Learning by Doing

When we ask participants why they choose UVEI, the top answer, consistently, is that they are attracted to “learning by doing.” Experiential learning has been at the heart of UVEI programs since our founding in 1969, and full immersion in practice, working together with colleagues and coaches, remains the core of our approach. As Laurie Greenberg, Assistant Principal at Mt. Abraham Union Middle/High School in Vermont and a graduate of the Principal Intern Program, put it, “You are expected to do the real work...” In other words, this is not a drill.

Our instinct as learners is to want to know everything BEFORE demonstrating our learning. This is the opposite of learning by doing, and this is also why learning by doing can be  challenging. At UVEI the experience precedes learning. Educators are trying things BEFORE they have all the knowledge and skills they need. Essentially, they are learning to swim by swimming. Melissa Thaxton, a current Master of Teaching candidate at UVGSE who came to teaching through UVEI after a prior career, put it this way: “Sometimes there is no right answer, and you have to figure it out by trying something new and assessing the results after.” We hear frequently from participating educators that a new practice they attempted resulted in failure. While usually these failures are accompanied by a sense of progress, they are always difficult. Also, immersion in practice means working with colleagues on real world challenges. The stakes are real and practice is always being negotiated. Isaiah Pinilla, a current Master of Teaching candidate and graduate of the Teacher Intern Program, said that collaborating with other teachers could be a challenge, especially when he wanted to experiment with new techniques and his more experienced peers “did not always see eye to eye on my style or on the things I believed in or wanted to do.”

Of course, at UVEI we are firmly committed to the power of experiential learning, and each of these challenges has a flip side. Failure is a powerful teacher. Working with more experienced colleagues also means receiving coaching and feedback, which are an essential element of experiential learning. Even though Isaiah admitted he and his colleagues didn’t always agree, he also indicated that coaching and feedback from multiple experts helped him to grow into a skilled teacher. Melissa reported that working with experienced colleagues led to “Deeper thinking about the purpose of my lessons and my effectiveness as a teacher. That could only result from the opportunity to put my ideas into practice.”

Relevant and applied content that is closely connected to work in the field also matters. Isaiah felt that “material we were discussing and reading about in seminar was able to be applied in real time, which made the material much more interesting and relevant as it was not just something abstract, but something you could use and apply immediately. And the reverse was true as well, my experience and perspective on practice made my exploration of pedagogy and teaching concepts more meaningful.” These opportunities for direct and immediate application of new knowledge, or “theory-in-use” as Chris Argyris described it, allows learners to transfer ideas to action immediately.  

We also know that experience by itself is not enough, educators need to be continuously examining their experiences. As John Dewey wrote, “We do not learn from experience… We learn from reflecting on experience.” Laurie indicated that she found it particularly valuable that she “was able to take my experiences and bring it back to my cohort and discuss what I was learning. I was constantly asked to expand on my thinking,   [which] made me reflect and supported my continued growth.” Similarly, Melissa stated that “the ability to reflect on my own strengths and weaknesses, and to re-evaluate my learning process and what I was working on” was at the heart of her experience, and that this aspect of experiential learning “was both challenging and something I enjoyed because it led me to challenge myself to get better at what I was doing.”

I began my career in education working for the experiential learning organization Outward Bound. The power of real and dramatic experience to challenge, motivate, and inspire has been at the core of my own philosophy of education ever since. It is a privilege for me to work alongside talented, experienced and always improving educators like Laurie, Melissa and Isaiah; and to watch them summit the mountains in front of them. It reaffirms my belief that, as Barbara Barnes, the founder of UVEI, put it  “You cannot learn to teach from a book or sitting in a class. You have to learn by doing it.”

Commentary by Page Tompkins

Page Tompkins is UVEI's Executive Director and Chief Academic Officer.  He can be followed on Twitter @pagetompkins.

Other commentaries by Page can be found at:
http://uvei.edu/blog/326-how-coaching-helpsteachers-grow
http://uvei.edu/blog/302-schools-need-to-grow-their-own-coaches
http://uvei.edu/blog/330-engaging-in-deliberate-practice
http://uvei.edu/blog/337-developing-teachers-habits-of-reflection