The power of experiential learning

Ohalo College has an experiential approach to learning that upends tired, disproven traditions elsewhere.

March 26, 2012 22:14
Students walk toward Ohalo College

Students walk toward Ohalo College 370. (photo credit: Courtesy Ohalo College)

The Ohalo College of Education was established in 1965 on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and relocated to the town of Katzrin on the Golan Heights in 2000. Surrounded by Israel’s true natural treasures – the Sea of Galilee on one side and Mount Hermon on the other side – the college enables its students to maintain high quality of living and enjoy studies in a different style.

The traditional classroom experience involves a teacher lecturing from a podium, a one-way communication directed toward the students. Most colleges today retain this approach. Before Dr. Shimon Amar became president of the college, his experience as organizational development manager at Intel Corporation showed him that the traditional university teaching approach did not deliver the results needed in the business world.

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It was this passion to change the way students were entering the educational and businesses world that drew him to implement experiential learning as the foundation for the new Masters of Education program offered at Ohalo College.

We know from years of research that students learn more when they; are told, are shown, and experience what they are learning. Most important, students’ ability to recall this knowledge is more than six times greater after three months than if the students are taught with traditional lectures. Yet today most colleges and universities are perpetuating this lecture tradition.

As the college’s program was being designed and initiated, we sought not only to convey knowledge but also to forge students’ emotional connection to it in the classroom. This connection would then be the catalyst for them to take it back to their own schools and students to begin the educational metamorphosis he envisioned for education in Israel.

One of the foundational courses offered in the program is in Educational Leadership. Dr. Kevin Gazzara was asked to create an experiential curriculum and facilitate the first session, delivered in this current term at Ohalo. Kevin holds a doctorate in organizational leadership and has taught and developed leadership curricula at the University of Phoenix since 1996 in their undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs since 2004.

A hybrid of university leadership theory and practical business application created the substance for Ohalo’s leadership course. Using a sequence of selfassessments, leadership simulations, and activities, the classroom is transformed from a lecture hall to a noisy battleground of small, culturally diverse teams which create an environment from which leaders can emerge.

“Leadership is not a spectator activity. You need to do it and fail.... If you can get the students to do this in a safe environment, and test the boundaries of their book and life knowledge, they are more likely to do it with confidence when they return as teachers and administrators to their own schools,” Gazzara says.

Great learning and conversations happen when you can facilitate the right environment so that the students test and defend their assumptions.

“If I can get as many students to have that SEE (Significant Emotional Event) to happen in the classroom and share it with the rest of the class, there is a higher probability that they will immediately perpetuate that learning with others,” recalls Gazzara TEACHERS IN today’s classroom are faced with new Generation Y (students born between 1977 to 1999) challenges that did not exist when they went to school. These educational leadership challenges provide a window of insight to what is occurring in the business world. Yet, in the classroom the challenge is much more focused getting the information to stick and be applied so that it can become wisdom.

In the business world, leadership is less about teaching and knowledge transfer, and more about getting measurable results individually and in small groups.

The Gallup Organization in its 2002 report on effective teaching identified three essential characteristics for teachers: solid knowledge of subject-matter, refined teaching skills and natural talent for teaching. “They provide learning activities that create excitement, enthusiasm, and drama for students... They structure their teaching so students can learn.”

It is this structured learning activity in the classroom that differentiates our leadership approach to learning to help draw out the teacher’s natural talent.

Gazzara says he was an unlikely candidate to teach the first session since he was a professor from the United States and speaks no Hebrew. “I found that this caused me to develop a curriculum that was highly dependent on the students learning from each other through experience with controversial challenges,” he said.

The students’ reaction at first was one of extreme caution and uncertainty.

Over the first week the challenge was to get them to believe in the process and themselves so that they could be the change they wanted for others.

As a example of the challenge posed to the students, before the lesson began the students answered an online questionnaire that gave them their personal social leadership profile and following that, throughout the course, they were able to identify their personal contribution (in view of the profile) to group work, and on the other hand identified points for improvement based on feedback from the group. Every group usually has a student of each personality type (leader, scheduler, etc.) and since every student is aware of his personal advantages and the others' drawbacks, the group can exploit them better.

There is such a desperate need for change in the way we prepare our teachers to teach, and students to learn, thus a radical change approach is warranted.

Using what is called “rapid prototyping” or now more popularly practiced in the Agile process for software development, you quickly design and deploy so that you can make the changes as quickly as possible. Much like tuning a high-performance race car while you are driving it, the challenge is not to crash the car or get sucked into the engine before you cross the finish line.

Once the week-long session was completed at the Ohalo campus the remainder of the course was delivered online using Moodle and a series of Elluminate Teleconferencing Sessions for 14 weeks.

Students converse in Hebrew and English and continue to receive the same experiential instruction from 9,500 kilometers away in Phoenix, Arizona.

As the world becomes smaller and as technology becomes more pervasive, it is important to exemplify the changes you want others to make. Bringing to the table an international perspective, hi-tech business experience, and using cutting-edge technology and classroom experiences should position Ohalo graduates for success as they bring radical change and excitement into their classrooms.

The writers are, respectively, professor and president of the Ohalo College of Education.

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