Experiential Learning: Invite the "Unintended Consequence"

By Douglas Graney posted 09-14-2017 07:01:41 AM


There is learning. And there is learning. Early in my career I saw the value of not just learning in the classroom, but having students go out in the community and having the community come into my classroom. From the very first field trip (to Boston in 1987) to the ones I have planned this year and the many guest speakers I have hosted, I have seen how changing the learning environment can greatly enhance the learning experience.

Students become more excited, motivated, and open to new ideas while out in the community or when visited in their classroom. It is something different, and because of that the interest level is higher. Experiential learning also includes what early in my career I would call an unintended consequence, but now is entirely intended and that is exposing students to possible careers which they did not know existed. For example, in 2015, my colleague Todd Liebenstein and I were able to bring three students to a taping of the ESPN show "Pardon the Interruption" with Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon.

Prior to the show we were given a tour of the studios and the three students saw a variety of careers they may not have considered. There were people working in lighting, sound recording, cameras, console monitoring, make-up and many others.  So while the impetus was just an experience to indulge their love of sports with two stars at ESPN, they realized they were in a dynamic environment in a field that they now realized they were interested in.

When students go on field trips, they can say “I was there, I asked this, I did that…” It is a learning environment conducive to heightened learning. It also bonds the students together in a way that does not often happen in the classroom. They are part of an exciting experience they share only with each other. They talk to each other and hear varied experiences which deepen the learning experience.

The same applies to guest speakers. An impressive guest speaker was former NY Times White House Correspondent Peter Baker. Baker wrote books on the rise of Vladimir Putin and the relationship between President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. I made excerpts of both books (we were getting ready to go to the Russian Embassy) and students created questions for Baker. He did a marvelous job with my students. I passed around his books and you could see the kids processing "Wow! This guy wrote all this...." And there's that intended consequence. You could see kids thinking  "maybe I could be a reporter, maybe I could write a book..."

Perhaps the biggest impact of my experiential learning was creating the Political Science Internship program for seniors at Herndon (Va) High School. What started off as a handful of kids in 1994 became the largest intern-placement program on Capitol Hill. I started by cold-calling congressional offices as well as interest groups, government agencies, embassies, etc. I would recruit in 11th grade US History classes “opportunity is knocking…” and each year the program grew. Students would do a wide variety of tasks, some of course mundane but many not. Either way they were getting an experience few high school students get; to work on behalf of their political beliefs in the legislative branch of Congress.

Many have remained in government and politics to this day. That program was a hands-on, real-life experience that taught them things well beyond how our government works. They had to learn time-management as they would start their day around 7am and not get home until often until after 8pm. They would learn how to arrange car-pools and other logistics of getting themselves from home to school to internships and back. At a young age they learned the do’s and don’ts of an office environment. And they acquired experience and skills that would look impressive on resumes and college and job applications. Of the hundreds of interns I placed from 1994 to 2012 almost all would say it was their best high school experience.

Whether going on field trips, engaging a guest speaker or other activities, experiential learning will bring out the best in your students. I have seen my students challenge elected officials, perform for audiences, volunteer for a number of causes, attend and participate in various ceremonies and go beyond what they thought they could do. In doing so, they gain confidence, poise and maturity. My advice to you- get your kids out there!

To see examples of experiential learning please go to this site: http://dgraney.com/teach.htm and to get the whole story you can read my book "American Teacher-Adventures in the Classroom and Our Nation's Capital." Go to https://mascotbooks.com/mascot-marketplace/buy-books/nonfiction/bios-and-memoirs/american-teacher/ . It's also available on Kindle and Nook.