take the bus to Erikson Woods in Winnetka. Some mornings they don raincoats and boots and other afternoons they run bare-headed, fall jackets flung to the side from the warmth generated by play, exploration, and unbroken runs.
Baker Business School
Last Monday, small teams of 4th and 5th grade students huddled together- one group was building geometric forms with an artist and Northwestern University engineering professor. Another group was in a discussion about building a prototype and how to scale production with the CEO of Jelmar. Students in another group were learning about marketing strategies from a professor at Kellogg, while another team was meeting with a local entrepreneur and photographer, learning behind-the-scenes planning for specific shots. The final group discussed communication strategies and how to artifully pitch a concept. These presentations, by experts in their field, were part of the launch of the Baker Business School (BBS) symposium, an event that welcomes community entrepreneurs, inventors, designers, CEOs, and directors who each meet and talk with Baker 4th and 5th graders, inspiring them with their stories and advice.
Every year, the excitement is contagious as students, parents and teachers fill Baker’s pool deck in anticipation of the annual Boat Regatta where eighth graders raced life-size cardboard and duct tape boats. Three and four-person teams put their physics and engineering skills to the test with only five days to design and build seaworthy crafts. Students can only use two refrigerator-sized cardboard boxes and four large rolls of duct tape to design and engineer their winning boat.
The Boat Regatta begins with music. As each team is announced, students proudly sport their boat on their shoulders while the music they’ve chosen filters from the loud speakers. The boat names, The Codfather and Buoyance, are playfully emblazoned on the starboards of two boats. The culmination of their physics and geometry study, this playful tradition is made all the better by the groups of future designers from Kindergarten through 5th grade cheering from the side-lines who’ve walked through the science lab and design spaces as 8th graders have been in process – designing and engineering their seaworthy craft for the race.
What is the advantage of teaching through experiences such as these?
Authentic context inspires deep engagement. Happening upon a downed tree at Lighthouse Beach allows for kindergarteners to engage in conversations around tree habitats, the function of roots, and the effects of weather on ecosystems, inspiring their natural questions and wonderings. How to build a fort? Students learn the best ways to work together through play and are able to figure out the essential shapes needed for strong structures. Through an experience like Wandering Wednesday, Kindergarteners feel confident in their new found adventuring skills, a confidence that supports their burgeoning language and mathematical thinking.
Experience allows children to develop important success skills related to leadership, communication, and collaboration.The Baker Business School provides an opportunity for our 4th and 5th graders to take an idea for an invention from concept to market. And, in between those two bookends, students develop a prototype, plan for unit costs, solicit feedback (and investment!) from our very own Venture Capitalists, develop plans for production, market their product, and sell at the BBS marketplace, held at Baker during a Saturday in December.
They learn a lot in this process and many of the learnings come through the natural problems that surface in the course of their work with their companies. Communication, collaboration, and leadership skills allow for students to affirm different points of view, relate well to different team members, and recognize different strengths on their team as they work toward a common goal.
Experiential learning is rigorous. Cognitively we know that putting abstract physics ideas about buoyancy and density and geometry into action is more challenging than simply answering questions on a worksheet. Ideas such as velocity, density, and buoyancy are made real through the engineering challenge in the Baker Boat Regatta.
Through advances in neurobiology, we know that children learn more deeply and memory is sustained over time when they have actively engaged in the experience of learning, rather than passively received content information.
Finally, experience-based learning prepares students for a changing world. Job sectors are changing at a rapid pace. We know that our students will not hold one job in one sector for 30 years, similar to their grandparents. We also know that they will inherit seemingly intractable problems, like global climate change or the national challenges created by a rapidly growing income inequality. In order to meet the demands of this future, our children need to be lifelong learners, tinkers, entrepreneurs, adapters, and game-changers. In order to do this they need the foundation of love and curiosity.
As I often remind our families at Baker, we want for students who graduate from Baker to have the two most vital qualities for their future success intact: their love of learning and their self-confidence in being able to think in different – creative and critical – ways. We rely on experience, as our best teacher, in order to accomplish these goals.