Photo: EdExploreSRQ

You Had to Be There: The Necessity of Experiential Learning

Posted on October 19, 2023 by Andrew Spector, TPF Fellow 2023/24
“Unfortunately, the animations for the cartoons were sent to Saratoga instead of Sarasota,” composer Gregory Smith lamented as he got off a pretend phone call in front of 1000 Sarasota County School District 4th and 5th grade students. “So you’re going to have to use your imagination to connect the cartoon animation to the sounds of the orchestra. I’ll read out loud the script for the cartoon to help you out.”

Thus began the first time I felt like I understood how classical music communicates meaning.

I was sitting in the beautiful Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall for one of several “Young Persons Concerts,” a series of field trips provided by the Sarasota Orchestra and made possible by their donors as well as grants through the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. I was there because, as part of my role as a Fellow at The Patterson Foundation, I’m putting together an impact report on EdExploreSRQ.

In 2011, as one of The Patterson Foundation’s nine Legacy Initiatives, EdExploreSRQ was launched as a web-based program connecting teachers, administrators, and parents to hundreds of curriculum-aligned experiences (“Explorations”) for students in Sarasota County Schools – creating opportunities to “bring learning to life.” Since the platform’s creation, EdExploreSRQ has provided hundreds of thousands of student experiences for children in grades K-12 across a variety of content areas. Over the past decade, The Patterson Foundation donated $3.5 million in unrestricted matching funds to the EdExploreSRQ Endowment Fund to ensure access to these experiential learning opportunities in perpetuity.

I was blown away by the quality of the “Young Persons Concert.” First of all, seemingly seamlessly, the teachers, Van Wezel staff, and Sarasota Orchestra team collaborated to calmly bring 1000 4th and 5th graders into the auditorium. As a former 6th-grade teacher, I can attest to the wonders of this feat.

Second, the program was highly engaging, participatory, and standards-aligned. At the beginning, students were encouraged to cheer on the different “families” of instruments as they were introduced. Then, as I began to describe above, composer Gregory Smith narrated the events of the cartoon as the orchestra played the corresponding music. Students were asked to make specific sounds throughout and practice hand motions they were taught in school leading up to the exploration. At different times, the students’ clapping along, applause, and exclamations of joy were so loud that several adults in the auditorium, myself included, felt compelled to cover our ears.

Everything about the “Young Persons Concert” was intentional, from the relevance of cartoons to the fact that it’s provided for 4th and 5th graders to get them excited about choosing an instrument in middle school.

When composer Gregory Smith first shared with the audience that we would have to imagine the cartoon, I felt a sense of missing out. Imagination is fine, I thought, but actually watching the animation would be so much better. As the performance proceeded, however, I realized the genius behind the choice. Watching the animation would have turned the audience into passive recipients of a performance, requiring the audience to imagine the animation required active cognitive engagement.

This is the power of experiential learning. Research shows that experiential learning and hands-on exploration are two of the most beneficial ways to increase student engagement and sustained learning. These authentic learning experiences teach students in a way that strengthens their ability to retain information and make connections. That’s why, a couple of decades later than the 4th and 5th graders in the auditorium that day, I felt like I finally understood how classical music communicates meaning. When it comes to learning, there’s nothing like actually experiencing it.

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