The Case for Catapults in the Classroom: Experiential Learning in Medieval History

Article excerpt

Students learn what they care about and remember what they understand

--Stanford Ericksen (1)

One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it you have no certainty until you try.

--Sophocles (2)

On what could only be called a blustery day--perhaps appropriate for the activity it was also the first of April--I gathered with ten students to drag four model catapults, three-feet tall and designed to throw tennis balls, onto a practice field at our university. There might have been an inch of water in the grass. The temperature could not have been much more than 45 degrees. We all wore goofy, but duly required hard hats mandated by the university's safety staff. As we worked to dial in the accuracy, twisting and rewinding the skeins on machines to get more power and distance out of them, a few representatives from the press joined us. We spent two hours out there, wet, cold, fighting the wind, and everyone had a smile on their face. What's more, the students' excitement about the catapults was so great that we spent numerous classes talking about it before and afer the event. It became the highlight of their semester, a memorable moment in their college careers, and an infamous episode in our university's history. More important perhaps, it became proof positive of the effectiveness of an experiential learning model in a medieval history class.


There appears to be a growing interest in community engagement and active learning on today's campuses, but it often seems difficult to discover or create opportunities in liberal arts courses that deviate from the lecture-based and content-driven model. But who could imagine a science course that followed this pattern? Experience and experimentation have always been hallmarks of the sciences, the scientific method, and the science curriculum. The same experiments have been performed countless times in these classes, so what is the purpose in continuing to have students duplicate them? The fundamental aspects and rationale for these laboratory experiments are manifold, but in general it is to assist students in discovering for themselves, and thus enhancing their understanding of, the processes, results, analyses, changes, problem solving, and styles of thinking involved. In such courses these are all deemed necessary parts of the learning process. Similarly, in other higher education and professional degree paths, internships, practicum, and residency programs provide practical and concrete experiences. Doctors and nurses without residency programs? I don't think so. So why should this teaching and learning style be limited to the sciences or to technical and field training? The liberal arts can, and should, effectively employ experiential learning.

Some debate exists over exactly what qualifies as experiential learning. In one definition, experiential learning is learning by doing. This definition encompasses many training exercises that result in the knowledge of how to do a specific task correctly. An alternative, somewhat more complex approach requires the additional elements of reflection and application. Many experiential learning activities encompass both models. One commonly cited and used definition of experiential learning comes from Steve Craig, the Director of the Management Co-op Program at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada: "Experiential learning is knowledge, skills, and/or abilities attained through observation, simulation, and/or participation that provides depth and meaning to learning by engaging the mind and/or body through activity, reflection, and application." (3)

The history and literature on effective teaching and learning styles is extensive. (4) The most recent champion of experiential learning is David Kolb, whose work provides the connection between theory and practice, demonstrating that learning is a social process based on experiences, a concept challenging many modern teaching strategies. …