Learn While Doing

Were he around today, Shakespeare might describe the relationship between independent schools and liberal arts colleges as a “marriage of true minds.” Both institutions teach, cultivate, and empower students for lives of meaning. We both adopt what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls the “growth mindset” in our approach to students. We both emphasize intellectual rigor, faculty mentoring, creativity and higher-order thinking, holistic development, community, diversity, and the individuality of each student.

These shared values may explain why liberal arts colleges like Franklin & Marshall College so actively recruit students from independent schools. We see in your values, curricula, and school cultures extraordinary preparation for the exponential growth we seek to catalyze in college. 

It’s not surprising, then, that independent schools and liberal arts colleges are leaders in designing innovative seminars that allow students to “learn while doing” in labs and libraries, in community settings and cultural institutions. This approach gives students the chance to blend traditional academic work with instructor-designed, out-of-class learning, each informing the other.

I would note that I’m not talking about the also valuable practice of “learning by doing,” which we foster in student-led extracurricular activities, volunteer work, paid employment, peer mentoring, and athletics. “Learning while doing” requires teachers, syllabi, graded work, and, above all, academic intensity. It asks a great deal from students and faculty, and the intellectual payoffs can be enormous.

At Franklin & Marshall College, in recent years, our faculty have developed a number of exciting classes premised on these ideas. For example:

• Associate Professor of Art History Linda Aleci developed a two-semester seminar in which students learned about the art and lives of the artists William and Marguerite Zorach while also being taught how to curate an exhibit of the artists’ works. Their assignments included developing the themes for the exhibit, interacting with the owners of the art, writing the catalog, ensuring safe delivery and storage of the artwork, and creating and explaining the final exhibit in our on-campus Phillips Museum. 

• With Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Science Education funding, Associate Professor of Biology Robert Jinks teaches seminars in which students learn about neuroscience and genetics while helping identify genetic mutations that cause serious illnesses among Amish and Mennonite children. Also through an HHMI partnership, some students and faculty help with treatment strategies or utilize public health techniques to educate families about the benefits of early genetic screening. 

• Professor of Government Susan Dicklitch offers a seminar in which students study human rights while helping political-asylum seekers petition for safe-haven relief. Working with an immigration attorney, the students help compile the country conditions evidentiary packets that are part of asylum claims. In the past 10 years, students from this class have helped 25 women and men from 12 countries win political asylum in the United States.

Such courses reflect the commitment of liberal arts colleges to engage students deeply. Our tradition is that of providing robust classroom environments and individualized pathways for students to learn about fields and questions that interest them most. With these new courses, we’re definitely not talking about giving credit for community service or odd jobs; we’re talking about fusing intellectual and hands-on work in the minds of our talented students. 

We know that many independent schools are experimenting with such courses as well. As our schools and colleges continue to develop this approach, several considerations should inform our work. 

First, as we create such courses, we need to redouble our emphasis on academic rigor, critical thought, foundational knowledge, and core intellectual skills. Those qualities will matter more, not less, to our students’ long-term empowerment, whatever they seek to do. They should be expected to develop demonstrable intellectual skills, or obtain measurable knowledge, or understand and express complex concepts, or be able to perform specific calculations. After all, it’s learning while doing — the doing enhances and serves learning that couldn’t be created any other way. 

Second, we should structure these courses to help foster in students the habit of reflective engagement. The classes should create intellectual restlessness, helping students see how much better they might perform certain tasks with more study and knowledge. And they should create intellectual curiosity about issues related to the work. For example, in a seminar that allows students to teach immigrant children to write poetry, the curriculum might productively address larger questions such as contemporary education reform, noncognitive learning, the phenomenon of “othering,” and the debates about bilingual education.

Third, because the students’ work in such classes inevitably affects other people, we must place in the foreground questions of ethics. Take, for example, a Franklin & Marshall film class taught by Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies Jeremy Moss in which students create documentaries with and about Somali, Burmese, and Bhutanese immigrants in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The families taking part in the films all have human dignity and individual rights, and Moss’s course revolves around key ethical questions and considerations. Are we engaging an audience or a community properly? Have we thought carefully about the goals and outcomes of our work? Do the vulnerable people we hope to help require protections, even with our good intentions? Learning to frame and ask such questions shapes the way our students think, work, and engage with the world for the rest of their lives. 

Finally, such seminars foster introspection and self-knowledge in our students. Learning while doing invests students collectively in the joyful work of pursuing a goal or trying something new. It exposes them to people and experiences that challenge principles about how the world is ordered. It allows them to see in practical terms that problems can get solved or change can be made. And by allowing students to write briefs, counsel clients, organize exhibits, perform in public, or do research, we give students the affective experience of what it means to be a professional in a particular field. That level of engagement is truly formative. 

Independent schools have been pioneers and champions of learning while doing for decades, and have demonstrated that this approach can be woven through the curriculum from kindergarten through high school. During their early years in school, children are innately curious and intrepid explorers, and learning while doing is a key part of helping them begin to understand the world around them. Middle schoolers, who are tackling subjects of increasing depth and complexity, benefit immeasurably from opportunities to contextualize information and experiences. For example, some independent schools build on a traditional sixth-grade field trip to Washington, DC, by guiding their students through the process of establishing and sustaining an effective class government. The cumulative impact of these early classroom experiences only intensifies the benefits that high school and college students derive from taking this kind of work to the next level as their studies progress. 

As independent schools experiment with new courses to help students learn while doing, they can be sure that America’s liberal arts colleges will respect their efforts and provide comparable opportunities to their graduates. After all, we share a living philosophy of education, expressed memorably by Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.”
Daniel R. Porterfield

Daniel R. Porterfield is president of Franklin & Marshall College.