Published on November 10, 2022
Imagine this: you are 15 years old backstage at a theatre. You peer out through the stage curtains to see an audience of adults all enjoying a wonderful meal and getting ready to hear you perform. Some are parents, some are not. There are lots of teachers and extended family members of your peers. There are also some alumni.
You know who has performed on this stage before – some big names – and that the people who run the place are seasoned professionals with a long history in the music and performing arts scene within and beyond Newcastle. The stakes feel high. You are not alone – there are 19 of your peers with you and your music teachers. Still, you need to rise to the occasion because it’s not the Latter Hall at HVGS. This is a professional performance venue that prides itself on high quality acts crossing its stage. You want to be known as one of those high-quality acts. You want to feel proud of your abilities and see the pride and awe in the faces of the audience.
Last night, this was the experience of our students in the Swing and Stage Bands. They had the opportunity to perform at Lizotte’s in Newcastle. A very cool venue that has an inspiring playlist. As I listened to our students perform, I couldn’t believe they were teenagers. They were self-assured, having fun, engaging the audience, and amazing us with their talents. They rose to the occasion
because we provided them with the venue and the opportunity to apply all they have been learning in a real-world context.
This is experiential learning: the application of knowledge, understanding and skills in a context beyond the traditional classroom. It is an example of how, when we set the bar high and raise our expectations, students rise to the occasion. It is great to see students perform at school, but for students in a Stage or Swing Band, playing in a cool jazz club is an authentic learning experience. When students can apply what they learn in a real-world context, their learning deepens. Every student on that stage last night learnt through that experience and knowing this was a “real” audience in a professional setting meant they went beyond their comfort zone and engaged in authentic, deep learning.
This is one of many moments since I arrived at HVGS where I have seen deep learning happen through an authentic application of skills and knowledge in a real-world context. It happens every morning when students participate in Cattle Team, or when our agriculture students work our ag plot here on campus. It happens every morning on the Hunter River for our rowing students, and on the field and courts for our sports people. On International Women’s Day our hospitality students cooked and served 100 people. Recently a group of students spent a week working with the team at Pacific Smiles and then presented a business proposal to them for feedback. Our Year 10 students helped our Year 3 students set up a hydroponics system outside their classrooms (complete with Yabbies) that helped Year 3 understand ecosystems and the importance of each element of that system to its sustainability. Our commerce market days and Legal Studies students taking part in debates between schools are all examples of experiential learning.
As an IB World School that implements the NESA curriculum, we move between two worlds. We make sure our students have the foundational knowledge and skills they need to pass their academic tests, but we also do much more. We seek to cultivate a spirit of curiosity and agency for our students. By giving them a rich array of opportunities to apply what they are learning in the classroom, we help students see that they can take control and create change where it needs to happen.
A key element of experiential learning is the concept of transference. Deep and enduring learning happens when students understand how to apply learning from one context into another. Soon our Year 7 students will go to Luna Park on a Mathematics excursion. There they will apply key mathematical principles (as well as concepts from Physics) to theme park rides. Will they have fun? Absolutely! And in the process they will learn that “maths is everywhere” and see that what they do in the classroom is relevant. Without the opportunity to transfer learning from one context to another, it is challenging for learning to go beyond the superficial.
We want our students to be literate, numerate and to do well in their final examinations. However, we also want so much more for them. We want them to love learning, see the relevance of what they are doing in the classroom, be deeply engaged and motivated to find out more. When we give them the opportunity to learning experientially, we make that happen.
A staff member sitting next to me at Lizotte’s last night leant over and said: “we could do a great unit of inquiry here about the space and the instruments on display”. Immediately, we could both see the possibilities of structuring an investigation for young students around the story of the many instruments on the walls of this amazing theatre. Or another inquiry for our design and engineering students into the architecture and looking at it through the lens of history, science and mathematics. HVGS teachers do this – they look to the world beyond the classroom for possibilities that enable students to apply their learning and engage deeply with their world.
The value of experiential learning was evident on the faces of our musicians last night and in the Year 3 students explanations to me about hydroponics and the importance of the Yabbies “poo”” to the system. It is a mixture of joy and curiosity and makes me proud to be working with teachers who see such possibilities and our students who grasp them passion and vitality.