Education Choice and Learning by Doing

In a thrilling example of learning outside the classroom, Tampa’s Busch Gardens hosts Physics Day each year. Photo credit: Jeremy Thompson.

After we finished recording an interview about homeschool families using state funds to pay for educational activities at Florida theme parks, a TV reporter told me her most interesting day in high school occurred at Busch Gardens in Tampa.

Her physics class spent a day with the engineers responsible for the iconic theme park’s roller coaster rides. These engineers explained the physics behind how the various roller coasters are designed, shared simulations showing how small changes in velocity and turns impact safety and customer experience, and then debriefed the students about what they experienced after they rode various roller coasters.

For the next several weeks, she and her classmates built miniature roller coasters in class and deepened their understanding of the physics concepts they had discussed with the Busch Gardens engineers. (Physics Day at Busch Gardens this year was February 23.)

Educators call this Busch Gardens experience and the experiments students did with their miniature in-class roller coasters “learning by doing” and generally believe learning by doing offers significant advantages to learning by not doing.

Good instruction usually combines learning by not doing with learning by doing, but the problem occurs when students spend all their time learning by not doing and have no opportunities to see how the concepts in their textbooks might apply to the real world.

A novice wanting to learn how to play tennis will benefit from sitting in a classroom learning the rules of tennis. But this novice will never really learn how to play tennis without practicing on a tennis court.  Students can learn physics concepts by listening to a lecture. But they will develop a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of those physics concepts by applying, observing, and, when appropriate, experiencing them.

Learning by doing was the norm during US public education’s first era (i.e., pre-1850). Children were mentored on family farms and learned trades and crafts through apprenticeships. As the country became more industrialized and urban during the 1800s, public education also became industrialized and adopted assembly lines and batch production in order to mass produce educated students. Learning by not doing became the new norm during public education’s second era which began in the mid-to-late 1800s.

For understandable administrative reasons, learning by not doing is still the dominant way most public education students are educated today. Liability and logistical concerns have dramatically reduced the number of field trips and other out-of-school learning experiences. New technologies such as virtual reality are allowing some students to experience virtual field trips, but a virtual roller coaster ride is not the same as feeling the g-forces on a real ride.

There is strong evidence showing that learning outside the classroom not only reinforces the learning that goes on in the classroom, but that learning by doing helps reinforce skills all young people should develop, like empathy, creativity, conscientiousness, and the ability to collaborate with others. But for most students, opportunities for real learning by doing are most common outside of school. These opportunities, from sports leagues to summer camps and drama class to internships, are increasingly out of reach for students from lower-income families.

Fortunately, a resurgence in learning by doing is helping to make opportunities accessible to all families. Learning by doing has always been a core component of homeschooling and the number of families homeschooling is growing as education choice scholarships make homeschooling more accessible to more families.

Educators, including public school teachers who are being blocked by school district regulations from exposing their students to more outside-the-classroom learning activities, are creating more learning-by-doing opportunities by creating their own schools that are affordable thanks to education choice scholarships.

My colleague Ron Matus has highlighted some of these emerging new learning-by-doing schools and educational ventures.

ED Corps is a private school serving students in Franklin County, Florida, which is located on Florida’s panhandle with a population of 12,000. As Ron wrote, “Life here is woods and water. So ED Corps students spend a good bit of time outdoors, mostly working on conservation projects that help sustain fishing and forestry.”

The Academy at The PARC (Practical Arts Resort Campus) is a private school/hybrid homeschool coop located on 40-acres in Highland County, Florida. PARC embraces a Waldorf approach to education on a campus Ron describes as “a ‘biophilic barn’ where people learn woodworking and blacksmithing. Cob buildings that serve as classrooms. Eco-friendly villas where visitors can stay overnight. There’s also a massive garden; more than 100 fruit trees; and chickens and rabbits and goats. All of it’s surrounded by woods, complete with 300-year-old oak trees and a pond full of bass.” PARC students make their lunches using crops they grow on-campus.

Colossal Academy is an eclectic micro school/homeschool coop/farm located on a dirt road in Broward County. No restrooms, just student made compostable toilets. Ron describes the learning environment as hands-on, project-based, and student-led with a good dose of technology (students’ photography projects utilize drones), entrepreneurship (students grow and sell food) and online learning. And students grapple with important problems such as “how to keep donkeys on farms from being so bored they hurt themselves.” You can find the students’ innovative solutions to bored donkeys here.

Christina Warnstedt offers a deep dive into marine science at Montessori by the Sea, a PreK-6 learning-by-doing school on St. Pete Beach.

“We want our students to understand through connection and experience how the local marine ecosystem works,” she told me in a recent conversation. Students learn early how to snorkel so they can explore underwater marine life. “The first time students see a starfish underwater is a memory they will never forget,” she said. “Having those experiences in the water, how it feels on their skin, looks, smells and even tastes are more powerful than just talking about the Gulf of Mexico.”

Try Scuba is a program students work toward beginning in third grade. By sixth grade they are ready to graduate from snorkeling to having their first scuba experience and those who want are able to earn their scuba certification.

“The students learn a lot on the beach,” Warnstedt said, “including why white pelicans show up in the winter.”

For over 250,000 years, most human beings learned by being coached while doing meaningful work in nature. Beginning in the 1800s we decided to industrialize how we educated our children and started creating large educational factories organized as one-size-fits-all assembly lines. Our assumption was that since standardized batch production worked so well for cars it would work for children also. But children are not cars and active hands-on learning similar to what is happening at ED Corps, The Academy At The PARC, Colossal Academy, and Montessori by the Sea is how humans learn best.

The education choice movement is pushing public education to return to its pre-industrial roots and embrace active experiential learning.  Many people do not understand how beaches, theme parks, and farms can be effective learning environments for children and adults. But the joy and enthusiasm for learning we see in children who attend schools and coops that embrace learning by doing should eventually convince us all to make learning by doing the norm in public education.

Featured photo credit: Jeremy Thompson.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.