Academic journal article Comparative and International Education

Interdisciplinary Study Abroad as Experiential Learning/études Interdisciplinaires À L'étranger En Tant Qu'apprentissage Expérimentiel

Academic journal article Comparative and International Education

Interdisciplinary Study Abroad as Experiential Learning/études Interdisciplinaires À L'étranger En Tant Qu'apprentissage Expérimentiel

Article excerpt


Throughout Canada and the United States, experiential learning in postsecondary education appears to be ubiquitous, so widespread is its promotion by colleges and universities, large and small.1 From major research-intensive institutions with high international rankings to more modest, faith-based, academic communities dedicated to undergraduate studies, institutions are seeking ways to incorporate experiential education across the curriculum.2 Very simply defined as "learning from experience or learning by doing" (Lewis & Williams, 1994, p. 5), experiential learning has its roots in the work of educators such as John Dewey, whose pioneering Experience and Education (1938) presents the following vision:

To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world." (pp. 19-20)

In practical terms, as Lewis and Williams explain, "Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking" (p. 5). In contrast to familiar approaches to teaching and learning, which privilege the traditional classroom as a site of prescribed knowledge transfer and are predicated on the acceptance of professorial authority, disciplinary segregation, and other isolating practices of the ivory tower, experiential education opens up fresh possibilities for active-indeed, interactive-and interdisciplinary learning in myriad contexts, including those presented by the challenging situations of study abroad.

In this more progressive pedagogical model, the focus shifts to a student-centred environment, where learners take greater responsibility for their education and consumerist practices yield to personally meaningful investments in the process of discovery. Stimulated by interdisciplinary inquiry and innovative modes of evaluation that foster creativity, community engagement, and critical self-exploration, students feel encouraged to venture into unfamiliar territory, make connections between their studies and their lives, and reflect critically on their experience. Study abroad would appear to be an ideal context for the learning through doing and reflecting that constitutes experiential education (as discussed in Vande Berg, Paige, & Lou, 2012; see also Passerelli & Kolb, 2012); if students were to take advantage of international study options, it seems self-evident that they would be engaged in experiential learning and that their professors, supervisors, and program administrators would be making a vital contribution to the promotion of innovative educational practices. If in its execution, however, study abroad fails to be seriously regarded as experiential learning, it not only falls short of its potential, but also risks reinforcing rather than confounding consumerist assumptions and behaviours in education.

The following article explores the need and various possibilities for programming that would pay more than lip service to the idea of international study as experiential learning. Co-authored by five recent B.Arts Sc. (Honours) graduates upon their return from international academic exchange and their professor/program director (who had remained at the home university in Canada), this article investigates to what extent the students' international studies approached Dewey's ideal. Despite very positive reports from all five students, the case study reveals nevertheless how far from the ideal their experiential learning abroad remained, how inadequate the programming had been, and how crucial the careful incorporation of critical reflection therefore becomes, before, during, and certainly after the return from international exchange. …

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