S2: E1: Experiential Learning w/ Mindy Ahrens


In this podcast, we speak to Mindy Ahrens about project-based learning. Mindy is a middle school teacher at Design 39 in San Diego. She also co-runs hackingelementary.com - a website devoted to explaining and sharing “Design Thinking” in order to transform the way we currently look at modern education, and is the author of Reading Deeply: Building Motivation and Authentic Purpose for Reading. Furthermore, Mindy operates as a project-based learning instructional designer/coach - bringing experiential learning to schools everywhere.

We want to ensure that people are not dismayed or "put off" by the idea of project-based learning as "yet another" buzzword in the education community. The Human Restoration Project defines PBL as learning by doing, with reflection thrown in. This is the same definition of experiential learning as proposed by John Dewey roughly one hundred years ago. Sadly, many teachers become disillusioned with a plethora of acronyms and buzzwords that they may not be willing to (or will not accept) new concepts. We wrote about this recently.

Elon Musk recently released a memo to the entire Tesla staff that stated:

"Don't use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software, or processes at Tesla. In general, anything that requires an explanation inhibits communication. We don't want people to have to memorize a glossary just to function at Tesla."

Often, teachers get caught up in debating what things are instead of figuring out why things are - as in, we're concerned about how our school is going to define and use PBL, instead of recognizing that PBL, at its core, is learning by doing - and it doesn't necessarily matter the specific implementation of it. That is not to say we can't debate best practice along the way - however, we need to ensure that we actually start practicing.

Experiential learning (or PBL) has only one hardlined definition to us: it is learning while doing not learning then doing. To put this into perspective, learning then doing would be giving a student a book each year over playing the piano, then expecting them after graduating to be an expert at playing piano. Instead, we should be teaching students to play piano by doing it. And of course, we can give them regular lessons along the way. PBL does not imply anything about giving everything else up. It's just that those regular lessons now have meaning as they relate to something actually done.

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The best example Michael and I use to describe the concept of experiential learning is a clip from Indie Game: The Movie. This documentary tracks indie video game developers on their long journey to success. In one scene, a developer of Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen, describes his issue with tutorials. Many video games have text box after text box that describe what the player should do, which players often don't remember, skip, or are overburdened with. In Super Meat Boy, players are given the basic controls then presented with situations they must overcome (and can't unless they "teach themselves" what they can do). It's remediation, overcoming failure, learning by doing - experiential education. Seriously, check out this clip!

Furthermore, we want to ensure that teachers have the best possible means of implementing PBL in their classrooms. We believe that experiential learning is paramount to a student's success. On May 1st, we will release our PBL Guidebook - a fillable templated guide that's loosely regimented to get teachers thinking about designing effective learning experiences in their classrooms. We tried to make a guide that wasn't overbearing or too strict, while still teaching fundamental aspects of PBL. We wanted our guide to give structure to something that can be hard to get started.

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