Many years ago I attended a presentation by an individual who was experienced in coordinating internship opportunities for seminary students intending a career in ministry. He offered an image that has stayed with me all these years—the rail fence. In this image, the rails of the fence represent the ongoing experience of individual learning and the posts represent the importance of related experiences that ground the learning in a practice setting. The metaphor has obvious limitations, but it offers a simple reminder that the integration of theory and practice is essential to learning.
Today our understanding of experiential learning has grown as pedagogical innovations have expanded. Not only are internships available, but also we find students engaging in undergraduate research opportunities with faculty, service learning experiences embedded in courses, case study approaches to classroom teaching, preparation of assignments with the use of the creative arts and digital technologies, team learning and problem solving and opportunities for study abroad that are not academic tourism, but experiences that teach a global perspective.
The important thing for us to remember is all these experiential pedagogical approaches are not ends in themselves—they are the means by which we can enhance learning. That’s our aim. Students can indeed be found gathering in classrooms, studios and labs, but the use of these spaces is different these days. There is important information, interpretation, context and perspective for well-prepared members of the faculty to convey and clarify. There are also skill sets to be learned that lay the foundation for professional practice. We further know effective learning must be coordinated and facilitated in ways that are fitting to each academic discipline and field of study. Yet we find that effective learning also has many partners and draws on many resources outside the college, as well.
One of the great privileges of my role is to see students demonstrating their learning in all kinds of settings. From time to time I am interviewed by a student completing a class assignment or writing an article for The Ray. Students are in contact with me as they engage in the leadership of organizations within the campus and in service to some outside of the campus. Our athletes manifest learning about discipline and teamwork as I watch them compete. Our musicians and artists perform and display learning through their expression. Those leading sustainability activities in and outside the classroom draw us to personal and collective efforts to do better in preserving the future. Learning comes in many forms, but at its core is the integration of theory and practice.
Central College is a leader in global, experiential learning. The evidence is in our students and alumni who are the embodiment of academic excellence in action.