Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Appetite for Experiential Learning

Can you go too far with experiential learning? This is learning by doing, as opposed to learning by more passive means (listening to a speaker, watching TV, etc.) Experiential learning has the potential to get deeper, be more memorable, to create an experience or a learning moment that you can draw on or act upon in the future.

The (all too) oft-quoted Confucian saying, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand," argues for this more interactive approach to learning. So how can we make, or take, more learning opportunities outside of formal learning situations - into the informal learning environment. What about this…

I am a member of a thoughtful book club which is just about to finish reading The Tortilla Curtain, by T.C. Boyle. It is a powerful book about inequity, humanity, and the poverty/environment interface. In the book two families live within 500 meters of each other in the outskirts of Los Angeles, one on a fragile hillside in a makeshift hut of stolen pallets eating domestic cats and thrown away produce, all by-products of the incredibly affluent (in relative terms), gated, chardonnay- and smoothie-drinking estate which sits downhill; only a 2.5 meter high stucco wall separate these two worlds. One is a family of illegal Mexican immigrants, the other can be characterised by their upper middle-class, double-income urban flight.

So before this sounds like a book review, to the point, and back to my book club and learning. We try to link the evening of each of our book club discussions to a meal. I see a potential learning opportunity here. Now, I am not eager to sacrifice either of our pet cats, so how else might I make this discussion of haves and have nots, of the extremes between poverty and over consumption, deeper and more personal - more experiential?

Might I ask my fellow readers, when they enter my house to pick a number from a hat? These numbers might determine their places at the table for our discussion and meal. Maybe the “1’s” will sit at the head of the table. They might have a table cloth, polished cutlery, a nice bottle of wine and a warm meal, with a starter, dessert and coffee. And what about our number ”2s”? Maybe their half of the table will feature a newspaper covering, tin cans of tap water to drink, a spoon, and a small bowl of yesterday’s beans and rice, barely warmed over, to share?

How might that make people feel? What kind of a discussion would ensue – would it be different? More congruent with our book’s message and therefore more powerful? Will we learn more than we would have from our usual discussion? And more importantly, how might we look differently at our food and drink at our next meal?

(Bonus question: Will people be happy to come back to my house for book club again?)