Experiential Learning: What value do you see in experiential learning? Do you have any advice for a colleague who might be skeptical about such innovations?
I don’t really understand what other kind of learning there is. That probably comes from years of digesting John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and the like, but it also rings true with my own life experience. Every year, I begin my Leadership class by asking students to briefly describe a powerful learning experience from their past. I’ve received any number of responses, from personal outdoor trips, to extra-curricular activities and sports teams, travel, playing with friends in the backyard, practicums and clinicals, etc.
In 10+ years of asking that question, I’ve never had a student mention a classroom experience. Like Dewey, I believe that interest is a prerequisite to deep learning. The best way to generate interest is to provide information in context. The best context is a real-world problem in need of a solution. What better way to prepare students for unknown problems than to teach them how to think on their own, how to fail and try again, from the relative safety of a college class?
Every time I design a new project, I worry about how to grade it, what will happen if it doesn’t turn out perfectly, what happens if the students push back or just don’t put in any effort. Then I remember the alternative. I’ve graded a lot of bad term papers over the years, and I accept my portion of responsibility for not being a better teacher. I’ve also put in some extra time fixing experiential projects that didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. If I had to choose between the two, I’d take the real-world project every time. Yes, it takes a little more effort to set up, but the students walk away with an understanding of the learning process and how to address problems in context, and the community partner gains a relationship, some decent curriculum ideas, and a ropes course that’ll last for 20 years.
A few words of advice:
- Always under-promise and over-deliver to the community partners.
- Use whatever unique expertise you’ve gained over the years to design the projects.
- Always have a “dry-run” in class if the project is to be delivered in person by the students.
- Building in-project revisions, and allowing improvements to the grade, facilitates learning and resilience through genuine feedback.
- It gets easier with every project.