Guest Blogger: Middle School Academic Dean Zoe Tuohy on "The World is Our Classroom"

The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) defines its philosophy as a process that begins with a concrete experience, usually in order to solve a problem, a process of reflection and discussion that leads to abstract thinking, and later an application to real life. AEE values collaboration, leadership, and creative problem-solving skills that positively impact an individual’s ability to contribute greatly to companies and communities later in life.

At Gill St. Bernard’s Middle School, there are several programs and trips that truly embrace the philosophy of experiential education and our motto: The World is Our Classroom. From the first fifth-grade field trip to Stokes State Forest to the eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C., students are confronted with experiences both on- and off-campus that challenge and inspire them to connect with others, develop leadership skills, and solve problems through collaborative processes. Furthermore, our Makerspace and STREAMS classes provide wonderful structures in which students are inspired to create, design, and explore inside and outside of the classroom. Finally, our Spring Unit program, a longtime GSB tradition in the Middle and Upper Schools that culminate each school year, encourages students to delve into areas they are interested in during a week- or two-week-long experiential education unit. Units are created with the following three principles in mind: learning through experience, outdoor education, and/or service learning. From yoga in the Middle School, to an internship or travel experience in the Upper School, students are provided with ample opportunities to extend their learning in an interest-driven way.

By creating authentic learning experiences for children, they learn while being active explorers and problem-solvers. An effective learning environment is one that acknowledges multiple intelligences and values experiential learning; when students are engaged and part of the process, achievement flows naturally. Kurt Hahn, one of the great leaders in experiential learning, has personally influenced my idea of a strong education ever since I experienced a 28-day sailing expedition through the Hurricane Island Outward Bound school as a teenager:

“I REGARD IT AS THE FOREMOST TASK OF EDUCATION TO ENSURE SURVIVAL OF THESE QUALITIES: AN ENTERPRISING CURIOSITY; AN UNDEFEATABLE SPIRIT, TENACITY IN PURSUIT, READINESS FOR SENSIBLE SELF-DENIAL AND, ABOVE ALL, COMPASSION.” -Kurt Hahn

It was not until day two of my sailing expedition, when instructors told our group of 12 fifteen-year-olds that we would have to navigate using chart and compass and sail our 30-foot open sailboat around Penobscot Bay, some of us without any sailing experience, did we truly learn to problem-solve, listen effectively, communicate actively, and work as a team. We learned difficult lessons quickly, but it wasn’t just by doing. We also reflected individually and as a group, tried and failed many strategies before we achieved success, and then woke up to do the very same thing the next day. While it was wonderful that I learned to navigate the rugged Maine coast, my biggest takeaways that remain with me into adulthood are those of perseverance, teamwork, and the adventure of learning through experience. It is with these goals in mind that GSB offers intentional programming in each division to support authentic learning experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. 

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