Learning Approaches

What is it?

Experiential learning refers to the learning that happens when we experience something. In other words, experiential learning is the knowledge students gain from actively doing something as opposed to for example the knowledge they can acquire from passively reading a book. Experiential Learning can take many different forms, but one of the most common in progressive education is Project-Based Learning where students work on a project that requires them to study and interact with real-world issues. Project-Based Experiential Learning usually happens over several weeks as students familiarize themselves with the theme for the project (such as climate change, Indian culture, or math in the supermarket) and demonstrate their understanding in different ways. Other common forms of Experiential Learning include role-playing and simulations, and doing an internship to learn more about a particular profession by immersing oneself in the actual work.

Why is it important?

The essence of Experiential Learning is that students explore and learn from real-life experiences and scenarios. The importance of such learning opportunities cannot be overstated given how research shows again and again that student motivation increases when students recognize a link between what they’re learning and its actual application in the real world, especially their own lives. By connecting students with the world around them, Experiential Learning also gives them a chance to explore and recognize the interdisciplinarity of reality. Understanding real world problems cannot be achieved from the perspective of a single discipline: grasping the concept of climate change and the debate surrounding it for example demands an ability to connect insight from fields such as biology, social studies, economics and politics. Experiential Learning offers a richer and more nuanced understanding of the world, thus making it easier for students to apply the knowledge and skills they learn in school to the context of their lives outside school. In addition, Project-Based Learning in particular hones students collaboration and team-working abilities, while role-playing and simulations are great for learning about perspective-taking and empathy.

How will we use it?

We will train our educators in the various forms of experiential learning, and help them appreciate the value of real-life learning experiences. We will then leave it up to the individual educator’s discretion to design their own curricula using experiential methods in the way they see best fits the learning goals.

Arts & Learning

Learning through Arts

Art is often defined in very narrow terms as something that is pleasing to the senses, usually the eyes or the ears. Moreover, the idea of art is often reserved for the so-called “fine arts” (opera, painting, classical music), leaving out such things as rock and roll music, a mural and a hip hop performance. At Northstar we take a holistic approach to art that goes beyond the aesthetics of the final result but considers art as a process of using one’s imagination and skills to create something that expresses important ideas or feelings, be it aesthetically pleasing or not.

Since the expression of one’s ideas or feelings requires students to be conscious of their thoughts and emotions, and since thinking and feeling are core to learning in any discipline, we believe the artistic process has the potential to enrich student learning in any discipline. At Northstar we therefore learn through the arts in all our classes, encouraging students to use their imagination and skill in a given area (biology for example) to create things that demonstrate their thinking and feeling in that particular area, be it a poster, a dance, a song, a video or something else.

Learning the Arts

In traditional education there is an unfortunate negligence of the importance of the arts, and art as a subject has in many places been down-prioritized or entirely dropped. At Northstar we believe studying and learning the arts is an essential step on the path to self-discovery and the formation of individual expression. Learning about various forms of artistic expression, students will reflect upon and mirror themselves in the works of others as well as develop the ability to create works that express their own ideas and emotions. Art is an ancient human pursuit that transcends any one discipline, and by studying and questioning both historic and contemporary global art work, students learn about their world and explore the deeper currents of the human mind and imagination across time and place.

What is it?

Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) refers to the development and application of the skills, knowledge and attitudes students need to understand and manage their emotions in order to relate positively to themselves and to others and to form and maintain meaningful social relationships. Through self-awareness students are able to set and pursue personal learning goals and through empathy and compassion students are able to make responsible decisions that ensure the well-being of self and others.

Why is it important? 

The underlying rationale for SEL is that learning happens best in a supportive environment where students feel safe to be who they are and express what’s on their mind without fear of being judged or being wrong. Since daring to make mistakes and to be wrong is essential for learning to happen – reflecting on and learning from ones mistakes is core to the development of new insights – a sense of trust and connection between people in a learning community is crucial for students’ learning. SEL is also linked to the prevention of risky behaviors such as violence, bullying and substance abuse, not to mention how a learning environment that is communal, connected and supportive is better suited to prevent or help students deal with way too common mental problems such as depression and stress which are often found and nurtured in more competitive academic-only focused environments. Finally, SEL helps learners develop crucial life and study skills, honing their skills as self-directed learners (link) who, by reflecting on their emotional well-being, might find it easier to discover the things in life they are passionate about and wish to pursue both during and after school.

How will we use it?  

For Social and Emotional Learning to be accomplished it must be integrated into every part of The Northstar School. SEL is not something which is taught in isolation, but skills that are developed in close connection to others and through intentional personal and collective reflections. At Northstar we will make sure that all our educators and faculty understand and are comfortable promoting SEL in their teaching, encouraging students to discover and assess their emotions in different contexts and helping them develop a vocabulary for talking about how they feel. Educators will function not only as teachers but also as mentors to help guide students in setting learning goals and making responsible decision.

What is it?

Self-directed Learning is based on the idea that students must learn how to learn and not just be told what to learn. The development of skills to acquire knowledge and skills will enable students to continue learning outside and beyond formal schooling and take charge of what they want to learn. Learning how to learn involves taking responsibility for one’s own learning, and pursuing learning that is meaningful to oneself and putting in the necessary effort to learn. Self-directed Learning involves setting learning goals, carefully planning how to reach them, and reflecting on the strategies along the way to evaluate their effectiveness. Self-directed Learning is about knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses, coping with setbacks in appropriate ways in order to learn from failure, and knowing when and how to reach out for help.

The role of the teacher is no longer that of a lecturer, but that of a mentor who gently pushes students to understand their own abilities and boundaries and potential for growth.  Many schools are using Self-directed Learning in conjunction with Blended Learning (link), as this approach lets different students work on different things at the same time according to their own goals and pace. This way, Blended Learning supports students’ development of personal strategies and plans for learning.

Why is it important?

Having the ability to learn new things is an important life skill that enables students to learn anything at any point in time and thus to adapt to the ever-changing reality of life. With the advent of the internet and the digitization of society in general, life as we know it is constantly changing and no one can predict what skills the workers, parents and citizens of tomorrow will need. For this reason, it makes sense to educate people who can adapt by picking up whatever skills they desire. By taking responsibility for their own learning and understanding themselves as learners, students are also able to pursue learning that excites them and which motivates them to gain a deep understanding of the subject. Self-directed Learning, like Social & Emotional Learning, helps students explore their passions and where they might want to focus their attention later in life.

How do we use it?

Self-directed learning is very different from the traditional approach to learning where the teacher decides both the content, the format and the pace of students’ learning. At Northstar we believe students should be the drivers of their own learning, and that it is our job to help them develop a joy for learning and the skills to excel at learning. The shift from traditional approaches to learning and teaching to a focus on Self-directed Learning can be a hard one to make, and both students and educators have to “unlearn” previous habits: students must stop looking to the teacher for answers, and teachers must stop providing answers and instead provide appropriate guidance and questions to help students find the answers for themselves. At The Northstar Institute we will train our educators to encourage and support Self-directed Learning in the classroom.

Technology & Learning

Learning through Technology

At Northstar we consider technology to be a powerful tool that can be used to support student learning. But we recognize that technology is not a pedagogy in itself, and that if not used with due care, it can distract learners rather than help them. At Northstar we always think about the learning goals first and how technology may or may not support these second. This way we make sure only to use technology when it makes sense as a way to enhance student learning.

See Blended Learning for more on how we use technology to learn at Northstar

Learning about Technology and Media

At Northstar we recognize the need to equip our students with the skills to participate and thrive in the context of increasingly digitized and technology-driven societies. This means helping them gain fluency in the use of multiple digital devices and applications, but it also means helping students beware of online security and safety as well as how to ensure the reliability of online information.

We also help students question and reflect upon the impact that technology is having on their world, especially as different media has become an ever-present part of our daily lives. Students learn to critically assess the underlying motives of the media and advertisement messages all around them, to help them resist the power of media and marketing to manipulate opinions, create unhealthy body images and tempt unsustainable consumption among many other things. Since one of the most powerful ways of learning about technology and media is by making and creating technology and media (link experiential learning), Northstar offers a broad range of subjects such as computer programming, video, graphic design and photography that allow students to do just that.

What is it?

Blended learning refers to a classroom where students learn from face-to-face instruction and peer interactions as well as from digital content on a computer or tablet. In order words, blended learning is a mix of “offline” and “online” learning. Blended learning can take many forms, but usually it involves student rotations between different modes of learning such as lectures, group work, and individual digital learning.

Why is it important?

Blended learning opens up opportunities for differentiated learning – that is, for learning that is personalized to the needs of each student. Students learn differently, and digital learning can provide students with different means of learning the same thing such as video, text, and audio. This enables students to explore how they learn best and select the appropriate format. Students also learn at different speeds, and digital learning allows the individual student to learn at his or her own pace. This way no students will be held back by others who take longer to understand something, and no students will struggle to keep up or feel “dumb” if they need to have things repeated. On the computer, those students can simply go over the material again, or select a different video or text that explains the concepts from a different angle. Blended learning is thus a great way for students to practice self-directed learning. Finally, the digitization of society makes it relevant for students to learn how to use computers and how to search for knowledge on the internet.

How will we use it?

At Northstar, students will have access to all the latest technology, but it is important that technology is used in the right way – to support learning and not to distract from learning. Technology is a tool, not a pedagogy, and at Northstar technology and blended learning will be used when it makes sense for student learning. We are currently studying successful implementations of blended learning and designing a curriculum for our educators to learn about the approach. Our educators will then be in charge of designing the online curriculum for our students and to decide how or if they want to use blended learning in their classes.