On experiential learning

Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, Oakland photo (c) Jennifer Tharp creative commons license

I’ve been thinking about field trips recently. I was thinking about writing a list of do’s and don’ts, or telling tales of field trip disasters. But then I started thinking about what it is that makes field trips such powerful experiences. And I think it has something to do with how we, as leaders, allow ourselves to give up control.

I’m not talking about the control of setting up the time and place, getting the logistics set and the permission slips signed. That all still needs to happen. But with field trips, and with other experiential learning, you never quite know what people are going to get out of it.

One Sunday, I took my very small cadre of senior high students on a spontaneous field trip up the hill to the Greek Orthodox basilica. We walked in, sat in silence for a while as the liturgy washed over us in waves of icons, incense, and completely incomprehensible chants, and after about 15 minutes, we walked out again. 

I honestly don’t remember what any of us said about that experience, or what I had planned for them to get out of it. What I do remember is a sense of holiness — not just about the church per se, though there was that, but about the experience. The mystery of it, and the sense that the Holy Spirit was doing things inside and with these youth that I knew nothing about, that were not under my control and were, frankly, none of my business.

I suspect that is true of most experiential learning. Field trips, service projects, retreats, worship services — there’s stuff happening between God and the participants that we may never know. Yes, we certainly may have specific things that we’ll hope people get out of it, and yes, we may have lessons planned that tie in to the experiences. And I think we should be keeping those things in mind. 

But I think it’s true, too, that sometimes it’s good just to have experiences for the experiences themselves, and that sometimes it’s best to scrap whatever lesson we have planned in the face of the holiness of the moment. Those of us who plan things within an inch of their lives may need to attune ourselves to those times when God is telling us, “I’ve got this,” and recognize that our role is not in instructing, but in setting up the circumstances that allows God to work.