In this post Claire Gordon, Head of the Teaching and Learning Centre presents two fascinating examples of experiential learning from across the School…

After an intense exam period, and as we reach the end of another academic year, it seems like a good time to reconnect with processes of learning beyond the confines of the university and the growing range of opportunities across the School for students to engage in forms of experiential learning.

David Kolb’s 1984 book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development[i] has had a significant influence on educational thinking about ways to structure units of learning and facilitate effective student engagement and development. Kolb conceptualized this in the form of an iterative process, involving cycles of experience, observation, reflection and further action. While not without its critiques, many educators have found Kolb’s approach to be extremely useful in planning learning activities for students.
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In preparation for this post, I invited two colleagues to reflect on their experience of taking students outside the LSE for a different kind of learning encounter to those in the spaces that they habitually inhabit at LSE. Both examples highlight the value of enabling students to experience and reflect on the applications of more abstract theoretical and conceptual dimensions of their courses in a real-word context.

Green Space and the City: Nature-Culture conflicts?

 
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In our first example, Kirstie O’Neill, Fellow in the Department of Geography and Environment discusses a field trip to Kew Gardens and Richmond Park organized for undergraduate students in week 6 of Lent Term, February 2017.

“The trip was not part of an assessed module but rather provided the opportunity to experience part of the city not usually frequented by students, whose focus tends to be the facilities of LSE in central London. It also gave students the chance to meet faculty in an informal environment.  In this way, the main (informal) learning objectives of the day were for the students to develop an understanding of the role of public spaces in the city, to identify the ways the different organisations (voluntary, charities) manage green space for public benefit and to compare different types of public space and the relationship urban residents have to these spaces.
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Field learning is seen as an important skill for geographers to develop, and this visit gave students a chance to find out about the work of organisations like Kew Gardens and their work in managing research and development work in relation to seeds and plants in a world with a changing climate.  Going into the field enables students to put theoretical ideas into practice and understand some of the real-world dilemmas faced by global cities like London, where pressure for land is immense. Visiting places like Kew Gardens and Richmond Park in person adds an extra dimension compared to having a guest lecture at LSE – students get to see the spaces where work is carried out, like the Herbarium and seed storage facilities at Kew, which can add to their learning.

During the day, we had a tour of Royal Kew Gardens Herbarium and met experts from Kew who talked to us about their work on seeds, plants and environmental change.  Kew has a particular interest in areas of the world that predictions show to be most threatened by climate change – they are often the countries with the richest and the most under-researched plant life; and they include some of the poorest countries in the world, most dependent on their plants for food, and least able to take action for conservation.  Students were also able to explore Kew Gardens independently.

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At Richmond Park, we met Max Lankester of the Friends of Richmond Park who gave a presentation about Richmond Park’s history and evolution, and how this has influenced the area leading to the Park that it is today.  We then took a walking tour of the Park, looking at species of interest and thinking about how the Park is managed. Richmond Park is the largest of the capital’s eight Royal Parks and the biggest enclosed space in London.  The park is a National Nature Reserve, London’s largest Site of Special Scientific Interest and a European Special Area of Conservation. It is home to the Isabella Plantation, Pembroke Lodge and herds of Red and Fallow deer.  It is an important green space for London, although there are conflicts over different uses as the city grows and different groups use the space in different ways.”

In conclusion, Kirstie noted that this type of experiential learning might even better when tied directly to a module and even assessment processes – a direction for future development!

The Politics of International Law: the interaction of politics and law in action

Our second example of experiential learning is presented by Viviane Dittrich from the Department of International Relations, convenor of the postgraduate course IR464, The Politics of International Law, and organiser of the IR464 study trip to The Hague in 2016 and 2017, and winner of an LSE Class Teacher Award 2017.
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“The trip to The Hague organised for IR464 students, originally developed by Kirsten Ainley and supported by the International Relations Department, is designed to form an integral part of the students’ learning. The students tour the various international courts located in The Hague and discuss the practical realities of international law first hand. The trip includes meetings and presentations with tribunal officials at the International Criminal Court, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone, Special Tribunal for Lebanon and International Court of Justice, and staff from relevant non-governmental organisations such as the Coalition for the International Criminal Court.

According to student feedback, this trip is considered a highlight of their LSE learning experience. Travelling to The Hague, visiting the tribunals and interacting with judges, prosecutors and defence counsel provides a unique opportunity to get privileged access to high profile officials and an inside view of international institutions. By engaging with course topics outside the confines of the classroom students gain a much better understanding of the different courts, how they work, what differentiates them, and how law and politics interact. Insights gained on the trip have been usefully and directly applied by students to the summative essay due a few weeks after the trip to The Hague and exam preparation, for instance by citing court jurisprudence and making more nuanced arguments showing greater understanding and sophistication regarding the politics of prosecution and the interplay of law and politics, and peace and justice.

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The trip provides an invaluable opportunity to bring to life the course material allowing students to discuss the complexities and puzzles discussed during term time inside the classroom with practitioners outside the classroom. As students have noted there is a big difference between reading about international criminal tribunals and actually witnessing a trial in a courtroom and speaking to tribunal officials. While studying the tribunals in class through in-depth reading and seminar discussions the institutions to a certain extent remain rather ‘abstract entities’; personal access to tribunal officials during the study trip and expert workshops draws attention to the fact that organisations and tribunals are not ‘black boxes’.

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Getting a glimpse of the real world of international relations by visiting international institutions towards the end of the course module allows students to draw concepts and themes together and apply their knowledge of IR theories in dialogue with practitioners and thus bridge the theory-practice divide. Moreover, the student bonding that occurs on such a trip both enhances the learning experience and creates a learning community as students discover new information, challenge previous assumptions and arguments, consolidate knowledge, start revision of course curriculum and continue onward in their discipline. Another broader benefit is the increase in motivation and enthusiasm witnessed in the students who participate in the trip and expert workshops, not only for the course itself but also for building professional networks, developing curiosity and inspiring dissertation writing. Finally, intense exposure to the universe of international tribunals in The Hague also helps students think about future career paths in international law, at international courts, the United Nations and also non-governmental organisations.”

 

If you would like to explore experiential learning possibilities for your students, do get in touch with your TLC Department Adviser, and consider applying for seed funding to the TLDF.

 

References

[i] Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, Prentice-Hall Inc., New Jersey.

 

 

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