Release my inner child: The role of experiential learning in education

By Jean Pham

It was a peaceful Sunday night at Student Christian Movement of India (SCMI) after we had just got back from a 4-day experiential camp with Dream a Dream’s students. I felt quite exhausted yet couldn’t sleep right away. I lay down with my eyes shut, reflecting on all the things we’ve been through in Bangalore. Five of us are currently interning at Dream a Dream, an educational non-profit based in Bangalore that equips young people with life skills using arts and sports – experiential education. As a psychology major, I have always been fascinated by Dream a Dream’s approach. So I came to thier camp with a high hopes – to witness their approach.

As soon as we arrived, the camp organizers downplayed the hierarchical relationship among all participants. So instead of letting the students call us as “Sir” or “Mem”, the camp organizers told all volunteers to think of a name and instructed the students to call us by that name (We were called “Zumi” by the way). Starting on the first day, there were many activities that ignited creativity and confidence. The activities encouraged self-expression and sympathy of all who participated – students and volunteers. These activities were pretty intense in the sense that they required one’s reflections about oneself and one’s motivations for a better life. “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” I have to admit that after participating in these activities for 4 days straight, I was pretty exhausted both physically and mentally. But at the same time, they were all worth it. These activities were pretty straightforward. They do not require a trip to India or 4 days at the camp. But the whole point for us is who we were going through the experience with. I was totally impressed by how much I had learned from the students at the camp and I am sure the “leveling” of heirarchy had something to do with it . Young, energetic and full of potential for a bright future they also face tremendous adversity. I learned a lot about overcoming challenges during those four days.

Dream team 2016

Dream team 2016

The moment I saw those bright, curious eyes of these students, my heart thumped harder and suddenly, I went back in time to when I was a little girl. I was born and grew up in a small village 70 km North of Hanoi, Vietnam. It was not until I almost finished elementary school that my whole family moved to the city. There were so many exciting things about city life but one childhood memory that is imprinted in my mind was the first time I went to a mall and took an elevator. I remember vividly how excited I was to be lifted up above the ground in just a blink of an eye. With excitement, I observed the beautiful scene of the city through the elevator’s glass door. My realization was that people who managed to get on an elevator not only got to the top floor with the shortest amount of time but also were able to see other beautiful things that they might not otherwise if they take the stairs. My naïve mind concluded at that time “If I want to move fast and first, I got to find an elevator.” Such observation of a kid might not sound impressive to you but it was almost a turning point to me. For me, having a good education is like getting into an elevator that can lead to one’s freedom. This idea has developed in to my approach to education. For the past 18 years of my life, I have wanted to be a great student who always gets good scores and passes all the exams. However, things started to change slowly when I got into college. I began to question if an investment in education really helps poor children in low-income countries like Vietnam or India to overcome extreme obstacles in life. What is the role of education in the fight against poverty? If it was 3 years ago, I would undoubtedly say that having a good education is a game-changing factor that helps end intergenerational poverty. Now, I just think it is partly true. Of course, education does make a difference, poor people who receive an education do come out wiser, and are hopefully able to make better decisions. But it’s not enough. They must get above the poverty line first. They must have the skills to do something that can get them out of poverty. Investment in education won’t really help because poverty means that you don’t have the privilege to just focus on studying without constantly thinking about where your next meals come from. “It’s like teaching a person to swim and then throwing them in a stormy sea.” – Dr. Shafir, one of my favorite psychologists articulated. So what is the social entrepreneurship’s approach to education? How do social entrepreneurs make a difference in tackling issues in education?

Prior to this trip, in this Global Social Entrepreneurship (GSE) seminar, I completed a research paper on the Indian education system. Currently, most schools in India are funded and run by the government. However, the public education system faces serious challenges. Despite major improvements to increase school enrollment and infrastructure investments, drop-out rates continue to be high. Often times, when young students graduate or worse, drop out, they don’t have the necessary life skills to find a living-wage job. The situations get even worse when students live in a poor family household. The deleterious effects of poverty on the physical, emotional, and mental health of children are long lasting, with measurable effects during childhood development persisting into adulthood. So by the time they reach adulthood, their choices and decisions about their life condemn them to continued poverty.

It is not because poor people make bad choices, but the poor have a smaller choice set. The power of context also leads people to make what seem like unwise decisions. But, the consequence of such decisions manifest in extreme outcomes for those who do not have the mental and financial bandwidth. All of us will make unwise decisions at some point during our lives, the problem is, we can afford the consequences but poor people can’t. I do believe that you can be anyone or achieve anything you dream of when you spend a considerable amount of time and a considerable amount of resources for it. Yet, reality matters. Your background, your strengths, and limited resources sometimes matter most. And what the social entrepreneurs at Dream a Dream are doing is to program in children the extra mental bandwidth which makes them less vulnerable when facing obstacles in life.

Dream a Dream (DaD) does not provide “certificate” or “degree” for young people who go through its training. DaD believes that it is more important for students to discover who they are and what they really need to achieve their dreams. By going through a camp and utilizing experiential learning, students will have more resources and skills to make sense of their goals. Making great choices is like everything else in life, which requires “practice” and “learning.” I believe if we do not train to make good every-day choices, we will not be able to make good choices in turbulent times of our lives.

Three years of Wooster’s liberal education coupled with several summer internships push me to realize that real education starts when one makes sense of their goals and try to tackle learning challenges on their own. Of course, books and dedicated mentors also help. But once people realize why they sit in a class or why they do what they do, they will find enjoyment and motivation in their pursuit of knowledge. For nearly half of the people in this world who never have the chance to finish their basic education, the most important lessons in life might be the ones that are not formally taught. And there is no way that we can understand these lessons without going out into the world, exploring, falling and standing up again. Experiential learning is a big part of an education that all of us needs to pursue. For me, joining GSE and interning at Dream a Dream help me to discover my inner child and realize how much I love learning new things every day.

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