Prioritizing agency in experiential learning

In exploring agency and what this means, we began questioning the value of field trips and thinking about how often they are adult-led, and with adults clearly positioned as the experts. What resulted was a re-thinking of the role of students on such trips and a series of reflections on their response.

Jacqueline Cody is the PYP Coordinator at the International School of School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, California, USA

On our journey to becoming an IB World School, we’ve embarked upon a myriad of changes. Perhaps one of the most visible changes has been in our approach to experiential learning (field trips). As a bilingual, international, independent school in the heart of the Silicon Valley, choosing appropriate trips that meet our cultural and linguistic needs presents unique challenges. These trips offer a great opportunity for students across our two language programs (French or Mandarin Chinese) to meaningfully interact, learn together, and connect outside of the playground.

Our second graders begin the academic year inquiring into health and wellbeing under the transdisciplinary theme of Who We Are. Within this unit, they dive deep into ‘thinking like scientists’ and explore concepts such as nutrition, balance, and choice. While nutrition and balance lend themselves beautifully to rich science experiments, mathematical inquiries, and geographical research, it is the concept of choice that has our second graders most enthusiastic and engaged this year.

This is precisely why their most recent field trip to the Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center was so impactful. It helped students consolidate their learning on nutrition, connect with local farmers and the local environment, and at the same time, exercise choice and gain independence. As Rafael, a second-grader eloquently summarized, “this is the best field trip I’ve ever been on because we got to do everything ourselves!”

While visiting The Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center, a sense of learner agency was everywhere. Students were able to tour the farm and acquaint themselves with local growers and farm initiatives. They then had the opportunity to harvest their own vegetables to prepare their own lunch. Witnessing children excitedly pick the very best kale leaf they could find, examine tomato plants to identify those that were most ripe, and take deep inhalations of lemon balm reassured me that our hands-off approach to the day was well received.

 

It may not look overly significant at first glance but stepping back and witnessing how students chose their produce, how they organized roles and responsibilities and the pride they took in their ability to manage this all independently felt significant immediately.

Following the harvesting of necessary ingredients, the students then had the opportunity to make a gourmet meal complete with spa water, beautiful salads, veggie-loaded pizzas, and pumpkin cookies. From making the flower arrangements with freshly picked flowers to whisking together salad dressings and decorating their pizzas – each step was student-run, student-decided and student-owned. The sense of pride and satisfaction was palpable. When pausing to reflect I found myself realizing the power of agency, not just in an academic sense, but more practically and simply. I thought – in what parts of our students’ day do they feel a sense of voice, choice, and ownership?

 

Choosing experiential learning that allows our students to actually do, create, and own the experience has transformed these events from fun but passive learning to lasting, active opportunities to apply and transfer the skills, knowledge, and understandings they developed throughout their unit of inquiry.

Jacqueline Cody is the PYP Coordinator at the International School of School of the Peninsula in Palo Alto, California, USA. She is the product of an IB education having grown up as a Third Culture Kid in Bangkok and attended NIST International School for 12 years. Her passions include rethinking learning spaces, student voice and finding balance in the ever-competitive world of independent schools.
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