Learning for the Long Run
Today's world is entirely different than the one in which I was born. For context, I'm only 20 years old. Among all the advances in science and technology occurring every day are incredible advances in education and child development. We know more now than ever before about how the brain works and how that translates to learning. The research is quite clear: there are many types of learners, and the most effective ways of teaching convey the information in a variety of formats. Lessons that are engaging, interactive, and creative are best for knowledge retention.
One of my most memorable learning experiences was an 8th grade World History unit in which we researched and took on roles in a mock trial for Joan of Arc. Instead of reading a chapter in a book and answering quiz questions, we each prepared a series of statements to reevaluate the court's sentence in a modern context. Cast as Joan herself, I was quite relieved to be found "not guilty," but the real takeaway is found in the overarching lessons from this activity.
Instead of being spoon-fed information, we were tasked with independent research and analysis. This taught us about critical thinking, research techniques, and the importance of peer collaboration—all skills which we undoubtedly use in a variety of contexts to this day. The true value of this type of learning experience lies not so much in the factual knowledge, important though it is, but rather in the developmental themes and skills that go beyond the individual lesson. Now, six years after that project, I admittedly do not remember the names of all of the historical figures involved in the trial, but I am definitely still doing research, analyzing primary source documents, and collaborating with my peers and coworkers.
The importance of engagement goes far beyond the K–12 level—it is imperative in higher education as well. In fact, I would argue that the need for real-world experiences becomes even more crucial with age and advancement in school levels. Being ostensibly two years away from joining the working world full time (a simultaneously exciting and alarming thought), I know that I find the most value in my classes that bring real-world issues into the classroom or the lecture hall. When structured properly, the classroom can be an interactive laboratory—sometimes literally—in which to test out the famed 21st century skills.
When a lesson has importance and meaning beyond the classroom, it becomes memorable—even if it is not necessarily realistic. The odds of the Egyptian government asking college students to rewrite their constitution, as we did in groups during one of my seminars last spring, are probably quite slim. Regardless, my peers and I felt that what we gained from that lesson was important, because it was current, relevant, and challenged us to go beyond the textbook.
The common theme between these two very different experiences is the merging of intellectual challenge in context with skills that are relevant in the long term. It seems to me that this is the winning combination—and one that is largely in line with the aims of the whole child approach to education. This is what will encourage all learners as they continue their education journeys and prepare to become actively engaged in their careers and communities.
Elyssa Greenberg is a rising junior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She is studying International Development and Global Public Health in hopes of working in the field of maternal and child health or early education. She aspires to one day work internationally with UNICEF or a like-minded organization. This summer, she has been interning at ASCD with Whole Child Programs.