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March 1998 - Issue No. #29 (p.12 - 14)
Helen Keller once remarked that it would be good for each person to experience blindness or deafness a few days. Living in darkness, she added, would enhance the appreciation of sight and learning about silence could teach the value of sound. This article examines how experiential learning activities can be used in language classes to promote awareness of issues such as handicaps, world hunger, and landmine proliferation. Some of the strengths and weaknesses of experiential-based simulations are considered. Resources to learn more about experiential learning are also highlighted.
Keeton and Tate (1978) describe experiential learning as a process which allows learners to be in direct touch with the issues they are studying. Related to "discovery learning" and so-called "holistic education", it is a bottom-up learning process in which participants create their own meanings after hypothesizing about shared experiences. In cases where direct experience is not feasible, simulated roleplays sometimes offer viable alternatives. It should be noted, however, that some situations are not suited to roleplay: they may involve more physical or emotional risk than some teachers are prepared for. Whereas students can "stand back" and passively observe many traditional classes, in most roleplay scenarios direct participation is imperative because students are in fact co-participants.
Experiential learning is rooted in constructivism, which asserts meaning is actively molded from experience. Munsell (1995) adds that it, "focuses on learning-by-doing, not learning-by-showing." The emphasis of process over content is a hallmark of experiential learning.
According to Tourunen (1992) there are three steps to an experiential learning cycle: (1) concrete experience, (2) active reflection, experimentation, or observation, and (3) abstract conceptualizing. This cycle is influenced by Kolb (1976), who includes an additional stage of hypothesis testing.
Done with sensitivity, experiential roleplays can offer a vicarious taste of unfamiliar horizons and glimpse of a different world. Done without adequate skill, however, they can appear like gamelike parodies. A key element to the success of the experiential roleplays is a capacity to span from ones immediate experience to the another, sometimes vastly different perspective. The life of a refugee or visually challenged person might seem far to most ESOL students. Experiential-based roleplays, which are related to sociodrama, are an attempt to make a distant world closer, bridging the field of experience. Though children can perform roleplays, they generally aren't able to make the cognitive shift from the simulation to the broader world behind it. For this reason I prefer using experiential-based roleplays with adults. It should be emphasized experiential roleplays involve more than acting specific roles; it involves a process of critical reflection to bridge the the roles we are actually playing in real life.
One type of roleplay which works well in many ESOL classes is a blind simulation exercise. Students who are accustomed to relying on written notes when speaking in particular tend to find this type of activity challenging. For five years I've conducted blind awareness training seminars with university sophomores. After a few schema-activating, warm-up questions about handicaps, half of the participants experienced a twenty minute blind trek and picnic while the other half served as guides. Blindness was simulated by using neckties to cover the face.
Though some students felt anxious about this activity at the onset, after safety parameters were set and the right to decline any activity emphasized, responses were positive. By 'safety parameters' I refer to an imperative that seeing guides protect their partners from significant danger. This doesn't mean that guides need to protect their partners from every mistake - only those which could cause serious injury. (Some guides tend to be overprotective and the issue of how much protection to offer comes out in discussion.)
With a 90 - 120 minute time constraint, about midway through the class, roles were switched and some "blind explorations" in which participants tried to guess various objects from tactile, olfactory, and auditory cues were held. The final 10 - 15 minutes of class were devoted to feedback and reflection. Feelings during the experience were explored. For many students, discussing personal feelings with candor in another language was a refreshing, unaccustomed experience. This was more than an exercise of language - it was an attempt to draw meaning out of an unfamiliar experience and see parallels between blindness and other aspects of life. A description of an extensive four-hour blind awareness training program is available online at http://www.tnewfields.info/.
In addition to non-sightedness, another disability which can be simulated in class is reduced mobility resulting from the loss of a limb. Crutches and wheelchairs can be used to simulate lower torso immobility; bandages can simulate arm/hand immobility. Connecting handicap awareness to the problem of anti-personnel landmine proliferation, I designed the following lesson:
Landmine Awareness Activity
III. DISCUSSION / FEEDBACK
Here are some possible questions to raise
during the feedback/reflection session:
How did you feel during this activity?
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