Experiential Learning at Bay

By Andy Shaw, Dean of Curriculum and Innovation

It’s one of the oldest practices in the world: learning by experience. Setting out to master a skill or concept by experiencing it or doing it “in the wild” was the dominant learning paradigm for thousands of years. In these early years of the 21st century – the century of innovation – however, educators are reconnecting with the notion that the skill of learning by getting one’s hands dirty, by trying something scary or new, by interacting with the world around us, is a critical one. Experiential learning is a necessary component in the education of entrepreneurs and world-changers.

At Bay, we continue to ask ourselves how, while building students’ wealth of knowledge, we can immerse them in experiences that are rich, complex, and supportive of risk-taking and iterative learning. This question has become a driver of faculty conversation at Bay as we look to maximize and ever-increase the degree to which our students learn in dynamic, experience-based ways. A key element of this work comes in the form of thoughtful field trips. Last year’s Spanish 4 class took what is often a common field trip for a language class: visiting a Mexican restaurant. But rather than just ordering their food in Spanish, students literally rolled up their sleeves and immersed themselves (or at least their hands) in the learning: they worked alongside restaurant staff, getting instructions in Spanish on the preparation of traditional dishes, preparing the food, and then getting to eat what they had made. A key part of the Humanities 2 curriculum is a place of worship field project: students spend time in class learning about respectful observation and cultural research and are then tasked with visiting worship services at a mosque, temple, or church with whose practices they are less familiar.  More dynamic than any lecture, this assignment puts students into contact with real people in the practice of their most sacred traditions.  In the Neighborhood Dynamics class students read seminal texts about gentrification but also spend significant time in San Francisco’s Western Addition.  By talking with residents and community organizers and documenting the changes in the neighborhood, students are able to assess for themselves the impacts of seismic shifts in San Francisco’s economy and demographics.

While getting out of the building isn’t always manageable, students at Bay are increasingly involved in learning through experience here on campus. The Biology 1 course, newly re-oriented around the question of “Can we grow enough lettuce to supply the school salad bar for a day?”, puts students in the role of scientific farmers. They tinker with soil chemistry, composition, and hydration levels, research the processes by which plants grow and thrive, and work through experimental design after experimental design in order to maximize production.  Books and lectures are involved, of course, but so was exploration, innovation, and ingenuity.  In our Artist as Activist class, students learn about a host of media and approaches before undertaking a significant art project intended to foster social change around an issue of their choice. The process is all about continual improvement and refinement, with critique by classmates, teachers, and visiting artists, all focused on questions of, “Does your project have the impact you are looking for?” The students learn about making change, by making change. Of course, project work at Bay culminates in the Senior Project course, a graduation requirement where every student learns to be a project manager, an executive, a planner, and a researcher by doing those things “in the wild,” with an adult mentor and an authentic, original project idea. Inevitably there are setbacks, reboots, and course corrections, through which the student learns, by doing, how professionals must operate in the world beyond the walls of the school.

In numerous smaller conversations, in faculty meetings, and in the recent and ongoing efforts to reconsider and redesign Bay’s academic schedule, the notion of experiential learning comes up again and again. While different teachers have different frameworks and approaches, our school continues to find resonance in the idea of making learning by lived experience a central component of Bay’s current and future programs.