At it’s simplest “Active learning” is learning by doing. On our semesters, student’s make their own canoe paddles, and that’s their first big woodcarving project. They have a basic set of tools and simple instructions on how to shape a paddle from a pine board. A lot of student’s struggle at first with what they see as a “hands-off” approach to teaching as they start this project. They want clearly defined, step by step guidance on how to shape their paddle. However, as they move through the project, and become more comfortable with the tools, and the wood itself, the questions like “what should I do next?” start to decline. The first paddle isn’t always perfect, but a lot of understanding of the process is gained while making it. I’ve seen some students go so far as to make a second paddle on their own time. Once a person has a hands-on understanding of their own ability and an internal desire to improve that skill, there isn’t much you could do to stop them from doing so.
It’s especially great to see this with the younger students. A lot of the skills and activities we cover in School Of The Forest courses are completely new and can be intimidating. Carving, in particular, is daunting for some younger folks when they start. When they finish their first project, however, they usually want a new one almost immediately. As far as struggles as an instructor go, having to scramble for new projects for kids is an alright one to have. A student from my “Outdoor Living Skills” course at Squam Lake Science Center last year came in each morning after learning spoon carving, with another spoon she’d carved the evening before, and at the end of the course, her father had lots of questions about getting her a set of tools to carve with.
Teaching isn’t always about a strict regiment of study and a list of objectives. Sometimes the best way to help a student learn is just to set them up in a situation that’ll challenge them, and let them take away what they can from it. Maybe they don’t walk away being experts at the task. They do walk away with the confidence to self-review as they continue improving at the task, and hopefully, an internal desire to keep expanding their knowledge of whatever craft or activity captured their interest.