In 1993, the CNAA (Council for National Academic Awards) Improving Student Learning Project, developed suggestions for moving students away from superficial regurgitation-- a “surface approach” to learning, and into one focusing on the understanding of material-- a “deep approach.”1 Criticizing “an overuse of lectures and methods that left students dependent on the information provided for them and assessment methods that rewarded regurgitation of facts,” the CNNA championed the strategy of “learning by doing,” which uses methods such as “games, simulations, and role plays; visits; and work experience” to foster a deeper understanding of the material.2 In the place of “memorization, abstraction, remoteness, and isolation, active learning offers “meaningfulness, connection, interest, and purpose.”3
For many students, attending school is an “inauthentic experience to be endured until real life begins.”4 Since, according to the traditional paradigm, a classroom environment is dedicated to controlling impulses, many students consciously reject the scholastic experience. Instead of engaging, they cope. Furthermore, the world inside the classroom often differs so much from real-life experience, that students feel that the knowledge they encounter in school is inapplicable to their lives. By engaging first-hand experience of knowledge, experiential, or active learning bridges the gap between “reality” and “class room.” Through harnessing “the deep human impulse towards narrative,” experiential curricula allow students to “emplot or thematize” their lives while reaching a deeper and more personal understanding of the material.5 The development of critical thinking skills, therefore, takes precedence over content: the how over the what .
The experiential process, therefore, involves a gradual transfer of autonomy from teacher to student, made possible through strategies of problem solving and inference. By provoking students to develop their own theories concerning somewhat cryptic information, they obtain empowerment and inspiration. Scientist A. R. Luria observed in 1966 “that the higher mental processes are essentially mediate structures, that is to say, they achieve their ends by indirect means.”6 Personal experience is, therefore, transformed into knowledge in order to create a “frame-work of meaning” which encodes the information more efficiently in the student's brain.7
Since information is transferred more effectively when “people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts,” the student's educational experience should benefit from the implementation of active learning techniques.8 How, then, should a teacher implement these practices without forsaking the volume of material that is covered in a high-school year? The tension between covering a subject and understanding it seems to set up an impassable conflict. In his Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds its Own Curriculum , Steven Levy offers the following elucidation:
To realistically resolve these two goals of education—the how and the what —this website, as you will see, suggests the implementation of both. By guiding the student through a series of inferential stages, supplying information along the way, he or she will be armed with the proper tools to solve the historical puzzle.
Far from a “free-for-all,” experiential learning involves a high degree of organization on the part of the teacher. Students' ability to think and solve problems “is not simply due to a generic set of ‘thinking skills' or strategies but, instead, requires well-organized bodies of knowledge that support planning and strategic thinking.”10 It is a goal of this website to provide such a structure that will allow for the experiential process to take place.
1. Deep Learning, Surface Learning, AAHE Bulletin 45, 8 (April 1993): 10.