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Experiential Learning for the ESL Classroom – Philosophy and Activities

20 Apr

I hear and I forget.  I see and I remember.  I do and I understand.

Confucious

There has been a lot popping out at me on reflective teaching practices these days, like a hint that’s perhaps telling me to learn more about this topic and to make more time for professional reflection, and among other thoughts, it’s brought to mind the important role that reflection plays in experiential learning.

Experiential learning is not only for learning within L1 classrooms, it can be applied in the ESL Classroom because it builds on the principles that when students are cooperatively engaged in a motivating project, task or experience, and then reflective or mindful of the results and how to further apply them, they are actively participating in the learning (and self-teaching) process.

More than field trips to museums, ponds and post-offices – this is a method of learning with practices that can successfully be applied in the ESL classroom.

A Touch of Experiential Philosophy

Experience-based, task-based and project-based learning becomes experiential when elements of reflection, support and transfer are present after the learning experience (Knutsen, 2003).

In the early 1980’s, educational psychologists Mezirow, Friere and others “stressed that the heart of all learning lies in the way we process experience, in particular, our critical reflection of experience.”   They thought of learning as a cycle that begins with an experience, continues with reflection and ends with action (Rogers, 1996).  And while thereseem to be some discrepancies in the phases of teaching (or facilitating – a word I prefer) experiential learning, I think the heart of the philosophy is satisfied with the four: Exposure, participation, internalization and dissemination.

Experiential learning begins with EXPOSURE, experiencing something, either first hand or through simulation, that is of interest to the learner and is perhaps something the desire knowing about or become interested in during the process.  The educator has introduced the topic, task or project, selling students on it and highlighting expectations.

Through PARTICIPATION, the learner cooperatively participates in an experience using ESL which typically involves group work, and therefore – communication, peer-guidance, taking on roles, responsibilities and following time-lines.

Next comes the critical process termed INTERNALIZATION, where  the educator facilitates reflection on the experience and encourages students to draw attention to how they participated in the process, and their feelings about it.   The importance of this part of experiential learning process can’t be undervalued and it can take careful consideration and experience for an ESL educator to get students thinking and talking here.  Reflection is how the student will come to learn about themselves – how they participated, what roles they assumed, what they found difficult or easy about the task/project, the challenges of group work (especially in some cultures where individual success tends to be the primary focus..ahem..South Korea).

Finally, a process termed DISSEMINATION occurs where what has been learned in the classroom is brought into the real-world.  It’s hoped that the learner successfully transfers the newly acquired knowledge or assumptions from the experience into future actions and opportunities for learning.

Experiential Learning Activities for the ESL Classroom

Sounds good.  A realistic experience, motivation, reflection…key words that resonate  and a process that makes sense to my senses, exciting me as an educator.  Great, so what types of activities would exemplify experiential learning?

Keeping in mind that the ESL educator needs to provide the situation and structure for the experience, but also facilitation for students’ reflection on the process and even on the cultural difficulties of teamwork (thinking Korean students here^^;), the lesson plan needs to reflect this.  The educator can adapt lessons to suite beginner to advanced ESL learners.

Think – do my students have a need/desire to learn this?  Are they interested in this?  How can I pull their personal skills and experience into the project/task?  How can I get their feelings invested into this?  How can we reflect on it without my pushing them uncomfortably?  And of course, as you may have guessed, do we have the time and tools to invest in a project/task such as this?

This list is not extensive – just something to get us thinking.  Please add some of your own ideas by commenting to this blog post!  ^^

  • Making  a poster
  • Making a PowerPoint presentation
  • Conducting an interview
  • “Re-Branding” a commonly used product
  • Dramatizations
  • Role-plays
  • Journaling
  • Making a video
  • Situational English – bringing the world to the classroom (restaurant, airport, etc.)
  • Making a music video
  • Creating a gameshow
  • Making a mock job or travel fair where each group represents a different profession or country
  • Making a trip itinerary
  • Creating a survival English booklet
  • Debates
  • Re-writing and illustrating fairy tales
  • Making or joining a book club
  • Creating a class website
  • Making a social etiquette book to help travelers or business people new to their country
  • Writing a research paper
  • “Teach a class”  – where they design and implement an English lesson, teaching it to the class.
  • Create a treasure hunt using clues (or even QR codes?)
  • Organizing a Fundraiser
  • Making a comic book
  • Doing a magic show
  • Puppet show

Examples of Experiential Learning in Action:

  • An adult ESL learner and business professional, participates in a classroom simulation – he’s bringing an important new client to a restaurant for small talk and a casual meeting.  The students have key topics they’ll need to discuss, but mostly the conversation is unprompted.  The teacher has set up a mock restaurant scene in the classroom to help them feel they’re really in the scene.  They’ll video-record the simulation, watch it, and reflect upon the process with the facilitation of the teacher.  They’ll hand in one page of reflective writing to the teacher next class.
  • A class of university students has been divided into small groups that have each been given a profession to explore and research – lawyer, doctor, anthropologist..  The class is going to give a mock job fair, with each group creating a small dramatic presentation on why others should choose their professional career upon graduation.  As part of their preparation, each group is encouraged to interview someone who is really in the profession they’ve been given (the professor has already prepared the contacts with industry professionals ahead of time, who in fact, also speak English^^).  Individually, each student is responsible for  journaling about the process as they go along.  The mock job fair day has all the groups presenting.  Afterwards, the professor does a great job of facilitating the reflection process and getting the students to discuss their experiences.  Many students realized that working in groups was more difficult than they expected, and some were surprised to find themselves in a leadership role.    A female student who was first aggrieved to learn their group had chosen CEO when in fact she wanted Artist, came to realize she learned a lot about being a CEO and was now more keenly interested in business.  They’ll journal about their personal reflections and hand in their journals to the professor.

—–

Kelly, C. (1997). David Kolb, the theory of experiential education and ESL.  Japan: The Internet TESL Journal, v.3, no. 9.  Found online at http://iteslj.org/Articles/Kelly-Experiential/

Knutsen, S.  (2003).  Experiential learning in second-language classrooms.  Canada: TESL  Canada Journal, v. 20, no. 2.

Rogers, A.  (1996).  Teaching adults (2nd ed.). Buckingham: Open University Pre

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