Applied Learning

by Eric Jacobson

“Why do I have to learn this?”

Perhaps the most common question ever asked in school by children, it deserves a better answer than “because it is on the test.” The heavy reliance on testing for feedback about human progress has skewed our perceptions about what really matters in education over the long term. Short-sighted test drilling does not address the deeper developmental needs of childhood. With so much invested in this memorize-test-forget approach to learning, it is little wonder that schools have no energy left for the real work of building a lifetime’s foundation of good values and positive attitudes!

The increased disconnect between learning and the real world has had serious repercussions. Some of these are increased stress levels, lowered sense of purpose, self-esteem under constant attack, more cutthroat competition, rampant cheating, a lack of practical skills, weak problem solving, and talents not being tested getting ignored. Noticing all this, some parents have started a counter-movement by withdrawing their children from testing altogether. This desperate step does little to change a child’s life however, as they continue to spend the whole school year preparing for something in which they don’t participate. It is just another form of disconnect.

Neohumanism addresses this issue from the get-go. Applied learning being at the core of Neohumanist method and purpose, NH schools are well-positioned to attract families who are waking up to the realities of a non-motivating education. “Why do I have to learn this?” is answered every day in a school that practices applied learning. Therefore students are more motivated. Therefore their capacity and output are greater. Therefore their self-esteem is higher. Therefore they want greater challenges. Applied learning creates a virtuous cycle.

All children have great curiosity before entering the school system. Schools do a good job of killing it, or squashing it until it finds expression elsewhere. In a system that doesn’t value and cultivate curiosity, the child will naturally start feeling forced and begin questioning the why of it all. In my childhood, I can still remember the answers: “Because you need to get a good grade, so that you can get into a good college someday, so that you can get a good job someday, so that you make a lot of money and be successful.” This assumes of course that making money matters to a seven year old. This line of reasoning left me in a panic, forming a much bigger question in my mind, “Is that all there is to life?”

If schools were to cultivate curiosity, what question would children ask? Perhaps they would say, “Why can’t I learn about this yet?” Unlike the first question, this question implies a positive attitude towards learning.

One way to accomplish this is by connecting learning to the real world through a constant, rigorous routine of applying newly learned skills in the environment. Assessment is also critical in this process. If students and teachers are evaluated on the basis of these applied exercises, you have provided a built-in incentive for finding new and more exciting ways to apply skills as they are acquired.

As with the other “Gems of Neohumanism,” the gem of Applied Learning is easily within the public’s grasp of understanding. I propose, as with the other gems, that a successful school could be started with just this one principle at its base. P.R. Sarkar, the author of Neohumanism, said, “Educated are those who have learned much, remembered much and made use of their learning in practical life.” But how can we insure that children will remember and put learning to use? Methodology plays a major role in this undertaking, as does alternative assessment. Crammed in under fear and pressure, traditional learning evaporates as quickly as the agents of fear and pressure are removed. On the job learning is what really sticks. Why? Because it is experiential, and we need to actually use it. Our preferred method should then be experiential learning that has actually had a need to be used. It is that simple.

Here are some examples of experiential based learning with an applied component:


  • A celebration is held for the 100th day of school and students bring in cans of food for a soup kitchen. The cans become part of a math activity of grouping by tens.
  • We learn about sorting, mailing, weighing, and maps as we collect and distribute supplies for hurricane relief.
  • Reading, measuring, hygiene, and following directions are taught through preparing special recipes used for feeding hungry people in the local community.


  • Invention Convention: Over an eight week period students take apart and learn about how things are constructed, create their own idea, apply for a patent, diagram their trial and error, produce, and share an invention. Best ideas can be shared to local businesses, government officials, or via YouTube.
  • Quilt: Students collectively make a quilt for someone in need. The quilt tells a story. Math skills are incorporated.
  • Tibetan Sand Mandala: Small groups link their works together in a day of sand painting that illustrates their deeper self and dreams for the world. Outcomes can be shared via writing to the local newspaper.
  • Environment: Students take on a challenge to save a local endangered species. Habitats are created or protected. The community is educated.
  • Letter Writing: Students write letters to practice new skills. There are many possibilities: a letter to Grandma, a letter to a child in a another country (practices foreign language acquisition), a letter to a lonely elder, or for younger children—labeling their environment or making informational or safety signs.


  • Students conduct a realistic simulation of government as they elect a president, create laws, decide on human rights, choose a court, decide cases, and campaign for causes.
  • Students act out famous stories that changed the world like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” rather than read about the stories.
  • Students write and perform skits to demonstrate knowledge in various subjects. Skits can then be performed for teaching younger children or elders.
  • Students become characters and personalities from history. These characters then interact and use their actual words to demonstrate their personalities and points of view.

The Arts:

  • Students learn comparative writing by analyzing famous paintings, their similarities and differences. Can be combined with a real world trip to a museum.
  • Students study a time period through the music of the times only. They try to draw inferences from what they hear about the nature of the times and how people thought.
  • Students create artistic posters on various science topics to be hung in their rooms as a reference: clouds, classification of all things, layers of the atmosphere, simple machines, water cycle, photosynthesis, parts of a flower.
  • Students learn symmetry with painting and folded paper. Finished product can become a birthday or holiday gift.

Visits and Visitors:

  • During the Afghan War after 9/11, we brought in an Afghan refugee and a Muslim Imam. The question and discussion period was filmed by the BBC.
  • Students went on a field trip to learn golf, but what they really got was an advanced lesson in focusing and following directions that they will never forget.
  • An AMURT worker comes to the school and gives a presentation about the relief work the organization does around the world. Children brainstorm how they can help.
  • Students interview an elderly person in their family. The best interviews are invited to the school to share their life experiences.

Literature Extensions:

  • “Hats, Caps, Socks, and Mittens” We collected hats, caps, socks and mittens for homeless families as a reading extension to the book.
  • “The Rainbow Crow” A Native American story of self-sacrifice, our students explored the meaning of sacrifice in their lives. This culminated in a grant and newspaper coverage of a project to spend time with elderly patients in a local nursing home.
  • “The Cat Who Went to Heaven” Students write animal stories inspired by the book, and mimicking the style of the author. The best stories are sent off to a Buddhist magazine and we had one published on the cover.
  • “The Giving Tree” Students plant and care for a tree as a special project.
  • “A Wrinkle in Time” Children imagine they could come back as an adult to visit themselves as children. They think about what advice they might give themselves. After this, they explore the concept that this is what parents try to do. They then do a project of understanding and appreciation for the role the parents are playing in their lives. Respect and love are cultivated.