A Bridge to Belize – Experiential Learning

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Tricia Sindel-Arrington, Ph.D.

A Bridge to Belize – Almost as Good as a Magic School Bus
John Dewey has been noted as saying, “There is a need of forming a theory of experience in order that education may be intelligently conducted upon the basis of experience.” Recent efforts to improve higher education have focused on improving the learning process in education through the application of research. One focus of the current research is the concept of experiential learning. Experiential learning is often misunderstood as a set of tools and techniques to provide learners with experiences from which they can learn. Others have used the term to describe learning as a mindless recording of experience. Yet experiential learning is above all a philosophy of education based upon what Dewey called a “theory of experience,” (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). He argued that while traditional education had little need for theory since practice was determined by tradition, the new experiential approach to education needed a sound theory of experience to guide its conduct. Experiential learning draws on the work of 20th century scholars, such as, Dewey, Lewin, Jung, Piaget, James, Rogers, etc., who gave experience a central role in their theories of human learning and development.
According to Kolb and Kolb (2005), the theory is built upon six propositions: 1. Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes; 2. All learning is relearning; 3. Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world; 4. Learning is a holistically process of adaptation to the world; 5. Learning results from synergetic transactions between the person and the environment; 6. Learning is the process of creating knowledge. Therefore, experiential learning theory defines learning as the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Kolb and Kolb (2005) noted that knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience. This process of learning can be portrayed through an idealized learning cycle where learners experience, reflect, think and act in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned.
The enhancement of learning in higher education can be achieved through the creation of learning spaces that promote growth-producing experiences for learners. According to Dewey, the central problem of an education based on experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences. To learn experientially, learners must first own and value their own experience (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). Therefore, the effective teacher builds on the exploration of what students already know and believe. Beginning with these or related concrete experiences allows the learner to re-examine and modify their previous sense making in light of the new ideas.
To learn also requires facing and embracing differences. These differences can be challenging and threatening, requiring a learning space that encourages the expression of differences and the safety to support the learner in facing these new challenges. People grow best where they experience a blend of challenge and support.
One interesting view of experiential learning is what Wassermann (1992) calls “serious play.” She describes serious play as creative and inventive activities that promote autonomy and a spirit of adventure, and that achieve mental engagement through active involvement with the physical world. Serious play is built on experience, and is inextricably linked to it. Wassermann believes that learners of all ages create meaning through serious play (Harkins, 2000). The goal of education is to prepare students for the future. A curriculum that places its greatest emphasis on abstract paper and pencil tasks will not provide them an adequate preparation. What students need is to develop work-readiness skills through the integration of knowledge acquisition and its practical application, a process that should start in the early grades. An education that will effectively prepare young people for future careers is one that connects the world of childhood play and the adult workplace within the context of experiential learning. Experiential tasks build higher-order thought patterns by providing data for knowledge assimilation and the accommodation of cognitive structures.
The Bridge to Belize study abroad program embodies the essential elements necessary for students to have a rich learning experience. The program is a perfect example of experiential learning. Commonly, most college classes task students to work in isolation, often completing assignments that have little relation to their daily lives and pursuing academic disciplines that are ends unto themselves. Most professors only ask their students to regurgitate information from an expensive text instead of making their course alive and rich with experience opportunities. In the Bridge to Belize, novels and academic articles were used as a springboard for learning. Students were asked not only to understand and dissect the reading, but to analyze, reflect, and discuss with teams of classmates. Safe, conversational spaces were created throughout the course where students could benefit enormously. Students were more engaged, became far better prepared, and learned significantly more because they shared not only their ideas, but also listened and connected with others throughout multiple spaces created for reflection. Students were asked to engage through Facebook, Skype, bus rides, and outdoor meeting spaces as a means of conversational safe places where each person had an opportunity to share and feel validated.
Important terms and key concepts were learned through reading, discussion, experiences, observations, and travel. In a traditional class, students read a boring text filled with vocabulary (pertinent concepts and terms necessary to learn the curriculum). Usually, they are then tasked with memorizing the terms in order to answer multiple choice test questions. Unfortunately, a week later, the students will have most likely forgotten the terms entirely because no meaning was ever made with the terms. The students were learning in isolation without the means of experiencing the concepts. They did not have the opportunity to connect the class concepts with real life or to make connections with other subjects or experiences. Dr. James Gee notes that students must first “play the game,” then they can make sense of the vocabulary or concepts associated with the textbook (2007). In order for the students in the Bridge to Belize course to make meaning they had to “play the game.” The group traveled to Belize whereupon they were immersed in the culture and landscape. Activities which showcased the different ecosystems, culture, and history of the country further helped students to experience everything they had read and discussed before leaving for Belize. Afterwards, not only did the students have a thorough understanding of the concepts, but they were able to apply the ideas to their own lives. Learners were able to transfer the interpreted experiences and explanations of other people, including both peers and experts in the field. This social interaction, as well as, mentoring from more advanced learners was important. The debriefing further continued their meaning making. Students were constantly challenged to think and rethink their previous and new beliefs.
Team building was acutely important for students to make meaning of their learning while experiencing Belize. The course required students to work in teams, whereupon they were necessitated to apply their newfound knowledge in learning tasks, which either required students to teach the entire class or to conduct an actual evaluation of the conservation and sustainability of their lodging. These types of student learning teams have proven to be highly effectively. For example, in a study of student learning at Harvard, Richard Light (2001) found specifically that students, who work outside of class in small groups of four to six, even just once a week, benefit enormously. When meetings are organized around discussions of the curriculum, as a result those students are far more engaged, far better prepared, and learn significantly more (Kayes, Kayes, & Kolb, 2005).
The Bridge to Belize course serves as a real-life model of a successful experiential learning course. Not only did it encompass the required elements needed to create a positive learning experience for students, but it further validates that educators need to rethink their lecture formatted courses where a textbook serves as the hallmark of the class. If the goal of a college education is to create well-rounded, open minded critical thinkers who are prepared to work with teams in the workplace, then more experiential learning courses should be constructed.

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