Making Connections through Experiential Learning

Lorie Guest, Principal of Blyth Academy Waterloo

Blyth Academy is known for many excellent educational initiatives—small class sizes, creative school buildings, academic programs curated for elementary, middle and high school, and one-on-one individualized learning. One of its innovations that enhances the students’ education and understanding is its focus on experiential learning.

Experiential learning is an educational philosophy that allows students to have hands on involvement in topics and then reflect on their experience to enhance and deepen their learning. This can take many forms. It may be a field trip, guest speaker, case study, a simulation or simply the way questions are asked.

At Blyth Academy, there are many opportunities for students to learn and reflect about the real world. One of the best ways is to go out into the world. Field trips are common in our schools. The Civics and Law classes can experience what they are studying by sitting in an actual court room and seeing all of the participants and the case unfold. Students can prepare for post-secondary education by visiting universities. At the Blyth Academy Waterloo campus, the Biology and Chemistry classes go to the University of Waterloo and work in its science labs with a university instructor. This is an opportunity to speak to university students, become familiar with a university campus, and explore their interest in attending the school. Another opportunity for Blyth Academy students to experience the real world is through trips to museums. Students visit the ROM, the AGO, and the Science Centre on a regular basis. In Waterloo, our Grade 10 History class visited four historical museums and sights in the region. At the Scheider Haus Historic Site, a house built in 1816, the students had an enthusiastic and expert guide that toured them around the house. They were allowed to explore the historic kitchen, touch and interact with the utensils, and learned about baking bread. The students were fascinated by the craftsmanship and materials of the attic. The students stated that they really understood what it was like to live in 1816. Other Blyth Academy field trips include artists’ workshops, wildlife sanctuaries, skiing, photography explorations and plays. The Waterloo students loved the musical Come from Away.

Guest speakers can bring to life what is happening outside of the classroom. Blyth Academy sources speakers from a variety of areas. Artists, adventurers, sports figures, politicians, and charities often visit our schools to share their backgrounds, struggles and successes. In Waterloo, we had the previous mayor come in and speak to the students about her past as a politician and her current charity work. She is a board member for OneRoof, a homeless shelter for teenagers. This is the charity that our school supports and for which we fundraise. We also had the Director of the charity speak to the students about the lives of the teenagers it helps. This gave our students a clear understanding of how their work would help others and gave them a chance to reflect on how others live.

Experiential learning can also take place in the classroom. Case studies in business, science, and math lessons bring real world situations into class. The students are able to problem solve and critically think in a variety of applications. They are then able to see how the experts dealt with the same situation and compare their solutions. For example, in Waterloo, our chemistry class simulated a cosmetics perfume lab and created some lovely scents.

So how is experiential learning faring in a Covid-19 world? It is different but still possible. We can no longer welcome guest speakers on our campus nor can our students venture out far to explore the world. However, there are still lots of experiences to be had from our classrooms and homes. Many museums, theatres, and tourist attractions have gone virtual. They have tours and guides to speak to the students and share their expertise. In addition, many of our guest speakers are comfortable coming to our classes virtually. For example, in Waterloo, we have a partnership with Communitech. This is a high tech business incubator in Waterloo. Our partnership allows us to make connections with start-up companies in the area. Waterloo’s computer science class had a guest speaker from one of these companies visit the class via Zoom. The students had dozens of questions prepared for him on topics ranging from startup challenges, to game development, to attracting investors, to recommendations for a career in coding –all of which Ryan, the owner, was enthusiastic in sharing with the next generation. The students walked away having heard real, personal, engaging stories of a young entrepreneur with some coding skills and a vision.

Experiential learning enhances the Blyth Academy students’ educational experience because they gain a better understanding of the course material. They can now connect their learning to the real world.

 

JOIN US FOR TERM THREE STARTING FEBRUARY 8, 2021

2020-2021 ACADEMIC SCHEDULE
Term Three (Feb 8 to Apr 23)
Term Four (Apr 26 to Jun 29)

Though our physical doors remain temporarily closed, the minds of our students stay open. Summer classes are continuing to meet on their regular daily schedules, in virtual classrooms with face-to-face instruction and peer interaction.  The Blyth Academy model of small class sizes, flexible scheduling and individualized approach have enabled us to remain faithful to our standards. Our commitment to ongoing and meaningful communication between school, teachers, students and families has been critical to this effort.

Although our students have transitioned into summer mode and COVID-19 restrictions have begun to loosen, we are looking ahead to what September will hold for our campuses and families.
We want to be clear - our preference and our priority is to get students back to our campuses, but we must ensure this is done in a safe and effective way. While we await official guidance from Public Health and the Ministry of Education, a "return to school" task force has been hard at work putting concrete operational plans in place for all likely scenarios. This includes a full return to campus with safeguards, a blended model of virtual and in-campus learning and the continuation of fully virtual classrooms. All scenarios will provide robust learning and live, daily instruction and interaction with teachers and peers. 
With ten campuses across Ontario, we realize that each one of our schools is a unique space and community. We will be implementing across-the-board policies on hand washing, facility cleaning and social distancing measures. Each school is also prepared to pivot individually based on the guidance of local health authorities and to best serve students and families. 
Our recent survey showed that over 80 per cent of Blyth Academy families are eager to return to campuses, and we are hard at work to prepare for this day. As September's scenario becomes clearer and more information becomes available, we will continue to communicate. 

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