What Is Applied Learning?

in Winter 2017 by

What is it that you understand well? How did you come to understand it? How do you know, definitively, that you do in fact, actually understand it? These are some of the questions that teachers must grapple with as they consider how to design applied learning experiences for students at The Park School.

Applied learning fosters a deep understanding of a subject matter in a meaningful, authentic experience.  Because life is full of these experiences, applied learning doesn’t always need to happen in a classroom.  For me, applied learning took place in my own dining room, where I came to understand the art of wallpapering. I first learned how to wallpaper when I was faced with a challenge of adding style and color to my white walls in time for a large family gathering. The outcome of my learning mattered a great deal to me and that learning took on a multi-faceted approach, which included reading about wallpapering, talking to experts in the field to determine the standards for the project, and asking a lot of questions. I enlisted teachers who provided me information, resources, and tools. Two of these teachers were my amazing in-laws, who presented me with a beautiful gift, which had been handed down through the generations: a handsome wooden box that holds all the essential tools for the craft of wallpapering and then transforms into a working tabletop that supports the process. They used this box to model the technique and then coached me through successes and mistakes. I know that I understand wallpapering now because I can independently wallpaper a room with confidence, I can explain the process to others and help them troubleshoot when something goes wrong, I know my own limitations, and I no longer require my coaches by my side. My learning experience was high stakes and required a great deal of effort. This is the kind of meaningful, authentic, and challenging experience that curriculum creators design for students when targeting applied learning.    

Teaching for understanding – while developing essential skills – is at the heart of applied learning. Educators have been debating what it means to truly understand for decades! Understanding is more elusive than knowing or remembering something and it is not as simple as a demonstration of a skill. When we truly understand, we are able to think critically around that topic, which might mean solving a problem that arises, asking questions that steer the learning, recognizing the topic or examples of it in new or unfamiliar contexts, making realistic predictions, or justifying a decision because of evidence or experience. Educators are satisfied that students understand when they demonstrate that they are able to use knowledge and skills in original ways.

Planning for demanding, inquiry-based, complex learning experiences is a very thoughtful process. Park teachers exert great effort in presenting new subject matter and creating learning experiences so that their students can engage in developing an understanding of content while building skills. Over the summer, many teachers engaged in professional development in this important area with the Buck Institute for Project-Based Learning and at Harvard School of Education’s Project Zero for Teaching for Understanding. Throughout the year, teachers are fortunate to have design thinking experts (Carol Buzby, Kim Fogarty, Megan Haddadi, Elaine Hamilton, and Tory Lane) as faculty resources who can collaborate on planning applied learning projects. These efforts have translated into many amazing experiences for students, including:

  • Engineering ramps for Hot Wheels cars in student partnerships, focusing on design, problem solving, and redesign for ever-increasing challenges (Kindergarten)
  • Creating a physical, and then digital map to a favorite classroom spot to practice skills of measurement and to understand that maps show us how to get where we need to go (Grade I)
  • Transforming a classroom into an outdoor marketplace, ensuring authenticity based on product choice, marketing, and money management (Grade II)
  • Remarketing toys with new packaging that combat gender stereotypes (Grade III)
  • Creating original artifacts that purposefully clue the future archaeologist toward inferences about the creator (Grade IV)
  • Calculating just how many plastic balls would be necessary to create a classroom-sized ball pit, as well as the cost of such a project (Grade V)
  • Using images to tell stories through the creation of original book trailers, where students use technology for visual and auditory appeal to advertise a favorite book, while practicing the skills of digital citizenship (Grade VI)
  • Problem solving for the “germiest” place in school, following the swabbing of a variety of suspect surfaces throughout the building  (Science Club – Grade VI)
  • Designing an appealing carnival game for younger students, using an understanding of theoretical and experimental probability to target a fair win/loss ratio (Grade VII)
  • Examining oral narratives and using the learned core elements to develop and perform a personal story, as inspired by NPR’s Moth series, accompanied by visual support (Grade VIII)
  • Using problem-solving techniques to push the boundaries of creativity and originality by designing a completely original mythological creature; sketching ordinary, preconceived mythological creatures, slicing them into three sections, (head, torso, and legs), mixing and matching those sections to reimagine possibilities, and then creating creating an entirely newly imagined creature (Art – Grade IV)

Through these experiences, students from Kindergarten to Grade VIII are developing their understanding through “doing.” Through applied learning, students are learning to communicate in a variety of ways, to ask thoughtful questions, engage in meaningful dialogue, creatively problem-solve and problem-find, and to think critically about a topic. These challenging experiences insist on the development of skills required for our ever changing world and workplace environments.

Ask your children what they were asked to solve with others at school today. Ask them what they understand now, which they didn’t understand yesterday or last week, and please, ask them how they came to understand it and also how they can be sure that they do. And, if you are looking for more ways to ask your child about her/his day, I welcome you to find an idea here.

The 2017 Strategic Plan, Journey Together, focuses on four exciting priorities to move the School forward for the next 5-7 years: applied learning, social & emotional development, auxiliary programming, and continued financial sustainability.


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