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From a sequence to a flow: Laurie Frank

Laurie Blog (3)

We are launching a monthly interview series called ‘Journaling the Journey’. Our guest author is Sushmitha Sridhara, an Avsar member, a budding experiential educator who teaches English Literature at Jain College, Bangalore.

(Laurie Frank was in India in December 2014 for the Experiential Educators Conclave by Center for Experiential Education. Sushmitha’s interview with Laurie will be published in a 3 part series. Here is the first one).

From your sessions, I noticed a very distinct style of facilitation where engagements travel beautifully from the prosaic to the profound. Joy and reflection pieces are so well balanced that I felt a sense of freeing abandon after the sessions. However, the reflection continued for days. Could you please throw some light on what some of your ‘must do’, ‘must have’ elements are during a session? 

My style of facilitation has evolved over decades of learning and experience.  I had the privilege of being in groups facilitated by some of the pioneers in adventure education, and later had the honor of co-facilitating with master classroom teachers/facilitators, as well.  I still see some of their facilitation methods and styles in mine, and have also been able to internalize and integrate my own style along the way.

I distinctly remember one moment that changed how I viewed facilitation – when it changed from going through a sequence of experiences to creating a flow that supports learning.  It was when the experiential learning cycle came into focus as a tool for design.  The cycle reminds me that learning is a process and that it must start with the learner (not what I wish people to learn).  That is why I feel it is important to begin with giving participants an opportunity to reflect on what they already bring to the table with a given topic or theme (experience/ reflection) before providing new information or perspectives (generalization).  People can then make meaning (generalization) and explore ways of integrating and applying the new (application).  I try to design programs that cycle from the bigger ideas and then dig progressively deeper. Every session, every program, every class has an overall macro cycle, with many smaller micro cycles all moving in a similar direction.  At its core, it’s a simple model that provides an anchor for me.

The other part of facilitation for me lies in group development and creating an environment to support learning.  It is at the core of what I do.  To me, the learning environment (container) is at least as important as the content to be learned.  Whenever people get together there are dynamics.  Norms are created whether we want them or not.  Being intentional about creating norms that support learning and free people up to be themselves, to get in a learning zone (and out of their comfort zones) by taking risks – such as learning from mistakes, freely sharing ideas, debating/dialoguing – and experience true collaborative learning; this is what I strive for in any learning situation.  When people are honored for who they are, they can get to the business of learning.

My goal with any workshop or class is to blend these two areas – learning as an experiential process and the learning environment.

Professionally, what is your current area of interest?

I will always be interested in the learning environment and group dynamics.  There are so many layers to this that I feel I will forever be uncovering new information and ideas.  About every other year I come into contact with people and information that help me see it in a new light.  Initially I learned about group development, then a few years later it was a workshop participant telling me about Invitational Education. Another year I was in a workshop on Positive Psychology.  Still another year I met Renate Caine and learned about the 12 Brain-body principles.  This year I stumbled upon Community Psychology.  Who knows what is next?

My other area of interest is in connecting the dots of experiential education around the world, and to think of it as a movement.  As the conclave in Bangalore showed, there is much happening in India.  I attended a similar conference in Mexico a few years back, and EE is developing in Central and South America.  North America, Europe, Australia, Africa and other parts of Asia have a rich history as well.  The lesson for me is that EE is growing by leaps and bounds.  The more we share with each other the more we will thrive.  I’m not sure how the sharing will occur, but I do know that we have technology that can support it, and that it won’t happen by itself – we need to make it happen.

What brought you into the field of EE?
As a new special education teacher I was trained as a behaviorist, where I meted out rewards and punishments based on rather arbitrary criteria.  This did not work for me, or the students – we were neither happy nor learning.  I believe that a learning can be joyful and this was pretty  much the opposite of that…  So, after the first year I assessed the situation to determine what I knew and could do.  I decided to draw on my seven years of experience as a camp counselor. During my second year as a teacher we played more.  We went outside, and we did art projects together.  Students would help each other with their learning.  In short order, we felt like a family, and the classroom was transformed.  Instead of dragging out of bed in the morning, we looked forward to school – and students started to learn.

Fast-forward a year to an opportunity that was given to me to go to Project Adventure for training.  I learned that what I was doing was not unique at all, but part of this field of adventure education.  There were names for what I was doing, and models, and theories to support it.  At that moment I was pulled into experiential education for life.

What is the need for EE in the context of your work and what motivates you about working in this space?

I will answer this in the context of education in the United States as it is what I know best.  In the U.S. education for children and youth has, in my opinion, regressed in the past 15 years.  Until the mid-1990’s teachers were encouraged to be creative and support students to be both critical thinkers and lifelong learners.  Once the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law was enacted, that changed. Today, standardization is the norm, and students are taught to pass tests.  I am fond of saying that I think standards can be helpful – they offer a guide for expectations and accountability.  What is dangerous is standardization.  It may lift new teachers and those who are struggling to become better teachers, but it also pulls master teachers down. What we end up with is mediocrity.

In this educational climate, experiential education methods are seen as an add-on, rather than the core of teaching and learning.  It is frequently set aside in favor of a “sit-and-get” coverage of content.  In the end, it is the student who loses – they lose the joy of learning and much of the thinking and collaboration skills that could help them through their lifetimes.

One of the fundamental elements of what I do is help teachers understand what experiential education is, why it works, and that it is an investment in learning. Once people understand why, they are then freed up to use a variety of tools in a variety of contexts.  This, more than anything, motivates me – working with teachers.  When they “get it”, it is as if a weight has been lifted from them – they no longer feel they need to choose expedience over quality, and they can begin to balance their philosophies/beliefs with their work.  It is magical.

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