The Importance of Experiential Learning

By Ryan Kaiser, 2016 Maryland Teacher of the Year

“I forget what I hear, I remember what I read, I learn what I do.”

This quote is something I have lived by as much as I possibly could over the years. I strongly believe that my students learn best when they are able to connect classroom instruction — research, historical fiction, media coverage of current events — with the world around them. Providing students with engaging, multi-disciplinary, hands-on, experiential learning units is crucial to the success of every child’s education.

This approach to education mirrors the way I view the world: Everything is connected and interrelated. As educators we are charged with facilitating these experiences to allow students to view their environment through a critical lens. It is of the utmost importance that they make connections that already exist between our various content areas. I have learned through my own personal experiences that this approach is extremely successful, but various studies have shown improved academic outcomes for students taught using a hands-on, thematic approach, as opposed to a traditional textbook approach.

Developing partnerships with local and national institutions has been the backbone of my units over the years. In particular, The National Park Service (NPS), “America’s Best Idea,” has been eager to collaborate with teachers to create hands-on units for students across the country.

Several years ago my 5th graders researched primary source documents at the Maryland Historical Society to tell the tale of what happened at Patterson Park across from our school during the Battle of Baltimore (War of 1812). After a few months of research they submitted their evidence to the NPS which then in turn made the signs that were on display for the Bicentennial. Students also reenacted the battle and made a movie. They created the flags of the time period using math skills in art class, built a boat only after using their ELA skills in science class, designed replica muskets after reading about the weaponry in social studies and building them in design class. This was done only through a true, thoroughly planned, collaboration between ALL the subject areas.

Just see for yourself.

In the end they scored above 85% on their Math and ELA state test scores in a Title 1 school. Who would have thunk it? You can have fun AND get great scores?

I have since moved to middle school and my 6th and 8th graders have done similar units with the NPS for the new White House Visitor’s Center and now on the John Smith Historical Trail.

I have noticed that this process of collaborating on cross-curricular units has been increasingly difficult as I have moved from elementary to middle school. Departmentalization allows us to be experts in our content areas. It was not meant to silo the learning experiences by turning the students off and, in turn, they learn to tune us out. We must do better. We all have our scope and sequences, tests and standards to get through. Those are simply guides. BE CREATIVE! Let’s do it together while increasing student engagement and achievement. We need to convince our districts, administrators and most importantly, each other, that this is HOW we should teach WHAT we need to teach.

For those of you looking to get started with a unit of your own, please feel free to look look through this Teacher Resource Guide I helped create to come up with some ideas that will work for you wherever you live.

Ryan Kaiser is a middle school social studies teacher in Baltimore and communications director of the Maryland Social Studies Council. He coached his school’s debate team to the championship for the Baltimore Urban Debate League.

He founded Baltimore Environmental Explorers Summer Camp to allow his students to travel to locations such as New York City, funded primarily by donated scholarships. During the school year, he takes his students on 20 to 30 field trips along the East Coast and internationally to Europe and China.

He also writes curriculum for the White House Visitor Center and the National Park Service. Recently, he was selected by the American Battle Monuments Commission to explore the Pacific Theater battlefields from Honolulu to Manila and create cross-curricular lesson plans for teachers across the country. He earned top honors as the 2015 Baltimore City Teacher of the Year and the 2016 Maryland Teacher of the Year. In May, he met President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., and represented Maryland at NASA’s International Space Camp in Huntsville, AL.