Creating Dynamic and Engaging Learning Experiences
By Kerstin Rowe, Director of Curriculum and Instruction
At Graland, we want to do more than educate our students. We want to inspire them. This is why “Inspire Students” is one of the four core tenets of our strategic plan. The first objective of this tenet is “to provide dynamic and engaging learning experiences that captivate students and cultivate competencies that reflect our mission and guiding principles.” Learning needs to be dynamic and engaging – it needs to provide a spark. Of course, we want students to be competent but also curious and eager. Head of School Josh Cobb has written about the intellectual attributes we desire in our students, and in this article, I will address this essential question: “How do we provide the right environment to create those dynamic and engaging learning experiences?”
The Instructional Team (I-Team) has been spending much of the year exploring “What does dynamic and engaging learning look like?” This past fall, we engaged in some learning experiences to help answer this question. First, our team brainstormed as a group. Then we spent two meetings engaging in classroom observations: one session in the Lower School and one session in the Middle School. At Graland, we aspire to bring the best of the world to our students so they can bring the best of themselves to the world; therefore, for yet another meeting, our team engaged in a “jigsaw” experience, where we studied videos of engaging learning experiences from around the world. Using what we learned from our observations of classes, as well as from videos, we compiled the best of these ideas into what we think engaging learning looks like in the classroom.
Among other things, members of I-Team noted that engaging learning involves, among other things: student voice and choice, creation of products, real-world relevance, productive struggle, social interaction, creativity, and experiential opportunities. These characteristics were clearly on display at the Gates Invention and Innovation Expo. Some people might think the Expo is like a science fair, but it is so much more. Reading the presentation boards, I noticed the empathy with which students addressed their problems: Students ensured their inventions had real-world relevance by empathizing with potential users. Seeing how the inventions worked, I observed the creative thought that went into students’ innovations: They had engaged in productive struggle to actualize their ideas into a product. Talking with the inventors, I heard the excitement students had about their products: They had the opportunity for voice and choice in what they studied and created. The Gates Invention & Innovation program creates an ideal space where students truly participate in dynamic and engaging learning experiences. There is a true spirit of discovery in the production and the experience of the Gates Expo. We see this not only in yearly events like the Gates Expo but on a daily basis as well: Kindergarten authors read their books with visitors; third-grade scientists discover why the peppered moth turned predominantly black in the 1800s; fifth-grade historians debate whether Athens or Sparta was a better place to live.
This inspiration shines throughout Graland. Moving forward we want to identify the places where it comes to light and use these examples to develop even more opportunities. The question, then, is: “How do we further expand this type of learning environment to allow this discovery, this passion, and this innovation to come to the fore?” On our recent professional development day, we engaged teachers in an activity where they not only brainstormed necessary intellectual attributes for our graduates, but also the environment that would foster those attributes. Educators came up with a host of ideas that closely paralleled the list that our Instructional Team created from our work this year. It takes teamwork and collaboration for teachers to create this environment. It takes time and space wherein teachers can dive deep into their curriculum, learning from and with each other, to create dynamic learning experiences for students.
Part of this work involves re-evaluating, clarifying, and better articulating our curriculum alignment. This curricular alignment helps us create a roadmap to set up opportunities for teachers to engage in interdisciplinary and inquiry-based instruction, giving teachers a common purpose and coordinated curriculum that values personal contribution. Teachers work together to figure out and agree upon the content and skills that need to be taught in each grade level for students to be academically successful and to be fully prepared for the grade levels to come. They collaborate to agree upon the best curriculum and instruction to challenge and support students. Creating this curricular scope and sequence enhances the ability of teachers to create the structure and space needed for productive struggle for students. It enables teachers to create a shared vision in order to inspire individual investment, increasing real-world connections and experiential opportunities.
By giving teachers the time, space, and opportunity to work together in intensive ways, they can engage in the creative and rigorous process to bring even more inspiring, dynamic, and engaging experiences to our students.
Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.