The case for experiential learning

Sept. 22, 2014, 4:44 p.m.

The most recent Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report delineates four aims or goals of a Stanford education: owning knowledge, honing skills and capacities, adaptive learning and cultivating personal and social responsibility. While these aims are surely not antithetical to classroom learning, I argue that they are often best realized through experiential learning. Indeed, experiential learning ought to have a larger place in a Stanford education than it is currently given.

Often disparaged as “practitioner-oriented” or less than rigorous, experiential learning during my time at Stanford has in fact forged my most memorable, influential and rigorous academic experiences. When done in a sustained, intense and self-reflective manner, experiential learning opens perspectives that one can rarely find by opening a book.

My biggest challenge at Stanford has not been obscure problem sets, a diet of heavy reading or challenging exams. It was building a box. That’s right, a 5-foot wooden cube. Plywood was more challenging than Plato.

I spent this last summer on an Urban Studies Fellowship working on urban regeneration and community development in the Maboneng Precinct near downtown Johannesburg, South Africa. The focus of my internship was the development of a “community cube” that functions as a mobile museum, public space and platform for civic engagement. The cube was built by neighborhood residents using only local materials and has many features: a meeting table, chalkboards and whiteboards for active discussion, a career resource board with job opportunities and even a platform for crowdfunding community initiatives.

Although I have researched urban and community development, studied social entrepreneurship and am familiar with relevant academic resources, the task of actually building something I would normally just postulate truly stumped me. Most of all, I learned that I could not build it alone. I needed to engage community residents and build it in a way that was responsive to their needs. Not only did I have to get outside of the Stanford bubble, I also needed to get outside of the bubble of my own self-sufficiency.

This opportunity would not have been possible without a fellowship that provided a means for experiential learning, allowing me to implement, reflect on and critically evaluate the book learning that I had previously absorbed. Some might consider the academy and ground-level community activism to live in separate universes. I beg to differ. This summer taught me that Bell Hooks’ engaged pedagogy — using theory to make social change at a ground level — was indeed possible. Moreover, connecting the classroom with on-the-ground experience is an opportunity that the Urban Studies Fellowship, Stanford in Government Fellowships and Stipends, community-engaged service learning courses, Haas Center programming and other campus initiatives make possible.

Building this cube as a vehicle for community engagement was especially challenging given the realities of this Johannesburg neighborhood. The environment was, in some respects, unforgiving: Social distrust and stratification were ubiquitous, and city life was marked by a Darwinian need to out-hustle everyone else. And yet the cube brought out the best in this neighborhood: Friends and acquaintances I had met during my internship pitched in to help build a community resource that they would carry forward as I returned back to Stanford. At the cube’s activation, my final night in Johannesburg, community members who would otherwise never recognize each other sat side by side, drawn together not so much by a plywood box as by a shared vision for their future.

The benefits of experiential learning lie well beyond the participating student. Experiential learning often serves as a form of community-engaged scholarship whose impact can change lives, shape communities and generate, in turn, new paths of inquiry.

A major challenge to experiential learning in the Stanford context is that it often vies for attention with schoolwork, problem sets, jobs and other activities. Moreover, discrete moments of experiential learning rarely have the continuity that affords real benefit to the student and the community partners. By according a larger place for sustained, rigorous experiential learning in the Stanford curriculum, we can most fully derive its benefits.

I invite you to investigate experiential learning opportunities on campus, whether through service learning courses like the International Urbanization Seminar or Sustainable Cities, Stanford in Government (SIG) Fellowships and Stipends, Haas Center fellowships and programming or opportunities in Earth Systems, Public Policy or your own major.

As Mark Twain said, “Never let schooling interfere with your education.”

Stefan Norgaard ’15

Contact Stefan Norgaard at stefann ‘at’

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