As our universities deepen investments in experiential learning, we need students who are ready and able to play

Increasingly, I see my University as a vast playground filled with experiences and offerings of vibrant shapes, texture and variety. Our playgrounds call us to create, to fill their spaces and open their walls, inviting in and reaching out as we become more experiential, global and integrative.

While our playground is indeed spectacular, I wish there were more students willing and able to play. Instead, many are too busy; consumed with multiple majors, accelerated programs and matters of importance. Others feel squeezed by competing jobs, responsibilities, and day-to-day obligations; and other students simply lack the curiosity or interest to explore.

I know that many of our students will eventually find their spark, but it often takes time. I am increasingly meeting students who wait until their senior year to explore internships or projects, often creating a “gap year” after graduation in order to gain experience and clarity before applying to graduate school or seeking employment. In the meantime, we all stand ready- developing new programs and opportunities, waiting to support students’ interests, passions, and sense of purpose as they become clearer; waiting to connect them with the world and the world with them. I just wish they would come more ready to play.

But how would they even know about our playground? With two college-aged children of my own, I am all too familiar with the seriousness of college preparation. Taking advanced courses, preparing for standardized tests, competing to get into the best colleges, there is virtually no talk of play or leveraging the bounty of experiences once they arrive on a campus.

When I explain to students all that we have created just for their benefit, they seem surprised and somewhat confused. The idea of finding their purpose through travel, research, internships or mentored projects, seems somehow foreign and perhaps in conflict with the prescribed nature of their formalized curriculum. How do we expect them to conform to expectations and competitive standards, while at the same time stretching and soaring, diving into complexity and embracing challenge and ambiguity?

I explain that achievement and mastery are undeniably important, but are not to be sought in isolation, or as drivers of learning. They are not powerful enough to sustain our interest or commitment over time and challenge. Instead, we must seek inspiration, a sense of curiosity, purpose, a drive to innovate, or a passion to lead- goals that are bold and personal, and will provide us courage and comfort when we need them most. These are the ideas that will inspire us to play.

Perhaps it is our responsibility to introduce learners of all ages to our new playgrounds much sooner, inviting them to engage and explore the benefits for themselves. Maybe we can (should) help the community build experiential learning playgrounds of their own. For if we truly believe that experiences can empower students to take their place in a rapidly changing world, then don’t we need to stretch beyond the constraints of traditional programs and curricula, awakening and leveraging our collective sense of purpose and play?

My Excitement for Digital Badges

Through my work at the University at Buffalo, we are embracing digital badges in an exciting and innovative way. We are using them to guide students through mentored projects- helping them prepare, engage, reflect and leverage their experiences in support of their academic and professional goals. (visit site)

As I present on our new Project Portal, both inside and outside the University, audiences seem to get the importance of what we are doing. But as soon as I begin talking about digital badges, the “back end” of our model, I find their attention waning or their cynicism kicking in. Those who have heard of digital badges and micro-credentials immediately dismiss them as the newest trend, or a shallow repackaging of traditional curricula, or even a desperate attempt at sustained relevance. Yet despite these responses, I find my own enthusiasm heightening, and an eagerness to defend their promise, to map out potential designs and demonstrate their latent potential.

What are digital badges? Badging involves isolating specific competencies, dispositions, or skills that are valuable/valued and providing opportunities for students to “earn” them, working toward a threshold of mastery/attainment.  The digital part of the name denotes their online format, and the issuance of a branded digital icon- or badge- once expectations are met. Students can display their badges on social media or their digital resume. And when a viewer clicks on a badge, they can review the evidence indicative of the achievement, usually a project or a tangible representation of that skill.

You can badge just about anything, including many important skills and competencies that remain elusive yet important. Professional development, capacity building, workforce readiness, character development, professionalism, integrity, mindfulness…. I could literally go on forever. Virtually anything that can be named, unpacked, and assessed, can be badged.

Even the process of growth can be badged, if we take the time to define and support it. This is exactly what we are doing with our new Project Portal. In an effort to help students get the most of their mentored projects, we are isolating various steps in the process of project-based collaboration, using our own PEARL framework to serve as a foundation (link to PEARL). In addition to helping the students get and give more to their projects, our digital badge sequence also allows us to assess their progress and share their products along the way. You see, from an assessment standpoint, being able to clarify what you mean and what you expect is critical to effectively assessing it. Without that clarity and definition, assessment is meaningless.

If you can use badges for almost anything, then why are they so exciting? Here are a few of my favorite features that make badging such a valuable design tool:

  1. By badging skills or dispositions, we can bring qualities that have been largely invisible or at least fuzzy into the light. Soft skills, social capital, workforce development, capacity building- these are all critical to growth and equity, but have remained difficult to formalize and access.
  2. Individual badges can be “stacked” or traded up for larger or higher level skills and competencies. Learners can begin with more basic understandings anwork toward more sophisticated applications. By stacking up badges toward “uber badges”, we can create ecosystems that are inherently generative and catalytic.
  3. Because badges are not tethered to credits and are presented through digital formats, we are not limited to traditional curricula or pedagogical design. We can leverage the flexibility and creativity of digital media, and allow students to demonstrate their learning and competencies through personalized platforms and projects.

From a design standpoint, digital badges provide a dynamic canvas for supporting growth, empowerment and innovation. They also allow us to release the restrictive constraints that have defined and limited formalized education. Whether within or outside traditional systems, we can empower learners to steward their own growth and development, earning badges that are inherently meaningful and valuable, while owning and demonstrating the associated evidence and impact. In a way, badges can flip the system, providing students with opportunities and structures to leverage the offerings and affordances that are all around them (us), building their own capacity toward more powerful constructs and competencies.

What I Know to be True

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I am back in Buffalo- having just returned from our 10-year anniversary trip to Mara Tanzania. And just like that, 10 years of my life and professional energies have been wrapped up in a bow; celebrated, honored and commemorated by my dear friends and partners who made me feel special and cherished beyond description.

And now I strain, eager to get my head around the many lessons and insights, allowing me to shift  into the next phase of my work, whatever it may be. Why the urgency- you might ask. Although our partnerships are in many ways impressive, I know that they are inherently precious, and perhaps still fragile. You see, our Tanzania project was never an institutional priority. I was never asked to develop or sustain it. In fact, over the years I have had to be tenacious, finding ways to keep it going, often under the radar, buying time until the landscape shifts and new opportunities emerge.

And even now, as the benefits are both obvious and resonant, I am still working to think ahead, identifying the next manifestation that will allow our investments to keep growing and multiplying. This work of continuously nurturing engagement is both taxing and frustrating, moving at its own pace and rhythm, always precarious, never secure. Perhaps in an effort to coax it along, or instead to simply grasp for those who understand the significance and struggle, I will share some resonant truths in whatever form they offer themselves.

Capacity building is real– both as a challenge and an opportunity, especially in developing regions like Mara. Literally everywhere we look there are assets and resources but if they cannot be harnessed and leveraged, their communities and people (especially women and children) will remain vulnerable. There are organizations and leaders ready and poised to have an impact. But without sufficient infrastructure, incentives, levers of change, they will remain alone and unable to activate their potential. Investments will not trickle down and lives will remain cruel. But if we can weave structures and networks around these assets and leaders, connecting them upward, inward and outward, we can leverage their individual resources toward greater impacts, eventually catalyzing growth and collaboration from within.

Grants and donors are not the answer– no one funding opportunity or single initiative will save our most vulnerable communities or populations. When I see new non-profits or small community organizations waiting and searching for the golden funder, or praying that it’s me, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I see the precious resources they expend trying to court the funder or win the grant- ready to pivot to whatever initiative or remediation is being endorsed. And when partial funding is offered, they eagerly accept, getting started right away, even when funding is insufficient to cover required costs. And then they are back in the weeds and the cycle continues.

Collaboration is key, but it requires strategic support. It’s amazing to see so many organizations and communities dealing with the same challenges and offering such similar programs. And yet they often fail to connect and certainly to collaborate. Instead they compete. Collaboration can be fostered and nurtured, but it needs to be facilitated by skilled mediators and designers. The best place to start (in my experience) is with new opportunities and themes that can add value to individual efforts while not competing, interfering or adding complexity. This can be achieved through identifying broader themes and commonalities that resonate with external trends and resources, and expanding and creating new opportunities rather than relying only on known resources.

Technology can be a game changer, but the “how” must be translated- everywhere we go there are computers and cell phones, and requests for more technology. But most of the computers are not working, and there is little understanding of how technology can be leveraged for individual and collective growth. We have had multiple requests for our students to design and manage websites and provide other critical support. But when we ask to work with individuals who have related job responsibilities and or skill sets we have had no success. Since technology and connectivity are featured in virtually every strategic plan for developing countries and regions, building capacity and expertise among key professionals and youth is absolutely critical.

Higher Education has a pivotal role to play– this is where it gets tough. Because I am part of this system, I cannot go too far. But I can say unequivocally that we can do much more. Our students want to get close. They want high-touch experiences. And our faculty have so much expertise and resources to offer. Our leaders must recognize that this work is not “extra” or outside our core mission. Instead it is the pathway to continued (or perhaps renewed) relevance- it is worthy of scholarship, research and innovation. It is inherently noble and important.

I hope that these insights are not construed as negativity or defeatism. On the contrary, I find myself more excited than ever to continue our relationships and our collective efforts to build capacity through collaboration and engagement. In fact, as I write this post, our students are formulating projects based on their own experiences with our partners in Mara. Their projects will be open to students from all backgrounds and majors who are eager to work on real-world issues and challenges, and to contribute their talents and resources in meaningful ways. What will come of these efforts and the foundation we have built over the past 10 years?  I have no idea- but am hopeful beyond words.

After 10 Years in Tanzania, What Next?

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photo by Doug Levere

In a few weeks I will be returning to Tanzania with my dear friend and co-instructor, Dan Nyaronga, and a new group of students from the University at Buffalo. As always, we will be visiting with our various partners, exploring community initiatives and the complexities of women’s empowerment in this challenged but magnificent part of the world.

While our itinerary will be similar to past trips, this one will be different. I will be celebrating my 10-year anniversary, and (hopefully) ushering in a new phase of engagement.

When I remember the very beginning, the first time we visited in 2009, I am reminded of this video produced by Kevin Crosby, and the model we initially set out to create. Even then, we dreamed of collaboration built on shared understanding and respect, and a commitment to adding value and building capacity, leveraging our vast UB resources, while building synergies with community-based organizations within the Mara Region and beyond. We hoped to seed interdisciplinary efforts, working across silos to develop innovative solutions to improve the lives of women and their families, while stretching our models for university engagement and outreach.

As I reflect on our accomplishments, there is much to celebrate. Over the years we have helped to support the emergence of community leaders, the creation of new initiatives, and the early stages of collaboration among partners. But how to go even further; to transcend the expectations and constraints of traditional support and partnerships; to elevate the notions of collaboration and capacity building both within the community and our own institution?

This time I will bring the promise of an exciting new initiative that we are busy building- so busy that I have yet to write about or introduce it. We are creating a digital portal that will invite students to engage in collaborative projects, mentored by UB faculty and/or select alum and partners around the world- including (and especially) Tanzania. We will construct profiles introducing our partners and their work, inviting students to browse through pictures, videos and reports, learning about challenges and complexities, towards engaging in projects that will add value while helping to clarify and support their academic and professional goals.

For our partners I dream of expansion and empowerment, building their internal capacity around strengths and resources, leveraging engagement with UB and other partners around shared and synergistic goals. For our students I wish them the fulfillment that comes with the knowledge that they are making a meaningful difference and the sense of agency and infinite possibilities ahead.

For me, the portal offers a path to access and equity, allowing students to engage at their own pace and at no additional cost. The idea that anyone can activate their talents and interests, clarifying their sense of purpose, and making a difference in ways that will extend well beyond their own professional success.

This July we will be harvesting projects for our new portal, laying the foundation for future students to engage through collaborative projects. This idea of project harvesting is both compelling and profound.  When we begin to see challenges and needs as invitations for projects and collaboration, opportunities will emerge all around us, and technology will be the transformative tool that allows us to build, catalyze and expand our impacts in ways that we cannot know.

As I return to Tanzania I cannot help wondering what lies ahead. And as I prepare to celebrate my 10 year anniversary, I can’t help feeling (hoping) that this is still the beginning.

 

Education, Beyond Fight or Flight

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When it comes to education, we have gotten ourselves firmly stuck. The lack of a clear and compelling vision coupled with an insatiable thirst for assessment and accountability have left us trapped with little room to move or breathe. Our schools and students are being squeezed by tightening expectations and external scrutiny, thrusting us into a collective tailspin of vulnerability and threat. Naturally, our instincts of fear and self-preservation are kicking in. But unlike in our evolutionary past, the options of flight or fight are no longer sufficient to save us. Instead, trapped within the complexities of our own inventions, we must transform our manufactured constraints into something inherently freer and more expansive.

The how is clear. We need visions and commitments that are more powerful and resonant with the broader world, and we need to put assessment and accountability back in their appropriate place- not as drivers or engines, but instead as tools to help us clarify and strengthen our ability to fulfill our (individual and collective) promise.

Based on my experiences in higher education, K-12 and the community sector, our core commitments are rarely sufficiently clear, compelling, or grounded in core capacities to be measurable, actionable or ultimately meaningful. They are either too vague, too specific, or too vacuous to drive change within the complex and dysfunctional landscapes which they claim to address. It is not surprising that related assessment plans, no matter how sophisticated or comprehensive, cannot measure or inform movement toward some vision or commitment that has not been sufficiently operationalized, internalized, or infused. And yet, assessment has become high-stakes in virtually every sense and sector. Assessment based on externally imposed standards, expectations, and metrics drive investments, public trust and reputation.

Without a clear and compelling vision, these externally imposed standards and expectations become everything. We adapt and optimize our systems and resources to produce outputs that mirror those expectations. And if permitted, we go so far as selecting applicants (or inputs) that are closest to the desired output, minimizing variance and optimizing resources while celebrating our success and superiority.

Yes, we are in need of a compelling collective vision, but we cannot wait. Individual schools can clarify the best versions of themselves, their strengths and gifts brought by their students, histories, communities, staff- virtually any qualities or virtues that are inherently authentic, meaningful and important. They can check these against the ambient world- the needs, the challenges, trends and opportunities. And as they toggle between the processes of looking within and outward, they can infer the essence of what they uniquely have to offer, what they can promise, what they should expect. If they can achieve clarity to the point of knowing and feeling and articulating what they are about, they will be able to see themselves fully actualized, and identify the gaps and needs along the way. Once they can commit, boldly and absolutely, they can create spaces and opportunities for their communities to move toward that vision while finding the sense of security and support necessary to actualize their potential.

To be clear, even in this ideally clarified and resonant state of identify, vision and mission, schools will need to meet external expectations, including metrics that are neither sufficiently clear nor meaningful. Leaders will have to ascertain what is necessary and non-negotiable and what can be relaxed or stretched or translated through more meaningful and textured metrics and stories.  But as the clarified and resonant vision and mission become internalized and permeate through the culture of our schools, those leaders and students and teachers can begin to stretch the spaces and expectations around them, feeling courageous bold and secure in the knowledge that they are successful in ways that are inherently meaningful and important.

It is only in this state of relaxation and movement that we can escape our threat responses, emerging from the traps and cages we have created, and finally enjoying the possibilities that will be catalyzed through our expansion.

 

 

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.

Flipping the Privilege Continuum through Project-Based Collaboration

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When I consider the promise of project-based collaboration, I get very excited. I have already seen its benefits for traditional college students. Challenged assumptions, deepened learning and clarified career goals, accompanied by fascinating cultural interactions and stories to share. It is not at all surprising that students are seeking more of these experiences- opportunities to get close to people, places and problems, to innovate and add value in meaningful and compelling ways. Figuring out how to offer such experiences at scale represents a fundamental challenge for Higher Education but also a pathway toward continued viability and relevance.

While I am completely convinced of the value of this new paradigm, and immersed in creating such a model at the University at Buffalo, I cannot help reflecting on its promise for those on the periphery of the privilege ecosystem. In the new frontier of innovation and design thinking, the most exciting projects are those associated with the most compelling needs, challenges and communities. These types of high-impact challenges allow students to develop critical skills and competencies while showcasing their work and abilities for multiple audiences. But at the very heart of this paradigm is the idea that those who are closest to challenges are best positioned to address them, possessing the necessary credibility, inside knowledge, and social capital to engineer nuanced solutions. When we look around our own communities, opportunities for innovation are literally everywhere, but especially within the neighborhoods and populations that are closest to the challenges, and farthest from the resources and structures that control them. Clearly, these are the most compelling challenges and represent exciting projects for students of all ages.

But once we recognize the value for our own students, aren’t we compelled to go even farther, to play out the innovation paradigm to its most powerful implications? If it is true that solutions should be “owned” by those closest to their associated problems and most poised to address them, then the youth should be our focus. More specifically, the youth who are stuck in the complex layers of inequities and obstacles associated with their poverty; perhaps not all youth- but certainly those who are motivated to lead positive change through building capacity. Because these youth are far from the levers of privilege, they would need considerable help and support to be able to initiate and steward collaborative innovation. But luckily, cities like Buffalo have an abundance of institutions, systems, leaders and networks poised to offer resources, facilitation and expertise. This is most certainly the case for Higher Education. And since the very future of our colleges and universities will rely heavily on our ability to provide meaningful collaborative experiences to our students- we should be more than eager to rise to the opportunity.

Through my global engagement work, I have already seen community development through this flipped lens. When we take students to rural Tanzania, we visit “social innovators”, who are our partners, working within the most challenged communities and regions, and with the most marginalized populations. Invariably, these community leaders are from the very same communities and contexts that they work to serve, possessing the commitment, relationships, and experiences that position them to make meaningful change. In fact, we have found that these are the best partners, really the only partners who can make a lasting impact within the most challenged communities. Of course, these innovators are in need of collaboration since they lack systems-level knowledge, access to models and research, and critical resources of many kinds. Because of these limitations, they often see grant funding and donations as the only pathway to development, viewing potential partners as benefactors and themselves as fundamentally deficient or lacking. However, in the new paradigm of project-based collaboration, these partners have so much to offer. Our students, looking for real-world projects and platforms for developing and showcasing their skill sets, rightly view our partners as community leaders, mentors, and above all collaborators. Through equitable engagement, they work on producing research, marketing materials, grant applications, and exploring viable models and techniques that can be tested and built upon. Our students also come to understand the benefits and resources that their own privilege affords, and how by working together, they can contribute to change while not attempting to impose assumptions or models on communities and cultures that are not theirs.

Clearly, the worlds of innovation, design thinking, and project-based learning are not going away. In fact, as we come to understand their benefits we will continue to deepen our investment while searching for models that are scalable and sustainable by design. This will force us (eventually) to see our most challenged communities and those who are poised to support and uplift them as leaders and innovators, who are worthy of our collective support and collaboration. We all stand to benefit from this new educational frontier, and there is simply no time to waste.

What is High-Impact Experiential Learning?

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Photo by Doug Levere, University at Buffalo

This past July I led a UB study abroad trip to the Mara region of Tanzania. By all measures the course was a success. All expectations and outcomes were met and the students arrived home safely with enough memories and photographs to last a lifetime. Officially, the class is done, but the impacts are just getting started.

As I struggle to communicate the meaning of high-impact experiential learning, I can only offer a glimpse into my world- a world of infinite possibilities and points of connectivity that often leaves me exhausted and exhilarated as I try frantically to keep up.

In the seven short weeks since we’ve returned, so much has happened- is happening. Every day I brace myself for new developments. Here are just a few highlights from this week alone- and it’s only Wednesday:

  • Natasha (who was featured on the cover of UB’s recent issue of its Alumni Magazine https://issuu.com/ubaa/docs/at_buffalo_fall17_-_issuu ) is ready to plan a fundraiser for the preschool in Tarime. She has been thinking about the teacher who currently works as a volunteer, and wants to start a fund to ensure that early childhood education is a priority. In preparation, she is thinking about her networks of influence and how to connect her efforts with her Sociology graduate program.
  • Danielle- a senior Anthropology student- finds herself completely immersed in an initiative that began as her final course project. With a deep interest in women’s health and specifically the impact of menstruation on girls education, she identified a Tanzania-based organization, Dare Women’s Foundation http://www.darewomensfoundation.org/ interested in bringing a reusable pad project to the Mara region. In less than a week, Danielle has raised almost $1,000 through a GoFundMe campaign https://www.gofundme.com/girl039s-empowerment-in-tanzania and is now coordinating the details of an upcoming training trip towards the goal of utilizing existing sewing projects to begin this new venture. Danielle is also connecting with a faculty member within her Anthropology department to frame her efforts within a research project which will in turn support her involvement in the UB Honors Program.
  • My own children will be hosting a book and baked goods sale this weekend to raise money for a poultry project in Tarime. Once mature, the hens will be given to women throughout the region as a means of generating income through the sale of eggs. But the cost of feed and vaccination has exceeded the appropriated grant funding, so the project is in jeopardy and immediate help is needed.
  • We’re gearing up for an informal event tomorrow evening that will help build capacity for future trips and engagement efforts. In partnership with the New York chapter of American Women for International Understanding http://www.awiu.org/, we will be featuring photos from UB’s own Doug Levere http://www.douglaslevere.com/gallery/ along with student reflections and videos. Having Doug participate in the trip, along with the contributions of the talented UB Communications team, is yielding impacts beyond anything we could have imagined. Not just for our own immediate benefit, but for our partners like Children’s Dignity Forum http://www.cdftz.org/ who are beginning to share the photos of our visits and utilize them to build further capacity for their own community development work.

Just listing these examples makes my head spin, and yet these are the type of outcomes or outputs that represent the magic of high-impact experiential learning. While the experience itself- in this case our trip to Tanzania- is hugely important, it is not the end product, but instead a vehicle for impacts that can continue to generate, build and transform well beyond the life and limits of the experience.

As we contemplate the potential of higher education to be an engine for innovation, we must insist on delivering offerings that are high-impact by design. No longer settling for localized or siloed outcomes, we have to challenge ourselves to think and design bigger and bolder. Although we cannot know what is possible, we must design with a vision in mind, building models that are generative and foster collaboration and synergies for the benefit of all involved. This represents a new frontier for curricular innovation and I’m so excited to be testing the limits.

 

Delving into Dissonance

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Dissonance is like the Holy Grail of learning. It is the place where we hit a conceptual wall, where our core assumptions about people, life, knowledge, and ourselves are rocked to the very foundation, forcing us to do something drastic- to alter our ways of understanding and interacting with the world.

To say that dissonance is uncomfortable would be a gross understatement. As humans, we go to great intellectual and emotional lengths to remain “ok” with ourselves and our views of the world. We surround ourselves with people who confirm our viewpoints and spend endless hours explaining away any thing or person who might disagree. For these reasons, we avoid dissonance like the plague, continuing – whenever possible- to believe that everything makes sense and that we essentially have it right. It is only when we find ourselves in places and situations that are so unexpected and surprising that dissonance has a chance to take root. But even then, if given the option, we will find an escape hatch- retreating to a place of comfort, reframing what we have experienced, and preserving our core frameworks and beliefs.

Clearly, we are tenacious with our assumptions. That is why our study abroad trip to the Mara Region of Tanzania is so powerful and exciting. Not only do we take students into a sorely underestimated part of the world, but we expose them to countless examples of people and projects that challenge their core assumptions and beliefs. We visit schools and clinics, agricultural projects, and community development colleges, and see the amazing work being led by Tanzanians, within their own communities, regions, and neighborhoods.

And with these experiences, through the process of guided critical reflection, cracks in our core understandings begin to emerge. If Tanzania is so underdeveloped, then why are the people so happy and industrious? If they are so primitive with regard to infrastructure and innovation, why does everyone have cell phones and access to the internet? And if they are so vulnerable and in need of external support, why are they so committed to education and to strengthening their own workforce through training and professional development?

Eventually, when the differences between the realities of what we are experiencing and our initial understandings become too great to sustain themselves, something powerful and life-changing begins to happen. We admit that we were wrong. Not just a little wrong- but stupidly wrong. And if we were wrong about Tanzania, about Africa, about communities and people around the world and in our own backyards, then we are undoubtedly wrong about so many other important things.

And this, my friends, is when life finally gets interesting. Yes, dissonance is a powerful pedagogical tool. But it is not for the faint of heart. It is strictly reserved for those who are open to a life-changing adventure, to seeing the world and themselves in fundamentally different ways. And to coming back changed.

For me, this is the promise of experiential learning, and the new frontier that lies ahead.

 

Homage to Deep Integrative Learning

Mapping Brain Circuits

For years I have watched reform play out in higher education and PreK-12, both within each respective system, and through efforts to more seamlessly marry the two.

While well intentioned, these initiatives have been woefully doomed, inherently limited by the very learning goals they employ.

For those who try to follow my blog, you may sense the coming of a familiar refrain. Namely, it is only through the pursuit of sufficiently powerful goals that we can extricate ourselves from the proverbial weeds that continue to pull us down. And unfortunately, in the world of education, and certainly PreK-16 collaboration, the goals that we have thus far followed have been underwhelming at best. Workforce readiness, critical thinking, and even college preparation, while all important constructs, are insufficiently powerful to actualize the latent potential of our systems, or their respective students.

In some ways the problem can be viewed as a moving target. We can prepare students for key jobs and career paths but the economic landscape will continue to shift and change. We can prepare students for college, but higher education will continue to morph in response to its changing realities. And while critical thinking is certainly important, it begs for specific ends and purposes in mind.

The undeniable fact is that the world is changing at an accelerating rate. And if we want to survive and thrive within this dynamic environment, we desperately need goals that can serve as both anchors and drivers, expanding the space for innovation and creativity, while at the same time ensuring a strong and stable foundation for growth.

While this may seem like a daunting challenge, such goals are well within our reach. In fact, I would argue that the notion of Deep Integrative Learning might just be the Holy Grail we’re all seeking.

What is deep integrative learning? Perhaps it can best be understood through its associated competencies: the ability to attend to the underlying meaning of information and content; to integrate and synthesize different ideas and sources of information; to discern patterns in evidence or phenomena; to apply knowledge in different situations; and to view issues from multiple perspectives.

While each of these represents important abilities that align closely with employer needs and expectations, thus supporting the goals of employability and indirectly college readiness, collectively, they offer so much more. Beyond academic and professional success, they address societal and civic needs related to personal responsibility and perspective taking. And from the standpoint of pedagogical diversity, they present a vast universe of learning opportunities, including both academic and non-academic experiences.

Beyond its conceptual merits, however, I have seen the benefits of deep integrative learning first hand. Students who return from study abroad or a service trip profoundly changed, and look at their discipline and career goals through a new set of lenses. When we are able to support and empower these students by nurturing their observations, testing their assumptions and stereotypes, and introducing them to new paradigms and frameworks, we will witness the generative power of learning. In addition to  better workers, students, and professionals, they will become better citizens and stewards of the world, the ultimate goal to which we should all aspire.