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What One High School Dropout Can Teach Florida Leaders About Learning

The Foundation raises funds and competes for government grants for one reason; to enhance what schools are doing, thereby enriching the core academic understanding of our students.

As our funds move from our organization to the classroom, we negotiate the finer points of what is expected by us and what can be expected from us. One non-negotiable is field trips. For us experiential learning is a necessary component to the full absorption of academic learning.

Dr. David Kolb is commonly thought of as the foremost expert in experiential learning. He describes this type of learning as the “process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” In other words, experiential learning is centered on learning by doing rather than learning by hearing or reading.

Even if your are an auditory or visual learning, try swimming in a pool after listening to a teacher describe the butterfly or reading about the breast stroke in a book. Swimming, like most knowledge, must be experienced to be mastered.

Education Next finds that experiential learning is the most natural and effective learning methodology because it’s how humans learn from day one. “Babies,” they find, “are natural learners years before they know anything about teachers, lessons, and tests.” Using the example of bike riding, Education Next believes that students experience the deepest learning by “going through the trial-and-error process.”

Researchers from the University of Arkansas, Department of Education found that students who visited a nearby museum had a deeper, more critical understanding of the artwork than that of the control group who experienced only classroom based instruction. “For rural students, students from high poverty schools and minority students, the effect was two to three times larger.” 

And yet, a survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that more than half of schools eliminated planned field trips in 2010–11.  It is likely that the reasons vary from financial to an underlying philosophy that field trips are rewards for behavior instead of tool for deeper understanding with a healthy dose of “too dangerous” and “too inconvenient” mixed in the middle.

In their sixty page field trip manual, Miami Dade states “verification that participating students have passed the American Red Cross Level III Swimming Standard” before referring readers to a subsequent thirty-six page water safety manual which goes into significant guidelines for field trips in and around water including a firm statement on maintaining constant supervision of “children around a water environment (pool, stream, lake, toilet, bucket of water.”  So perhaps too expensive, too dangerous and too inconvenient holds water.

But Florida is a peninsula and is deeply entrenched in water. Our communities revolve around water. Our attractiveness to tourists is dependent on the perfect combination of water and sunshine. We are facing huge water-related decisions as in the conservation of, making it potable and even who owns it. That means that prohibiting students from experiencing it may very well provide a certain amount of piece of mind but it is also maybe creating an artificial barrier to a deeper understanding for too many of our young minds.

The Foundation experienced the effect of these policies a few years ago when we took eighty student leaders to snorkel with the manatees. Students were selected based on their success in a year long Problem Solvers-type competition on water conservation. Experiencing a rare, endangered animal in its environment seemed, to us, like the perfect way to balance their academic knowledge with a real world experience.

Half of our students, unfortunately, weren’t given the opportunity to marry the two. Instead, they took nature walks and looked for the tell tale signs of manatee from the surface because their school districts had adopted policies prohibiting water related field trips.

Even though The Foundation purchased insurance and secured parental consent and even though the water was only about two feet deep and there were life guards and Coast Guard certified boat captains within an arms reach; the policies simply weren’t flexible. So half watched and half experienced.

During our two hour swim, I noticed Reggie, a seventeen year old who had returned to school after dropping out. Even though he was well over six foot, he was clinging to his life vest as if he were in the open ocean. While laying in the prone position, Reggie was alternating every few seconds between sticking his face below the surface and lifting it up to suck in air. I walked over and sat down in the water beside him.

“Reggie,” I said “you know all you have to do is stand up if your nervous?”

“No ma’am. I will not stand up. There is a whole world under here that I didn’t know anything about. I will learn to swim so I can do this again without being nervous. That’s what I will do.” And then he stuck his face back in the water.

The very next year, we started sending “Chasing Science At Sea”  by Ellen Prager to all of our classrooms. May they use it to experience the unknown … even if it’s from their desk. And may it  educate school districts about the importance of experiencing science in the wild … even if it rattles the nerves.

A special note to Reggie: I hope your curiosity finds no bounds!

Heather Beaven

Heather Beaven is the CEO of The Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida's Graduates, which operates Jobs for Florida's Graduates, VOiCE, Girls Get I.T. and SUPERB.

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