Modern Learning is… Bringing Learning to Life!

“Effective education is always a balance between rigor and freedom, tradition and innovation, the individual and the group, theory and practice, the inner world and the outer world.” – Sir Ken Robinson

Student1Modern Learning is mostly experiential learning or “bringing learning to life.”  As educators, we are preparing our students for the 21st century they find themselves in now and in the future. It is essential that students have the opportunity to problem solve collaboratively, to find their voice and express themselves confidently and persuasively. They must be proficient at reading, researching information and be able to use technology affectively and creatively. As well, students must be trained to respond appropriately in a given situation.

The 6C’s of education (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, culture, creativity, connection) are embedded naturally in holistic education where a single inquiry can lead to cross-curricular academic work in multiple subjects while embracing character education and social justice issues at the same time.

Learning from the inside out, or embodied learning, allows students to be innovative, to “discover,” rather then be told answers.  In this type of learning, students are encouraged to try things, to fail and to try again.  Most people who have made an extraordinary contribution to the world have failed many, many times first. If we can teach our students to embrace “failure,” we can give them wings to fly and be extraordinary contributors and leaders in our world.

Experiencing life through an imaginary world allows the creation of a rich context to explore and try out a number of hypotheses to solve a problem.  Authentic inquiry is key as students engage in real life problems. Following some simple ground rules allows for an emotionally safe playing field to explore some tough life questions. It is a safe place to experience life rather then suffer real life consequences. The answers are remembered because students are engaged emotionally. Student reflections shed light on the deep lessons learned.

“I am present to what is happening in the Middle East where people are fighting over their differences and they need to realize the consequences and how we really aren’t different at all.” Alexis, Grade 8

Us-themIn an experiential learning unit entitled, “Us and Them,” students in a Chicago school have the opportunity to explore two different communities. The inquiry question is, “What causes war?” The unit starts rather innocently as students are divided into two different schools, the Red School and the Blue school.

They experience team-bonding activities and discover what their strengths are and how they are different (values, dress, wealth, strengths).

Students wrestle with choices that help direct the story and eventually it occurs to them they are going down a dangerous path. They learn a valuable lesson at the end of the experience when they realize they make decisions that are not expressions of diversity and equity but rather self-serving. The results are natural consequences of their actions. Student reflections on the experience, both written and verbal, are profound!

“Everything we’ve been going through feels so real. I can see now, through this dramatic example, life was captured. It taught us to think before we act. Sure, there are different people out there, but that doesn’t mean they should change their way of life for you. We all need to learn to truly think and not to judge.” Samantha, 8th Grade

Making an advocacy piece (and sharing your work with an audience) after such an experience is not difficult and it is not a lot of extra work. Students think of the main message to the audience and then select a few activities they have done throughout the unit. They tie the pieces together by creating a succinct narrative and adding music in appropriate places for atmosphere or creating tension. An impactful piece is the result and the work is shared with all who watch in person or via other technological means.

Bringing learning to life in this way is my favourite way to teach as it encompasses the whole child. The example above is a grade 8 example but I love to teach all students between Kindergarten and Grade 8 in this way. The learning is retained, citizenship skills emerge and respect for each other spreads throughout the school!

Experiencing learning from the inside out, as the example above illustrates, captivates the students because their emotions are involved. Dr. Sherry Kerr writes:

“When you do a drama
It causes you to feel
So your brain reacts
Just the same as if its real.”

The drama is the story and it is co-created with the students. Brain research supports this way of learning as it engages many areas of the brain at once. It is holistic in nature and embraces children’s natural ways of learning, namely curiosity, movement, pretending, language and the arts. Character education and social justice are all part of holistic learning. This is an example of “modern learning.”

In the above example of modern learning, Sir Ken Robinson’s idea of effective learning, is completely encapsulated. Some examples from the unit “Us and Them” follow.  There is a balance between rigor and freedom – rigor with the structures used to set up the flow of the unit and freedom as the students make choices and have a say in the direction of the story (student voice.) Tradition plays a part in ceremonial work and innovation is necessary in creating school cheers, deciding if they go to war and planning how that would play out, for example. Individual work is needed when creating genuine compliments for their peers and creating a coat of arms depicting their personal values before the unit even begins. Students learn the rules of being in an imaginary world, formulate thoughts and opinions and reflect on the outer world such as making connections to self, other texts and the “real” world. “Us and Them” is a strong example of bringing learning to life and life to learning.

“I feel that this war was equivalent to fighting with a brother or sister. You disagree on the smallest thing for a long time but then eventually it worsens. At that time a parent (death) steps in and takes away what/who we love.” Colin, 8th Grade

In this era, teachers, as well as their students, need to be continuously learning. Preparing students for an ever-changing world requires us to be in professional training, not only updating technology skills but also developing pedagogical expertise. We need a growth mindset. And we need to set goals for ourselves – goals that are far reaching! Eric Jensen addresses teachers, in his book, “Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind,” when he says, “Kids…need role models. They need caring adults. They need savvy risk takers who aren’t afraid to fail. If you’re not modeling those qualities, where will your students learn them?…For impossible things to happen, you have to envision them first. It’s up to you. Miracles will happen in your classroom when you build your dreams bigger than your challenges.” 2

What are your dreams for your class this year? Do you need support? Reach out and get what you need so you can give your students what they need. You are the number one difference in the lives of your students!


Would you like to transform students to work collaboratively, embrace the curriculum and be leaders in the world?

Contact Margaret Boersma at or (647) 881-6958

Discover how she can support you in your goals.

Jensen, Eric. “”Now What?”: Meeting the Challenge of Implementation.” Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement. 175, (2013). Print.

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