Experience Is the Best Teacher


It’s been a “few” moons, but I still remember… The other day I found myself reminiscing about my teen years. I had good friends, didn’t want for much, and I thought I knews a lot about how this world worked. I could’ve gotten better grades, if I’d tried, but at the time I thought it wasn’t really worth the extra effort. I was too smart to waste extra effort on things that weren’t really necessary anyway. As soon as I got out of school I was really going to make my mark in the world. I’d work smarter, not harder, I thought. I had big plans.

On the other hand, there were my parents. Unfortunately, I thought they knew very little about how life really worked (wink, wink). As many parents do, they were constantly giving me unsolicited advice; trying to impart all the wisdom they had garnered over the years. They gave me advice about relationships, work and life whenever they had the opportunity to pull me away from my friends. But, in my view, their advice was “old-fashioned” and had little value in terms of how the world worked in “modern times”. I knew they were trying to help me, but they just didn’t understand how things worked.

Now fast forward a “few” years. I’m married with kids, working non-stop and torn in what seems a thousand different directions. Life is busy and more and more my parents’ advice about life, balance, and priorities, echoes true in my thoughts. So why didn’t I see it before?

Sound familiar? It’s a universal story to which I think we can all relate. Often we are given good advice, but unable to use the information until we really experience a similar situation for ourselves. Why? Because experience really is the best teacher. It is the necessary ingredient for true understanding. I can be told something, but I won’t fully understand it, until I experience it. So what does this tell us about our teaching practices?

First, I need to approach every lesson with “the experience” mindset. If I want my students to have deeper understanding, then I have to be sure they have the experience to grasp the concept. How can I do that? Considering that my students come from varied socio-economic backgrounds, I have provide much of the experience in the classroom. The learning needs to be hands-on! I must plan those hands-on experiences. We need to explore, build, manipulate, create, watch and talk about it! Like my response to my parents’ advice, my students won’t get the knowledge I “tell” them. They will only really understand after I’ve provided them the experience.

Second, I need to speak the “same language” as my students. Many of my students may understand the activity, but do they understand the vocabulary used in my questioning? Explicitly teaching the vocabulary, not only of the concept, but also of the academic requests is paramount. I have to bring the language to their experience level and then relate the new vocabulary to what they already know. Here, I have to provide model and practice in order to set them up for success!

Third, I need to understand the learning developmental stage and learning style of my students. Are they ready to learn what I am trying to teach and how do they learn best? If they don’t have the foundation, I can’t build on it. Differentiation is paramount to ensuring that every child is presented with the lesson in a variety of ways. Whenever possible, I need to approach the learning from many different intelligence models. Incorporating art, music, manipulatives, visuals, rich literature, and activity will ensure that every student is being taught in a means that suits their style and abilities.Have I appealed to the visual learners? How about the musicial learners? Kinesthetic?

Finally, I need to build in supports for each learning activity. Have I built in supports for those unable to handle the text? Have I provided extra experience for some, while others may be allowed more independence? This is easier said than done, I realize, but over the course of every unit, my students are counting on me to first meet them where they are, before I can lead them forward.

Whew! As educators, our challenge and responsibility is great. Teaching isn’t “telling”, it’s providing a well rounded experience. When we are focused on identifying the universal elements of how we all learn best, and striving to incorporate them into our classroom, only then are we able to reach our students. Experience really is the best teacher!

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