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January 17, 2020

Learning by Doing: The Power of Immersive Learning Experiences

by Shawn McCusker

This article will be published in the next edition of Creative Teaching and Learning Magazine.

How do parents teach their young babies to walk? As infants transforming into toddlers, they cannot yet sit still for the ‘classroom portions’
of the walking process.  Close your eyes and envision a small child being taught that walking is just a well-controlled process of falling forward without falling down. 

It’s probably not necessary for me to clarify, but all of the above is silliness because the vast majority of those who read this article will intuitively understand that swimming, riding a bicycle, and even the initial baby steps are experiences.  These are lessons that we learn by doing. In fact so much so, that often the majority of us struggle to explain them because, even though we are now good at them, they are, at least in the initial stages, more intuitive and experiential than they are lesson-based skills. 

The question here is: “Are there skills that we are currently trying teach that can be better learned through meaningful experiences?” 

Today, there are a variety of meaningful ideas, movements, and trends in education that embrace this and seek to provide students with deeper and more meaningful learning EXPERIENCES. 

Project Based Learning

PBL seeks to create an environment in which students pursue a task, driven by their passions and interests. Within pursuing those passions and interests, teachers structure experiences to meet learning objectives in meaningful ways. The resulting public products aren’t shared only with the teacher, they are meant to be shared more broadly with the community and the world. This model can seem daunting to some because the projects can be hard to contain to a class setting, and they may be harder to envision than a simple worksheet geared toward the completion of a single learning objective.   PBL has grown popular for students young and old because it creates opportunities for students to learn to “swim” more effectively through, not just the learning objective, but the challenges and obstacles that life presents us. PBL projects provide an activity with real world context while learning a concept.  

Four years ago, a group of New Hampshire fourth graders worked with their teachers to write a bill that would name the Red Tailed Hawk the official state raptor. In a shocking turn of events, a group of state legislators began to criticize, then mock the bill before ultimately voting it down while the students were present in the chamber.  The episode created a national furor eventually earning the criticism of John Oliver.  The event started a discussion about how respectful the legislature was to the concerns of citizens, even the youngest of them.  However, the story doesn’t end there. In March of this year the students, now eighth graders came together to propose a new bill, this time armed with their experience and broad public support.  

How to get started: Good PBL starts with a compelling question. One teacher challenged her 8 year olds with a project that she hoped would teach them about money, economics and their local community as well. She asked, “How can we create a successful business in our community?” They spoke with local business owners, developed a product and created a business plan, an experience far deeper that worksheets. Another teacher asked his students, “ What can we do locally to protect the environment.” Eventually the students worked to clean up a local creek and exploring ways that the community could keep pollutants from the waterway.  If you are looking to begin, PBL Works by the BUCK Institute is a great resource for information about how to plan and structure experiences.  Their project planner will help you to construct a meaningful experience of your own.  

The experience of these students is a nice transition to the idea of preparing citizens to participate in the functioning of democracy.

Citizenship Education 

It is fair to say that western democracies are experiencing some strenuous times. As a result, there has been a renewed discussion of civic education in these nations.  Are we preparing citizens to effectively participate in democratic processes? Do our citizens know how to insert themselves into the democratic processes available to them to effect change as the students above did?

Existing studies demonstrate that most Civic Education instruction currently happens in the form of content mastery and discussion.  Yet research shows that Civic Engagement is strongest amongst students who learn through active participation. The best way to learn to be an effective citizen is to BE a better citizen, rather than TALKING about being a better citizen. 

Action Civics and Service Learning are methods of creating immersive learning experiences for students to prepare them for the rights, responsibilities, and duties of citizenship.  Different than some of the older models of service (where students volunteer time within the community), these models ask students to identify problems and issues in the community and act to work towards a solution, taking action, and when necessary, accessing democratic processes to affect change.  These projects can range from seeking bike racks in public spaces, eliminating or limiting the use of plastic bags, creating service programs to support veterans, creating and marketing solar powered tents for the homeless as shelter, allowing homeless people to use mobile technology to seek jobs in their time of need, and lastly, yes, seeking a change in laws and policies.  Once again, these practices provide activities with real world context as a means to understand and master concepts. 

How to get started: You might want to start small.  Choose a project that focuses on an issue in the school or nearby community.  Ask kids to identify local issues and challenges. Identify ways that you can address the issue as a class.  Discuss who in the community might help. Reach out to local government for guidance and support. Working through the process of change in a community will not be without its challenges, but that is exactly the point.  

Virtual Reality

Another powerful trend in education is interest in augmented and virtual reality technology.  These technologies offer the ability to give students immersive learning experiences that they may have no other means to access.  Sometimes these technologies can layer support over real world experiences in real time. Virtual reality can bring students to the peak of Mount Everest and to the depths of the oceans - places that few others have been able to go. Augmented reality can allow students visiting sites like the pyramids and Stonehenge in person to add layers of information over these amazing places in order to more deeply experience and understand what they are seeing and experiencing. Immersive Journalism uses these technologies to share the news of current events in a more powerful way, combining the facts of a situation with the ability to connect with the context of the situation being reported.  

Programs like My World 360 by Digital Promise provide the technology and platform for students to create and share immersive 360 videos to tell the story of their lives. They can then share these stories with the world.  These videos are a powerful example of AR/VR technology as an empathy machine that lets us - not just walk in the shoes of another person -but also to briefly see the world through their eyes.  

How to get started: If you’d like to start exploring take a look at Google Expeditions.  There are currently 900 Expeditions available for all subject areas and ages.  Take your class on a short tour. These powerful shared experiences can allow students to see places that they might never see otherwise. If you’d like to try creating these experiences of having your students do so, it’s easy with Google Tour Creator.  Tour Creator allows you to create and publish your creations to Expeditions so that they can be shared with everyone.  

Situated Cognition

It may be unclear how these three topics: PBL, Civic Education, and AR/VR technology, fit together. Here is the common thread: all three create immersive learning experiences that provide students with SITUATED COGNITION. This concept suggests that learning happens in context and that the most powerful learning happens when we do not separate the concept we are trying to teach, and the activity that we are using to teach it from context and culture

Using our bicycle example, there are different skills necessary to ride a bike down the street, ride in a cycling class, and in the Tour de France. Each requires a different set of skills and norms; though all are riding a bike, they are not the same thing.  

The social anthropologist, Jean Lave, suggests that in order for learning to take place it must happen in an authentic environment because learning is directly impacted by the context in which it takes place. The psychologist Albert Bandura proposed that thoughtful modeling and observation of a caring community can promote positive social relationships in the future.

So take some time to reflect upon the most meaningful experiences that you provide to the students in your classes.  Is the learning SITUATED? Which lessons can provide these immersive learning experiences connected to the context and cultures in which they exist? Which or your lessons may be  presenting information absent the context in which it has value and meaning? 

If we can then give our students agency to define problems, seek out meaningful solutions, and understand the means to address them, we will do them a great service. Finally, remember, the last teaching choice someone makes when supporting a child who is learning to ride a bike is the choice to let go…and trust the child can take the next step.