Knowledge is a Consequence of Experience

by: Mary Parr-Sánchez and Rachel Padilla

In 1920, Swiss Psychologist Jean Piaget began developing a theory describing the stages that children pass through in the development of knowledge and formal thought process. As he put it, “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Before Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, children were often thought of as little adults. In contrast, Piaget suggested that the way children think is fundamentally different from the way that adults think, acting much like little scientists as they perform experiments, make observations, and learn about the world. His theory contributed greatly to our understanding of how children learn, develop, and grow. He is also credited as a pioneer of the constructivist theory, which suggests that people actively construct their knowledge of the world based on the interactions between their ideas and their experiences.  As an educator and a lifelong student of education, Piaget’s work greatly impacted me. 

Through my own research and experiences as a veteran middle school teacher and mother of four children, I have found that it can be difficult to put into practice what Piaget theorized about many years ago.  I have seen many students come into my classroom without a wide range of experiences from which to draw accurate conclusions. Oftentimes these students act against their own interests, landing them in difficult situations. This was not something I truly understood as a rookie teacher.  Students in middle school can look like fully formed adults, and at first I looked at my students through my own lens and with my range of life experiences, unable to understand why they acted the way they did. 


By studying my students over a period of many years and reflecting on what I learned about them, I began to see the importance of expanding my students’ range of experiences by blending “traditional” learning with experience, helping students take an active role in the development of their own knowledge. For me, streamlined, coordinated academic learning (thematic learning, which I could write extensively about) combined with broadening a child’s experience is how students can learn to their fullest capability. This approach to learning, which is child-friendly and developmentally appropriate, has gone by many names: experiential learning, service learning, and, most recently, project-based learning.


Project-based learning is most effective when coupled with project-based assessments, liberating students from the damaging effects of high-stakes standardized assessment. Standardized assessments require that students “read between the lines” for information and clues that are not specifically spelled out; oftentimes doing more to measure a student’s test-taking prowess than their knowledge or understanding of a subject. In contrast, project-based assessments like Capstone projects (see my previous blog posts for more detailed information on what Capstone looks like) measure multifaceted skills like collaboration, communication, creativity, and motivation that can’t be measured any other way. 


So, what does implementing project-based assessment look like for educators? Well, developing and using Capstone project-based assessments requires a different approach to learning than most educators are used to or are encouraged to pursue by their school and district leadership. In order for educators to develop and implement effective Capstone assessments in their classrooms, they must be trained and given access to a community of practice where ideas can be exchanged and traded. Educators need time to develop clear guidelines and rubrics for project-based assessments and, in the same way, students need space to be creative with their projects while educators need space to design their assessments in accordance with their subject area and their knowledge of their class. When developing a Capstone project, educators must consider not only how to assess student knowledge of a given topic, but also how to measure 21st Century skills like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students must be shown from the beginning of the project or learning experience what will be expected of them and educators must be given the planning time to assess student progress and provide them with ongoing, meaningful feedback.


Educators know that this type of teaching, learning and assessment can be a more powerful way to structure our work with students. We also know that limited budgets, rules/laws mandating standardized testing and teaching to the test, however, can thwart student and educator creativity and stand in the way.  This is why we need a strong union of educators; to elevate what our knowledge and expertise teach us about education and to have the power to advocate for that vision. 

While implementing Capstone assessment might seem like a daunting undertaking, when executed properly–with sufficient training, resources, and time for educators and with clear expectations, meaningful feedback, and continuous support for students–everyone stands to benefit. Educators will benefit greatly from improved opportunities to learn from the experiences and talents of their students, who will demonstrate skills and abilities they might not otherwise witness. Students will benefit from the opportunity to do what their minds do best: develop knowledge from experience. Capstone projects and project-based assessment tap into the best part of teaching and learning. There is no greater feeling in the world than to see a student and family come into the school and celebrate with educators the learning that is uniquely created and presented by students themselves.