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?)

4 replies
  1. ren-new
    ren-new says:

    This is a marvelous exercise. And, it raises very strong emotions – of guilt (how can we so ignore those less fortunate than ourselves) and jealousy (dang! I was so hungry when I got here, and Gillian cooks so well, and . . . cold beans???? and so and so is getting a beautiful wine??? hrmph…). So being able to live with everybody's being able to live with the surprise and the unremittingness of it is key. And perhaps some enablers to managing the emotions so that people not only get to process in real time, but also come to some joint actions.

    I could imagine having a follow-up postcard that notes that a contribution was made on behalf of the bookclub to a charitable project helping exactly those in the book. It should come soon enough that the link is quite fresh, but not so soon the learnings aren't embodied!

  2. Julie
    Julie says:

    So, did you try the exercise? It sounds like something I did for my high school once: everyone was given a colored bracelet to wear for a day with each color representing a level of affluence and determining what meal they received from the cafeteria at lunch. A tiny proportion got a full meal, a small group got a meager meal, and the majority received rice and water (in their hands- no plates).

    What I'm often wonder is: how can we use such experiences to make people grasp the environmental challenges we face, AND take action?

  3. Gillian Martin Mehers
    Gillian Martin Mehers says:

    Thanks both Caroline and Julie for their ideas and experiences with similar experiential learning exercises around development.

    Interestingly, when I wrote this blog post I sent it to the bookclub, never intending to actually do it. However, their responses were so enthusiastic that I did actually take a long time to create two parts to our table, one with the fancy dishware, candles, cloth napkins and the proper dinner. The other had newsprint, paper plates, plastic cutlery, jars for glasses and tapwater with their beans and rice. I put three cactuses as our "tortilla curtain" that were high enough to divide the table, but not high enough that the others could not see each others' meals.

    I had numbers for people to pick randomly their place at the table. But a funny thing happened – everyone wanted the "poorer side" and no one wanted to sit at the lux part of the table. In the end, we all huddled by the paper plates and shared everything. Why was that? And why isn't it like that in real life?

    I asked the group that question, they said that it is because we know each other. We can't let our friends and people we know do without. What does that say in support for international work and experience, not to mention broad-based community work at home? How can we promote even more interaction between people?

  4. Layla
    Layla says:

    WOW!! Awesome story, and awesome blog!! 🙂

    I would be interested in what Julie's students had to say and how they reacted too.. 🙂

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