I see this so often in experiential education. A teacher either gets so caught up in running an activity that at the end of it, there isn’t the opportunity to debrief, or worse, it's simply not even part of the program.
Neither are good approaches, but not having any form of debrief or reflection factored into what you’re doing, is a huge mistake and a wasted learning opportunity.
Experiential education is not just about running fun activities. If it were, it would be called a holiday camp. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth, despite some teachers thinking of it as such. Experiential education is about providing opportunities through real challenges and being able to reflect on how everyone worked through and faced each challenge.
It's essentially the business of providing practical learning experiences that have real measurable consequences as a mechanism for pushing students outside their comfort zones. Through doing this, we’re able to build positive relationships, increase social awareness and promote personal growth.
Often the specific activity through which this is done is quite irrelevant. It really doesn't matter if you hike, canoe, mountain bike, abseil or kayak, so long as the activity is suitably challenging for the students and will extend all involved.
What does matter however, is what you do after the activity is over. During each challenge, you should be actively monitoring the performance of individuals and the group. Keep in mind any stand out behaviours both positive and negative, but also note those in the middle who may lack confidence or just not even try. It's a lot to keep an eye on. However, the more time you spend with groups, the easier to become to know what to look for.
At the end of the activity, it's time to debrief and reflect. Not doing this is a massive mistake for experiential education, because reflection is where the value of the learning comes in. If a group fails at an activity, it's pointless just to say, ‘just try harder next time.’ This is a cop out on the teacher's part and what does try harder even mean?
You need to explore reasons for the failure and discuss this with the group. An activity such as raft building for example is a great test of teamwork, planning and execution. More often than not, I see the crews go down with the makeshift crafts. So why does this happen? Is it that they don't try hard enough? Well no, it's usually because in the excitement and pressure of a time limit, they rush things, they build before they plan or they plan for a craft that is great on land, but not suited to the water!
Whilst this sounds just like the daily operations of a government department, it also produces a similar result. It's not until you gather the group together and talk through the experience, that they start to learn from it. I usually bring in other relevant examples from their lives and get them to think more broadly than just the activity itself. Questions such as, “What’s something else you’ve experienced that didn’t work because you rushed into it too quickly?” Or, “What's something else you have to carefully plan out to make sure it works?”
It's through reflections that the real learning occurs. I've seen far too many teachers run this sort of activity and because everyone ends up getting soaking wet and it descends into organised chaos, they think that it's all over when the students get out of the water. However, the opportunity for learning has only just begun!
It’s your qualities as a teacher that then comes into play to tie in all of the related social and emotional themes to effectively debrief the activity. The more challenging the activity, the greater the need for your group to reflect on it. You’ll often be surprised by the comments students make when you use the experience to reflect on a bigger picture issue or question.
One of the most powerful comments I've heard was after a caving exercise where the students had to make their way out of total darkness. I mean total darkness! There were no luminescent glow worms to help you out. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. The only way out was to shuffle along a cramped passageway on your stomach and hold onto the person ahead of you. When we finally emerged from the cave and debriefed the activity, one student, who was afraid of the dark said, “I could feel my friend holding my hand. He kept talking to me the whole time and I knew I'd be ok.” This then led into a wider discussion about looking after each other and some amazing comments from other students in the group.
I never know what to expect when reflecting on an activity, but the bottom line is that it’s a must for each and every program you’re running. It’s through this sort of reflection, that students and ourselves are able to learn the most.