Experiential Learning – So What? by Ben Snyder, Head of Upper School
Imagine these scenes:
A team of Nobles students arrives at an elementary school in a country where they don’t speak the language. Ten minutes later they are paired up and asked to teach English for two hours. The teacher walks out of the room and leaves it to them.
Another group of students shows up at a home construction site. The foreman of the site divides them up in to teams of two and three, gives each group a quick primer on the discrete jobs that need to be done—and then leaves them to it.
A third team cycles out into the countryside of a developing country where they meet a local farmer who needs manpower to help him turn a soggy depression of mud into a well—with a couple of hoes, a few buckets and a shovel with half a handle.
Each of these scenes—and plenty of others like them—happened for more than 100 Nobles students in New Orleans, Romania, China, Cambodia and South Africa over spring break. Without question, the work of our students helped and supported people around the country and around the world in real and substantive ways.
But what does the Nobles student learn (aside from the obvious fact that they are super-lucky to go to Nobles and live in the United States)?
Placing students in these kinds of situations teaches some critical lessons.
First, Nobles students have to solve problems in real time without any road map or textbook to show them an answer. In safe, but challenging environments they have to rely on their own creativity, intelligence, and collaborative skills to sort out solutions in situations they have never experienced before.
Second, Nobles students discover that there are all sorts of kinds of intelligence and talent that make the world run. While one may be able to solve an advanced physics or math problem, that skill doesn’t necessarily help when faced with the challenge putting on a roof, driving a nail, or improvising when one doesn’t have exactly the right tool.
Next, they begin to understand the complexity of problems that are out there in the world—and to understand that there are no easy solutions to them. While their academic lives at Nobles intentionally present many disparate arguments and streams of information, when they witness “real people” facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, they wrestle with issues in a more meaningful way.
Finally, they discover that they can make a positive difference in a context they are not familiar with—their creativity, determination, and resilience can lead to a positive outcome for someone else. And in each case they have had to work through their own discomfort to accomplish something of value.
We hope these experiential learning opportunities will achieve the dual goals of making a positive difference for our service partners and teach our students important lessons. As someone who has taken more than 200 Nobles students to New Orleans, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and South Africa, I’ve seen these experiences be transformative in many ways and thank the many Nobles parents who have placed their trust in us to help teach our students these—and many other—important lessons.