Reflection: the Key to Experiential Learning

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by Becky Anderson, Director of Leadership

“Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”
– Confucius

I met with the group of 40 students involved in the Experiential Program this morning before they left campus for a day of service out in the community. It was an opportunity to give a couple of logistical announcements, to check on how they were managing the condensed academic schedule and to get feedback on this past week`s afternoon sessions (Geographic Information Systems and Survival Skills).

I also took the opportunity to share Mark Twain’s famous anecdote about a cat and a stove (I always imagine a ginger-coloured cat…).

The cat jumps up on the counter to get some food he wants and lands on a hot stove. Once burned, he jumps down and licks his sore paws. That cat will never jump up on a hot stove again, but he won’t sit on a cold stove either because he did not extract all possible learning from the experience.

With the image of the poor cat in our minds, we talked about the program so far and our personal triumphs and some struggles. What did we learn about ourselves when things were going well and what did we learn about ourselves when we were feeling challenged by a situation? With each situation, the real importance is not simply about having an experience, it’s about extracting all value from each experience.

After the students left to get the bus, I sat down to the computer. An email from Kevin Cook, Director of Service, was in my inbox. Attached was a letter from the Head of the school that had just hosted a group of independent school teachers for the annual ISEEN (Independent School Experiential Educators Network) conference in Connecticut, which Kevin attended as a member of the ISEEN board. In the article, the Head talks about experiential education as follows:

“Taking place in the classroom, through the immediate apprehension of what is imaginatively shown, rather than told; that which occurs outside the classroom but is related directly to the discourse of the classroom, such as field trips, and then the work of doing things such as growing food or learning a sport or instrument which as a value in and of itself that is not academic but has incredible value.”

This type of learning builds confidence, encourages risk-taking, reduces fear of failure and has so many benefits that we may not easily appreciate in the short term. It is woven through every piece of the fabric of the school from kindergarten to Grade 12.

From all of these events – the meeting with students, the experience of the cat, the thoughts from a fellow educator – we can see the machinery of experiential education. We see that it’s not enough to just go out and do things – we also need to reflect on and revisit our experiences (lest we end up like the fearful cat) and we need to contemplate the types of experiences which can provide true educational value.

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