Experiential Learning Teaches Problem-solving, Gift of Academic Pursuit
by Hannah Perlkin (‘04)
I attended Wingra from kindergarten through eighth grade, with the exception of sixth grade. In that time the Wingra teaching style, immersive, unconventional, and subtly radical, left its mark on my memory and transformed how I approach learning.
In second grade, I became a pioneer as I sat on the group rug knee-to-knee with classmates all clad in wooly, knobbly costumes, taking turns stirring a cauldron of stone soup. We were hot and itchy and having a great time but wondering when we would get to change back to our soft cotton and finally eat. It quickly became obvious, even to an eight-year-old, how life as an early settler was full of struggle and discomfort.
A couple of years later our class participated in a psychologically memorable exercise in what I now recognize as classism and power struggle. The loft area was turned into a 19th century trans-Atlantic ship and a few first class passengers were sent up the ladder to lounge on cushions and be served cupcakes.
The rest of us below the loft, steerage, were given russet potatoes. Complaints from steerage were met with deaf ears as the teachers looked on, arms crossed at the chest, barking orders to protect the elite upstairs and keep the unruly in line. We fought amongst ourselves and became so invested in the simulation that a full rebellion was in the works until the teachers’ timely announcement that the game was up. The group decompression that ensued was deep and profound.
Even later in my time at Wingra, while studying America’s history of slavery, we became escaping slaves and were given the task of getting to music class. There were students in the class secretly participating in the “underground railroad” who would smuggle us to a safe haven, aka the kindergarten classroom, or under the stairs. Some of them betrayed us and turned us in to the “slave masters.” I remember the strength of my heart beating; the outcome of the simulation felt acutely consequential.
The educational practice at Wingra is unique from my experiences at more traditional schools in two distinct ways:
1.) It is not condescending. The experiential education is more challenging in many ways than exam-taking and homework-doing. We worked at our own pace. Eager readers were encouraged to pick more challenging books for silent reading. Budding mathematicians worked on sheets well above their grade level.
2.) It is self-motivated. A lazy, apathetic individual can always opt out of participation. To engage in class at Wingra takes confidence, cooperation, and ingenuity, and I think most of us quickly learned that the payoff was directly proportional to the input. Students get a personalized education since they are experiencing it from the perspective of their own participation.
I am now 23, recently graduated from the University of California and working in the biological sciences, an area of study that was a challenging, unnatural choice for me. Without the courage instilled in me by years of learning at Wingra, I do not think I would have gotten a bachelor of science degree, assuming that a B.S. was for other more innately science-y young adults. However, Wingra instilled in me the wisdom that academic pursuit is both a gift and a challenge so rather than shy away from the challenge, I have accepted the gift.
The confidence of surging forward of my own accord, always with a slight disregard for the rules but aware of the guidelines, has helped me most as a Wingra alumnus and a current scientist. Wingra helped me understand that learning, that time-dependent process, is the goal. Knowledge comes from time spent thinking, working, and talking.
Now, as a young adult, I value the process rather than a hodge-podge of memorized facts or statistics. Many of my peers crumple in the face of problem solving, having never encountered this meandering process before. I count myself lucky that I learned problem solving in kindergarten, and again in first grade and again in every subsequent grade. Wingra repeatedly offered me the opportunity to practice the process of learning, an invaluable gift.