Refocusing Experiential Learning for Greater Equity and Impact

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photo by Doug Levere

Well-designed experiential learning offerings support deep and transformative outcomes. While this is true, it is potentially misleading- suggesting that the primary (or only) flow of learning moves from the experience- designed and delivered by educators and institutions/organizations- to the student. In reality, the student plays a more powerful role, one that is certainly not passive or secondary in nature. Even the best-designed experiences require students to activate their potential, bringing a sense of openness, curiosity and knowledge along with other skills and dispositions that affect short and long-term impacts. While the best programs and implementers work to foster these critical student attributes, they often rely on the selection of students to ensure ideal fit and the ultimate success and sustainability of programs.

However, if we were to shift our focus from program design and implementation to preparing students to embrace and leverage experiences in their most diverse and varied forms, we would reach a startling realization. If students were truly empowered with the mindsets, tools, and processes to transform (their) experiences into the greatest impacts, then power would shift away from the institutions and structures that have traditionally controlled the opportunity landscape. It is not that schools or teachers would become unnecessary or unimportant, but instead, that their influence would be tied to their ability to support and integrate student experiences (both in and out of school) with academic learning and development.

This shift in power- from institution to individual students and groups of students- would be even more profound if we were to sharpen our focus on the types of experiences deemed valuable. If we take our lead from the Global Challenges, 21st Century Learning/ Professional Skills, and other efforts to identify critical areas for growth, leadership and innovation, we would begin to prioritize those most closely aligned. And if we were to acknowledge the value of Design Thinking and Innovation, we would observe that those who are the closest to the most pressing problems are the best positioned to lead their respective solutions. Accordingly, we would begin to value authenticity of experiences and prioritize the students who are most compelled and inspired with the necessary credibility and “social capital” to dig in. If we were to empower students who met these new definitions of “readiness” to transform their experiences into innovation and problems solving, imagine what they could accomplish and how communities could benefit from their growth.

I want to make this point clear, because I think it is quite profound – not in terms of my own insight, but instead the associated implications. If experiential learning truly represents a gateway to deep student impacts and opportunities for academic and professional success, and we allow institutions of education to be the only way to access recognized experiences, then we are missing the point, and promise of this paradigm.

Experiences, by definition, are highly personal and contextualized. We do not own them, should not control them, but we can and must support them.

Some may find this assertion/realization troubling in that it challenges the status quo in ways that may (will/should) threaten our existing structures and systems. It is true that in order to remain relevant and viable, institutions of higher education and schools will strive to offer more high-impact learning experiences for students. And those who have access will hopefully continue to embrace them. However, once we acknowledge that this is not the only pathway, we must begin the work of clarifying and developing the tools and resources that will help students (wherever they are) transform their own experiences into high-impact practices. It is through this simultaneously top/middle-down and bottom-up approach that we can begin to realize the true potential of high-impact experiential learning and the exciting expansion and innovation that it will catalyze.

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About mbhuber2013

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning and Director of Experiential Learning Network at the University at Buffalo

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