In the days of college admission scandals, untenable student debt and growing acceptance of alternative education paths, the concept of experiential learning comes into focus. And as students continue searching for meaning and value in their education, companies such as the Greer Meister Group, a private educational consulting and tutoring practice, offer a unique approach to learning that fits the needs of today’s varied and highly flexible academic climate.
Here, Caitlin Meister, founder and director of the Greer Meister Group, discusses experiential learning and career growth with WWD.
WWD: What are some of the tools employed by the Greer Meister Group that distinguish it from other learning institutions/methods? Why is performance such an important component to the Greer Meister Group’s tutoring?
Caitlin Meister: I started the Greer Meister Group as a private tutoring practice because I saw a need in the industry for tutoring that focuses on academic independence and perseverance. Later, I added the educational consulting division of my practice because I found that parents kept asking me, “Is such-and-such a good school? I hear it’s a good school.” I would always respond, “Good according to what metric? Is that a metric that your family values?” Suddenly, their eyes would widen. Conversations around schooling were starting in the wrong place, and I quickly realized that I could meaningfully help families determine what their family’s values were and make educational choices that matched. Now, tutoring is one component of a family’s overall education plan for their child or children — just as choice of school, extracurriculars, volunteering in the community, travel and other choices are part of the overall plan.
My goal has always been to give students the tools that they need to achieve their goals, and I believe that tutoring should teach content and strategies that students can replicate to be successful independently — not only with a tutor by their side. I always say that if we’ve done our job well, we’ve put ourselves out of a job!
Our tutors have interests and passions that go beyond just one discipline, which helps students free themselves from the limitation of thinking that someone has to be only a “math person” or only “an artist” to the exclusion of other fields.
One of the math and science tutors in our practice has degree is in chemistry and is also a world-renowned professional modern dancer. If a student doesn’t understand the movement of molecules on the textbook page, that tutor will literally get up and demonstrate through dance. Another tutor in our practice is working to amplify the voices and promote the work of immigrant artists who have “aliens of extraordinary abilities” visas. Because of his work as an artist and gallerist, which he does in addition to his phenomenal work as a tutor, think of what he is able to offer our students who are exploring marginalized narratives in their academic work.
We all know that kids learn best when they’re having fun. Anyone who tells you that tutoring has to look one certain way is stuck inside a comfort zone that serves the adult first rather than serving the child first.
WWD: How have your own educational experiences influenced your teaching style?
C.M.: My own educational experiences strongly influenced the work that I do. I went to the Little Red School House — a very small, progressive, private school — for 10 years, and then I went to Stuyvesant High School, which is a large, specialized, public high school. I went from 20 kids in a grade where everyone was on a first-name basis and had known me since I was four years old to more than 700 kids in a grade where the first thing they did was assign me a number. That transition was very challenging for me, and while I succeeded in navigating it, the experience motivated me to start a private tutoring practice so that I could help children navigate changes in academic environment and expectations, all while fostering their self-confidence, independence, and perseverance in the process.
Now that I am a mom, navigating my own children’s education has also strongly influenced the work that I do. I was good at my work before I had kids, but I’m better at it now – there’s no question. When I became a mom, I discovered a completely different understanding of the intensity of emotion that parents feel surrounding their own kids. Before becoming a mom, I understood my clients’ needs on an intellectual level; I understand them on an emotional level now that I have children of my own. It guides our work. I work with people’s children, they invite us into their homes, and that is an honor and deserves the highest ethical standards and level of compassion.
WWD: Would you say that primary and secondary education have evolved in recent years?
C.M.: Education in this country is evolving, as it should be. If we claim to want something different, such as a cure for cancer or the end of climate change, we have to question why we would funnel our children into the same system and hope for a different result. Much of our current educational system was designed for a world we don’t live in anymore. Large organizations, such as a department of education, are slow-moving by nature. Smaller, independent schools can be more agile. Independent educators can be the most agile of all.
How many schools still work on the model that emphasizes taking instruction, regurgitation and repetition? The teacher demonstrates a method, the students dutifully copy it down in their notebooks, and then they repeat the process five, 10, 30 times on the corresponding problem set. At the culmination of this process, they reproduce the material on an exam to demonstrate mastery. That may have worked when America needed workers for factories and manufacturing, but what we need now are advocates, agents of change, entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, people who make inferences and connections, and children who understand that they don’t have to succumb to the limitations of labels.
WWD: Can you share any marked differences between the Gen Z set and Millennials, and how they learn?
C.M.: The beauty of tutoring is that we don’t have to generalize based on a label like “Gen Z” or “Millennial”; we approach each child as an individual with his or her own strengths and challenges. We hold space for each child as an individual by meeting them where they are and offering them tools to accomplish the goals that they set for themselves. I think that the moment we make an assumption about any one child based on a label, we’ve narrowed the possibilities of what we can help that child accomplish.
WWD: Are there any specific methods implemented to help students begin a career path? If so, could you provide specific examples?
C.M.: Tutoring — when done right — fosters academic independence and perseverance, which extends beyond school and into professional life. In that way, the skills that we teach our students go far beyond the content that they need to do well in a certain class; we teach skills that will help them succeed in their professional endeavors, too. Not only do we prioritize independence and perseverance in all of the work that we do, but one of our core beliefs is helping our students free themselves from labels that limit their perception of themselves and what interests they can pursue in the future. By working with tutors who are artists, activists, authors and learning specialists, our students learn much more than the content on the page — they learn to free themselves from the limitation of thinking that someone has to be only a “science person” or only “an athlete” to the exclusion of other fields. They learn that they can’t dismiss being a good writer because they plan to be a scientist; they can’t dismiss the need for strong logical reasoning just because they don’t plan to be a mathematician when they grow up.
WWD: Why is experiential learning so effective? What kind of results have you achieved?
C.M.: Experiential learning is immersive, and it fosters awareness and reflection. The image of children as passive recipients of information meted out by adults is antiquated, and it does a disservice to educators and learners! Experiential learning gives us the opportunity to engage our children in immersive learning experiences that encourage them to explore and develop their own understanding and opinions about the areas that they study. We raise thinkers — children who can analyze and make inferences — and we set them up to forge connections that others may not have made before. We’re more likely to grow up to be advocates for something with which we feel personally connected.
I once had a discussion with a school principal about experiential learning in the study of people indigenous to North America. She said, “You want to know the one day each year when we don’t see a single issue with focus in the classroom? The day the kids learn how to make fire.”
Could young designers become legendary designers if they didn’t touch the fabrics, didn’t drape them on forms and bodies, didn’t experience as they learn? I think about the tuxedo gown that Christian Siriano designed for Billy Porter for the Oscars. If Siriano had only read in a textbook about what other designers before him had done, would he have built a piece that was both masculine and feminine, that fit Porter’s body and presence so perfectly, that was not only a stunning work of art but also contributed to the cultural conversation surrounding identity and inclusivity?
If we ask young people to sit at desks and memorize a textbook, we are teaching them to do little more than a machine could do; we are not teaching them how to learn, we are not fostering independence, and we are not teaching them to question, probe, listen actively, and uncover new information or ideas. Learners who can touch, taste, hear, smell, and see the reality of what they study are more engaged and make a more meaningful connection with the material.
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