Lifelong Learning: A Summer Search Design Challenge

Jump in and throw something wild out there; no suggestion too extreme!” I was told. My group was apparently being far too logical, rational, and moderate in our solutions. Once we heard prompts  like “Every program must cost at least a million dollars…. Or take place in outer space…. Or involve celebrities…” we loosened up a little and the ideas started flowing.

imgresI had the great privilege of participating in a design challenge last Saturday morning. Yes, Saturday morning. An organization called Summer Search was looking for some new ways to organize the second summer of their highly successful program for low income youth. An “innovation team” on their board pulled together 35 people — board members, staff members, current and former Summer Search students, and educators like myself — who agreed to spend four hours engaged in a design process to help them enhance their vision and think about potential new programming.

We spent our time going through a mini version of a typical design process, led by a skilled facilitator who kept us focused and on task, gave us just enough information at each stage to make decisions, and encouraged us to be creative and think big. We started with exercises designed to help us understand the student experience and develop empathy. Current and former students demonstrated their challenges and successes while we asked questions and prompted them to add detail. Each team of three had the chance to learn from three different students before we gathered all the information we had and attempted to define the issues facing Summer Search in this process.

Design-Thinking-670-x-443The next step set teams of four to brainstorm solutions and this is where we were encouraged to think big. Once we had all of our crazy and not so crazy ideas (“Sail around the world!” “Make a movie!” “Build a house!” “Intern at a business”) in sticky notes on the wall, we each chose the one we liked the best and developed it further so we could present it to the Summer Search innovation team for further review. They plan on taking the design challenge to the next levels of iteration, prototyping and testing; our work was done after the brainstorm and initial idea creation.

It was so much fun! I’m not sure when four hours have flown by so fast. I love the way the time was scripted and yet allowed for a lot of fertile creative thought. A small group of people working very hard on something they care about, contributing real ideas to an organization they care about, was incredibly engaging and thought-provoking. Design thinking is a tool I have heard so much about and even participated in a couple of times, but this took it to a new level for me. I am reminded of how much fun it is to learn something new with other people, and even better when what I learned for me actually will be useful to someone else. As educators, we often espouse lifelong learning as a goal; rarely have I experienced it in such a profound and enjoyable way.

The Design Thinking Process

The Design Thinking Process

Experiential Education: Spread the Word, Deepen the Learning

I just returned from a very invigorating, inspiring and fun work day at St. Clement’s School, an independent school for girls in Toronto, Ontario. I was hired to run a series of staff workshops on Experiential Education: definitions, relevance, and how its pedagogy and practices can be used to strengthen curriculum surrounding both existing trips and “regular” school classrooms.

With faculty members

With faculty members

The day began with a series of technical glitches, which, rather than being stressful, served to underscore a core characteristic of Experiential Education: it’s messy, the unexpected occurs, and out of the chaos comes significant learning. By the time the “formal” part of my time began, we were already laughing like old friends. I love the way this dovetails with my teaching and learning style; the choice Experiential Education offers not just to “make the best of a situation,” but actually to embrace whatever comes and integrate the new event into an evolving plan.


After a short session with the whole staff, I met with 50 Middle and Upper School teachers. Over the course of three hours, the teachers reviewed and learned anew, played games, shared teaching practices and developed lesson plans. I was able to use what I learned at the ISEEN Teacher Institute to flesh out the philosophical underpinnings and practical applications of Experiential Education. More than anything, the faculty members seemed to appreciate time to be together, talk about teaching and learning, plan and dream about incorporating new ideas into what is already a dynamic and engaged learning community. As a facilitator, I loved watching them jump in and try new activities that took them out of their comfort zones and insisted they have fun while learning together. I am reminded again of the powerful learning that occurs when the whole self is present, when learning demands just the right amount of discomfort, when the borders break down between work and play.

Stairwell art

Stairwell art

My third meeting was with Junior School (that’s elementary, for those not familiar with Canadian educational nomenclature) teachers. As we explored their approach to teaching, I was struck by how much we can learn from early childhood educators. Hands-on learning, field trips, integration of subjects under a theme, and constant attention to values like sharing, empathy and inclusion need to find their way into the upper grades. The teachers are eager to enhance their role as experiential educators, especially through attention to reflection and debriefing activities. They also desire to connect more with Senior School students, and find ways to collaborate across divisions on similar units, themes or lessons.

IMG_8558The primary focus for the day was deepening learning through Experiential Education, and I applaud the move to infuse the school with its core principles and practices. I also urge them to dream even bigger and consider more radical changes. Reading Grant Lichtman’s #EdJourney has shown me that school reform is not only necessary but possible and happening in fascinating ways. I agree with him when he says, “The goal of education has changed from the transfer of knowledge to the inculcation of wisdom born of experience, which will help students to succeed in an increasingly ambiguous future.” Experiential Education teaches us to thrive in the midst of uncertainty, and it was an honor to work with adult learners at St. Clement’s School as they dive deeper into the pool and practice their strokes.

Global Education: Why Take the Risk?


Global Service Learning in India

As is the case in any profession, those of us in global education have a wide array of approaches to our work. We’re grounded in a variety of theoretical foundations and pedagogical approaches; this is part of what makes the field exciting, dynamic, and collaborative. Despite our different perspectives and backgrounds, everyone I have met in the field agrees on one thing: global programs have inherent risks.

Why then, some people ask, do we advocate for international travel? Why take the risk at all? My answer, in short, is this: life is risky. It doesn’t matter where we are, we are always at “risk.” Some risks are perceived and others are real. Certain risks are greater than others, and the consequences vary in severity. What is most important, in everyday life as in international travel, is how prepared we are to manage risk.


Wilderness First Responder training

Much of my work has been in wilderness education, both domestically and internationally. I’ve taken the 80-hour Wilderness First Responder course three times, and I’m about to take it fourth time in preparation for a three-week backpacking trip I’ll be leading in Portugal this summer. A common misconception about this course is that it is focused primarily on emergency response. While this is most certainly a component, the real focus of this 10-day course is prevention.

How do we safely navigate experiential education? We plan ahead and prepare. We research program locations extensively, we go on exploratory trips, we vet third party providers and other in-country partners, and we identify potential issues and concerns. All things considered, we make a plan and a contingency plan. We develop policies and protocol, train staff, and implement emergency response plans.  We check in with the Department of State about travel alerts and warnings and require location-specific vaccines. We hold meetings with students and parents to discuss concerns and convey pertinent safety information. We pay due diligence to safety during all stages of program design and implementation.

Risk Assessment Matrix

Risk Assessment Matrix

If you find yourself at a global education conference, you’re sure to find sessions on risk management by the experts. Vicki is currently in Boston for the 2015 NAIS Annual Conference. In a quick glance at the program I see six sessions with “risk” in the title.

Risk management has become a field unto itself; it is growing rapidly as more and more people are realizing that the benefits of global travel outweigh the risks as long as the risks are carefully analyzed. Allowing students the opportunity to expand their worldview and challenge their perspectives by immersing themselves in a new culture teaches lessons beyond what is possible in the classroom. It facilitates exploration at the edges of their comfort zones — the places where learning and growth occurs. Organizations such a Lodestone Safety International have found their niche helping schools and organizations develop risk management plans specific to their programming.

Are we ever free from risk? No; not at home and not abroad. All travel — including the daily commute to and from school or work — comes with risk. This shouldn’t prohibit schools from offering travel experiences to their students, and it shouldn’t stop parents from encouraging their children’s participation in global programs. The global “classroom” offers unparalleled opportunities for learning. In an increasingly globalized world, it is imperative for students to develop their values and beliefs by understanding themselves in a global context. For me, the question isn’t “is going worth the risk?,” but instead “what are we risking if we don’t go?” I find the latter far more compelling. How about you?


Experiential Education via ISEEN

This is the Mt. Saint Helens I climbed!

This is the Mt. Saint Helens I climbed!

I had some great teachers in elementary, middle and high school. Some of the fascinating and useful things I learned in class have even stayed with me. And yet, when I think back on my education, most of the transformative moments, those times when I made huge leaps in my learning, happened outside of the classroom. The dude ranch camp in Arizona I received a scholarship to attend; the time we climbed Mt. St. Helens (before it lost its top) and had to abandon our expedition in the middle of the night in a rainstorm; the Japanese exchange students with whom we could only communicate through sign language and by teaching each other children’s songs; the “world without war games” during a project week; my demanding crew coach inspiring our boat to beat the college teams in one regatta: those are the experiences that stand out. I imagine this is true for most of you. Our education system was set up to support the industrial revolution, creating factory workers and “company men.” Now we need to educate for life after the digital revolution, and many systems have not yet caught up. I would like to tell you about one organization whose leadership and members advocate for the integration of what has often been called “extra-curricular” with direct classroom learning.


My “homeroom” group doing an orienteering exercise

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in one of my favorite experiences each year. I attended the 10th Annual Independent Schools Experiential Education (ISEEN) Institute, this year hosted by Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Ten years ago, a small group of independent school employees met to see how they might support each other in the unique challenges they faced as program directors in outdoor education. An organization called the Independent Schools Adventure Network (ISAN) was born and they began holding an annual institute for providers to learn from and support each other. A few years into the organization, I attended one of their annual meetings at Albuquerque Academy. Although I wasn’t working in outdoor education per se, a colleague of mine was sure I would find “my people” in this group. She was right. I have been attending ever since, I served on the board for a number of years, and I come away inspired every year.

10454268_10154277967830693_8413933604781990685_oThis year was no exception. Looking at ISEEN from a ten-year perspective, there is much to be proud of:

  • The organization changed from ISAN to ISEEN to expand the scope from just outdoor and adventure education providers to include global, service learning, sustainability, and student leadership. This year we even had a strand for administrators who are overseeing multiple areas under one experiential umbrella, a trend I find particularly exciting.
  • We grew from just a few practitioners the first year to 130 this year.
  • We have been hosted by a different school every year, giving us all a chance to learn firsthand from the experiential programs at other schools.
  • We have had sessions from some of the top thought leaders in experiential education pedagogy and practice; this year included Dan Garvey, former President of Prescott College, Grant Lichtman of The Learning Pond, David Streight of the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education and Eric Hudson of the Global Online Academy.
  • We have become a membership organization.
  • We had a number of pre- and post-conference workshops to expand our offerings. I facilitated a workshop this year on integrating curriculum into global travel programs, whether for a specific experience or on a school-wide level. We spent a lively three hours sharing ideas for deepening student learning by connecting direct off-campus experience to classes and other school activities.
  • This summer, we are offering the first annual professional development opportunity for classroom teachers who want to incorporate experiential education pedagogy and practice into their daily teaching.

Although much has changed, much has remained the same. We plan the institute very carefully so we can maintain the intimacy of the early days through small group discussion and time for specialty groups to convene. Many participants feel the need to come every year to connect with colleagues and friends — some of us feel it is our “annual department meeting” — and every year there are new people coming to learn and connect for the first time.  ISEEN is a vibrant organization, working to advance the pedagogy and practice of experiential education as a leading model for student transformation.