Engaged learning: thinking about activities

Use the experiential learning model to take hands-on learning to the next level.

People passing an exhibition table or youth attending the first meeting of a group can easily be pulled in by interactive, hands-on activities. As these activities begin to build upon each other and participants attend long-term, the experiential learning process is employed. As outlined in Progressing through Engaging Learning Methods, the experiential learning model (ELM) ultimately moves towards programming in which “youth are considered participants rather than recipients of programming.” This important and powerful learning model is one of the guiding principles of Michigan 4-H.

ELM responds to the natural result of combining hands-on activities and inquisitive minds. As questions about the activity and connections to life experiences arise, ELM replies with an intentional process that takes learning further every time. The basic structure of the model is “do, reflect and apply.” The actual interactive activity is the “do” step, which is taken further by “reflection” through informal discussion or intentional reflection questions. After thinking about how the activity went, “applying” takes the learning one step further by considering how the lessons would apply if the activity was done again or applied to other situations. Application questions can also be very helpful in encouraging this discussion.

Practically, these discussions with participants, whether youth or adults, are challenging to have when time is limited or the group is fairly new. Encouraging further thought in every setting should be a goal but incorporating in-depth reflect and apply steps work best with a group that will be learning together for an extended period of time. Sometimes, there is concern these debriefing style discussions might be awkward or interrupt the “fun” of a group’s meeting. However, intentional discussions are essential to ensuring a positive experience that builds life skills and can become a natural, integrated part of the meeting. Making it a regular part of every agenda, every time is key – even if the discussion is as simple as what everyone’s summer plans are at an end-of-year party.

 An example of this model in use is 4-H Tech Wizards, which engages youth in STEM- (science, technology, engineering and math) focused experiential learning with the support of mentors. One activity of the program is Lego Robotic, in which youth create a mini robot from scratch through hands-on directions. At the end of each session, mentors encourage reflection as youth work to pack up for the day. Mentors prompt with reflection questions like “what challenged you about designing your robot today?” or “how did your teammates help you?” Mentors can then prod further with application questions such as “how would you build a new version?” or “how could your robot be used in a factory?” As this becomes a habit, youth start discussing how the day went by asking each other questions without prompting.

 With a solid foundation of intentional, reflective learning around hands-on activities, participants are ready to be engaged in a more participatory way. As youth start to lead discussion times, they are taking a more active role in directing their experience. A great way to incorporate this youth-guided direction is to let answers to application questions define the next meeting. For example: if youth wonder how lego robotics principles apply to a robot made of balsa wood, let them plan what materials they will need and how they can explore this concept. As youth becomes participants in their learning, the program begins to move through Hart’s Ladder of Youth Participation into youth-led programs with adult support.

 Ultimately, Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development programs aim to be just that: led by youth with adult support. Volunteers and staff can start to set this tone by engaging youth in conversations about activities, rather than simply lecturing on topics. Adults can also work to incorporate debriefing and reflect/apply discussions in every activity, helping youth in your program to build lifeskills and ownership of their experience.

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