What Does Learning Really Look Like?

I’ve faced myriad challenges in the last 8 months getting a new program at my school off of the ground. I’ve stood in front of a school board that accused me of designing a program aimed at skimming the best and brightest students off of the top, despite the diversity of the students enrolled. I’ve heard the rumblings and rumors by those on my campus who are not thrilled by my desire to try something new. But the biggest challenge is trying to get my students to rethink what it means to be a learner and rethink what learning looks like.

For most of their education, my students have spent their days in classrooms where the teacher was the primary source of information. They’ve been conditioned to sit in assigned seats, take notes, and listen quietly. It was naïve of me to think I could change their perception of learning over night.

In N.E.W. School, we do not have a seating chart. My teaching partner, Marika Neto, and I want our students to create their own learning environment each day to support and enhance the work they are doing in that moment.

We believe the first step in creating is creating your learning environment.Click To Tweet However, that level of autonomy and flexibility is new and unfamiliar to students who have been given few opportunities to make decisions about how and where they learn.

Marika and I rarely stand at the front of the room and talk. If we need to transfer information, like science notes, vocabulary, and writing tutorials, we use the flipped classroom model so students can control the time, place, and pace of their own learning.

We intentionally don’t use our valuable time together in class to lecture. Instead, we use that time to get students exploring, researching, collaborating, and, ultimately, leading the learning.

The best gift I can give my students is to teach them how to learn.Click To Tweet I want them to leave my classroom confident in their ability to continue learning long after we’ve said “adieu.”

We also strive to make learning experiential in N.E.W. School. We want students to get their hands on learning. Too often students are relegated to passive learners. We want them to be active participates in the learning that happens in N.E.W. School.

In the last two weeks, students have been learning about the digestive system to complement their reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and our research into diet, food production, and health. Instead of projecting a power point and walking students through the process of digestion, Marika designed a “how to make poop” lab. Sounds gross, right? Talk about a great way to hook students. Just tell them they will be making poop!

Students broke into teams and each team simulated a part of the digestive system. The students mashed up food to simulate teeth and chewing, the mashed food passed through a paper towel tube (aka. esophagus) and into a big plastic bag, the stomach, where it was mixed and mashed some more. Then students squeezed the food through a nylon stocking to represent the small intestine, and so on through the digestive system. They followed the path food takes through our bodies in a hands-on lab that I am sure few students will forget.


Even though student engagement during this lab was extremely high and their resulting multimedia blogs reflected a deep understanding of the digestive system, some students still feel like they are missing some key component of learning because it doesn’t look like the work they are doing in other classes.

The truth is that experiential learning requires students engage with information and with each other. This requires more energy, effort, and focus than sitting in a seat listening to someone else talk. It requires that they take a central role in their learning.

My hope is that learning and being excited about the work they are doing in N.E.W. School will become its own reward, and over time they’ll begin to appreciate that learning takes many forms. It should be fun, engaging, and student-centered.

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