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People and Places - When Context and Professionals Support Learning

2 May 2019

By Rebecca Warren, Senior Education Programme Coordinator at UWC International

It seems fitting to be writing my first education blog post sitting in a classroom at UWC! I am currently watching the Director of the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa museum, Guido Gryseels, talk UWC Maastricht students through the paradigm shift to a de-colonial narrative and the subsequent complete redesign of the museum to reflect this. Students’ questions are sharp and there is rich discussion about the complexity of representation, history, repatriation, and the current inequity and social division as a result of colonial and neo colonial racism. World Arts and Cultures, History and Visual Arts are the targeted curricular subjects, but this session elevates the curriculum, swirling through Theory of Knowledge style questions and up into the transdisciplinary and real world applications of academic ideas. Should it be de-colonial or counter-colonial? Who does the art belong to? What is the role of museum education in contributing to national and international understanding and debate? How will they decide whether to give back items they hold?

This thirst for a genuine encounter with professionals was also evident at  Pearson College UWC, where Laura Verhegge, the Marine Biology teacher, showed me the photos from the day they had a veterinarian perform a necropsy of a baby elephant seal that was found dead near to campus. A genuinely fascinating murder mystery of sorts for the Marine Sciences and Biology classes, as they inspected each body part, and figured out how the seal pup had died.  When I joined in the class during my recent visit in March, students were sorting out rubbish found on the local beaches, categorising it and trying to determine the sources. They found a multitude of bullet cases, plastic tampon inserters and, alas, so much more. Being faced with a huge pile of cigarette butts, or the colorful array of feminine hygiene products, the pollution crisis in our oceans was starkly evident.

In the Leapfrogging Inequality report released by the Brookings Institute last year, Rebecca Winthrop and her team identified factors to help ‘jump’ education up to the the high end of its continuum. For ‘People’ and ‘Places’ they point to schools where:

  • Learning involves community members, peers, parents, graduates, employers, and others, along with educators.
  • Learning uses multiple places, including schools, community and workspaces. These spaces are transformed into learning places for optional, authentic learning.

They key word here for me is ‘authentic’ and this speaks to the heart of the experiential education practice that should underpin all learning, whether at UWC or beyond. What I enjoyed about the experiences described above was that there were no easy answers to the issues being discussed. The learning went beyond the curriculum and classroom, using the local context to host and support learning, and they used professionals to share their expertise and deepen student learning.

So, what are the conditions needed to support this high end of the continuum and allow for such rich learning experiences?

Firstly, such opportunities generally don’t fit into a 55 minute timetabled lesson! So, there has to be an openness to flexible scheduling and a give and take attitude between subjects and opportunities (and I’ll be writing more about timetables and schedules in due course). This includes the flexibility of being able to take up opportunities that might present themselves without a convenient 6 month lead-in! Secondly, educators need to craft how such opportunities can be integrated into the learning journeys that they facilitate, otherwise they are merely interesting activities, but not woven into a student’s wider schema. Finally, there needs to be the openness to the creative risk element. Some speakers, some activities, some visits will be rich. Others might not quite work out as planned and it is not always easy to predict how such things may go. The openness to learning being a process and something that educators and students can evaluate together is an important lesson in life regardless - it is all learning!

And so I end this first blog post with a welcome and invitation. Welcome to the UWC Education Blog! You’ll hear more musings from me, but also from a wide range of contributors, on a wide range of thoughts and experiences, as we work together to “make education a force”. Be in touch to let us know your thoughts and if you would like to contribute.