A dozen eight- and nine-year-olds sit on the floor in a row, cross-legged, backs against the wall. They are blindfolded, silent, with serious, pensive expressions. One at a time, their teacher takes them gently by the elbow and leads them into a pitch-black classroom, darkened by heavy drapes covering the windows. He sits each child on the floor, by herself, to wait. Minutes go by. He approaches each child, asking them to put their hands into a container of ice water and to leave them there for as long as possible. The children gasp, trying hard not to interrupt the silence, wondering how long they will be able to keep their hands submerged. The next day, they’ll be dancing around the classroom, turning themselves from quarks and leptons, to protons and electrons—acting out how the Universe was made.
Ten years later, these same children will remember these moments. Sitting in an introductory physics course as college freshmen, they will be able to explain the basic principles of the Big Bang theory because of the ways in which they were first introduced to the concepts in Eric Friedenson’s third grade science class. They will remember the frictionless extreme cold followed by extreme heat, the impossible density, the lack of light followed by a dazzling explosion. They will remember not because of a dynamic lecture or a carefully produced PowerPoint. They will remember because they experienced the Big Bang, because they sensed the drama of the moment, because they felt the creation of the universe.
Our most impactful learning experiences are immersive—they move us from being object to subject, putting us into direct contact with our learning, rather than keeping us sidelined as passive observers. More than 30 years after my sixth grade “biography fair,” I still play guitar (poorly) because for my project I became George Harrison of the Beatles. I, along with John, Paul, and Ringo, learned one song (“Yellow Submarine”), which we played again and again in the courtyard of the school. As an adult I can lead a campfire in singing “This Land is Your Land” because I was asked to become a guitar player when I was eleven.
The staying power of our experiential learning never fails to surprise. Earlier this year I participated in a faculty vs. student quiz bowl match at our High School. The faculty team was on a hot streak, having rattled off a series of answers related to 20th Century pop culture. (It turns out we were all alive for the 20th Century—our high school students, just barely). And then an 11th grader nearly brought the game to a standstill by answering a question about an obscure medieval German composer.
“Konrad von Würzburg?” the teachers marveled as the student was busy collecting high fives from his teammates. “How in the world could you possibly know about Konrad von Würzburg?”
“I did him for my fifth grade traveling biography,” the student answered with a shy smile.
Opportunities to learn by doing are ubiquitous at GDS, from our fifth grade peer mediators to our eighth grade Hill Day interviews to our high school publication of the Augur Bit. The centrality of experiential learning at GDS is not a coincidence. We send our graduates into the world poised to learn and reflect, but also to do, to act. And like anything else, we are best positioned to step into the world as powerful actors if we are given the opportunity to experience ourselves as such throughout our education.