Use Applied Learning Opportunities to Increase Leadership Skills

Professional development opportunities that utilize applied learning, including formalized community leadership programs, strengthen knowledge and personal skills through experience.

People learn in different ways, but working together on a specific project or experiencing first-hand an educational process can greatly enhance learning. Such experiences have been called place-based education or experiential learning and the focus is more on learning about the situation or issue than simply accomplishing a task.

For example, planting flowers on a Saturday afternoon around a school is an important activity but does not particularly facilitate the development of leadership skills or understanding leadership dynamics. By contrast, working with a group of parents to examine their concerns about the school building and help them plan action steps, would provide a more valuable leadership learning experience.

Professional development opportunities that utilize applied learning, including formalized community leadership programs, strengthen knowledge and personal skills through experience.

Developing Community Leadership, a guide created for Michigan State University Extension in 2005, stated several specific benefits of applied learning opportunities related to community leadership programs. The list includes:

  • A diverse group can come together in a more meaningful way when participants are working on something specific.
  • Leadership projects provide an ideal “learning laboratory” which can help participants to closely examine group interaction and group dynamics.
  • This can be a way to help participants explore why it is important for citizens to get involved in their community.
  • The group may be able to address a specific, short-term community needs.
  • Participants may learn how to do research on met and unmet needs in the community.
  • This is a way to learn more about some of the policy issues facing the community.
  • This can be a springboard for future action by individuals, small groups or the entire group.

In addition, when using applied learning practices for professional development, these points may be worth consideration:

  • Applied learning should be incorporated as part of a larger program or organizational structure; not treated as an “add-on”.
  • Adequate time should be provided for participants to discuss the process of working on the project and what they are experiencing.
  • A project must be “real”, not just an exercise.
  • It’s important for the participants to have a role in deciding what will be done.

Whether developing a community leadership program or creating a professional development opportunity, incorporating applied learning in the curriculum reinforces the lessons and increases skills; building a link between knowledge and learning.

Portions of this article were written collaboratively by a group of Michigan State University Extension Educators, including Bonnie Wichtner-Zoia, for the Michigan State University Extension Developing Community Leadership curriculum and guide, 2005.

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