During the past three years, I have taken groups of students and faculty to Haiti to visit our partner school, St. Jacques. St. Jacques is a K-6 school located in the middle of the central plateau in Haiti, approximately two hours north-east of Port-au Prince. Although this is the granddaddy of cliches, these trips to Haiti have changed my life. It has made me more compassionate, more understanding of the complexity of the world that we live in, and more involved in the very complicated business of foreign aid to other countries.
But, the main reason why I am grateful for this experience is because of the impact it has made on our students. Although I am lucky to work in a school where the majority of students are very active participants in many different service projects, these trips to Haiti stand out because of their impact on our students. They come back as different people, more cognizant of the world, and of how fortunate they are to live the lives that they do.
That in itself is reason enough to undertake these trips, but I think that there is a deeper meaning to all of this. The world that our students will inhabit will not only be more interconnected than ever before, but it will also be more complex than at any point in history. To prepare students adequately for this world, we need to embrace interdisciplinary studies, and we need to teach students how to solve problems. This is where I think that these trips truly make a difference.
During the short week that we spend in Haiti, students are forced to go outside of their comfort zone and they have to solve many problems that they would never face at home. It can be as simple of a task as having to figure out how to ask for something when nobody around you speaks your language. Or, it can be a more complex task as having to figure out how to run a water pipe from a well to a kitchen. The point is that these trips put our students in the real world, having to figure out real world problems. Not to mention the fact that these problems often constitute major obstacles in the daily lives of their Haitian friends.
As the movement for experiential learning picks up steam, I am fully on the bandwagon. There are a number of schools in the US who are engaging in all kinds of interesting projects, all based on the philosophy of experiential learning. There are schools that require all their students to complete a “Week in the Wilderness” where students are asked to solve all the problems that accompany being in the outdoors for a week. To me, this should be an integral part of what we as educators do. To be sure, there is a certain value in having students problem solve in the classroom, but little can compare to the experience when a student has to figure out how to light a fire without matches. That requires ingenuity, grit, determination, collaboration, and analytical thinking–all skills that we want our students to learn.
And, it does not have to be as elaborate as a whole week in the wilderness. Get your students outside, have them create a community garden, have them design plans for solar panels for your buildings, have them create a better traffic pattern for carpool. What matters is that they are engaging in real-life learning. Those skills are the ones that will help them as they drive our society forward. Those are the skills that will make our students valued contributors to our society. If we can combine all the theoretical learning that we do in the classroom with some real-life experiences, we will all benefit.