The importance of experiential learning

By Jörg Kleis

The idea is not new: Exposing students to different academic cultures, social cultures, and economic systems serves the purpose of being capable of developing what they would otherwise not get or at least not to the same extent – an open mind and an opportunity to see the world’s possibilities and differences. The theory is that the exposure helps students spread the influence back home by enlightening their peers about cultural differences and the opportunities that lie therein. Now why is that?

Elsie Mugure’s compelling observations

I recently came across a publication by a former Kenyan student called Elsie Mugure. Her work is titled “Case Study: Experiential Learning Through Student Exchange Program” and it has been published in the Handbook of Applied Teaching and Learning. As part of the German-African University Project students from the University of Nairobi in Kenya and University of Cape Coast in Ghana, Elsie Mugure travelled to Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences to stay there for three months attending classes and participating in academic activities together with German students. Similarly, students from Bonn travelled to West and East Africa. One of Elsie’s compelling findings was:

“Social Life in Germany first and foremost, the social systems in Germany, are excellent. I can barely recall a day where I had to go to a social office to either get my residence registration done or even apply for insurance when I had to wait longer than five minutes. Everything is done on appointment and if you are late, too bad because you then have to book a new appointment. Time management is key in Germany, every second counts. Unlike in the Kenyan culture, where time has a contextual meaning, time management in Germany is strict to the second. My personal encounter with the time consciousness culture shock was on arrival at Frankfurt train station where my Kenyan colleague and myself had to take a train to Bonn City. Our train ticket had a specific time which was 09:38. In our Kenyan perspective, we could not understand why the train departure time is not given a common time like 09:45. We believed there was no way that the train would leave at 09:38 and we expected it to leave at least ten minutes after the stated time as is the common practice of our bus transport system back in Kenya. It came as a shock to us when the train pulled out at exactly 09:38 and left us at the platform. We had to wait for the next train.”

The categories are no longer “right or wrong”,
but rather “same, similar or different”

It must be stated here that such statements may equally apply to both Europeans in Africa and Africans in Europe. They are not supposed to demonstrate any kind of dominance or supremacy of one side over the other. What matters here, and this is my derivation from Elsie’s statement, is that her opinion is the consequence of contextual and experiential learning. Her finding therefore demonstrates how it is entirely up to the exposed subjects to derive their own conclusions from these experiences. They are their experiences alone. The contextual categories that apply are no longer “right or wrong”, but rather “same, similar, different, relative to or comparable”. Furthermore, Elsie states:

“Germans always follow the rules, and if they are given an option on whether or not to follow the rules, they still choose to follow the rules. On the flip-side, Germans are less social and take time to build trust with strangers. It might take a full semester before a German stranger walks over to say hello to you. I used to think they were shy. Even amongst themselves, everyone prefers to have their own space and you are not necessarily friends because you are in the same assignment group; they certainly know how to draw the line. Nevertheless, once you get to make friends with a few, you understand that they are very polite and genuine people who will say everything as it is.”

The impact of exposure lies in experiencing
and then processing these experiences

The reason I decided to quote this particular paragraph from Elsie’s article is because it contains an invaluable observation. It encourages reflection cycles by both sides, the subject and the object of the narration, the sender and the recipient of the message, which again is a precondition for collaboration, which is what we all want. These particular paragraphs contain feedback that inevitably evokes certain emotions. “What impression am I giving?” “How does the other person see me?” “How is my being socialized in my environment different?” Obviously, Germans always following the rules is a generalization. But that is not the point. Instead, such a publicly expressed observation has an effect on future encounters between “foreigners” and “nationals”, without implying who is who. Both sides can be either, which again breaks up said categories. Elsie accordingly continues:

“It opened my mind to accepting, appreciating, and adopting different cultures. It made me get ideas on how to improve many areas in our country, university, perceptions and also taught me how to leave comfort zones. Germany gave me hope that it is possible to succeed by working hard, being honest, and having systems that work for the people. Germany also helped me appreciate our Kenyan society where even though we may lack in a lot of areas, our warmness cannot be compared to any other.”

The point is that global thinking has become an invaluable skill

The answer in the necessity for more exposure – and we especially see it in our international coachees, the scholars and alumni from abroad in Germany – is that global thinking is more and more becoming an indispensable skill on the job market. Even more significant is that it constitutes an indispensable skill in a more and more complex, seemingly unbalanced, and often complicated world. It is a world in which the big issues of globalization, digitalization, migration and climate change neither deal with borders nor the notion of who is a “foreigner” or who is a “national”.

Global thinking skills encompass several soft skills including the ability to reflect, to see matters from different angles, to try out, innovate, maybe even to dare more, to actively question issues, to take a stance, be critical, maybe even a better person by their own standards. What is unique to global thinking skills is that they consist of a skill set that cannot be taught – it must be experienced. We should keep these educational and experiential cycles running. What we have not yet considered in all this? How to open the system up to non-academics, to vocational students and apprentices. That should be the next step.

This article draws from a contribution by Elsie Mugure that was published under the title “Case Study: Experiential Learning Through Student Exchange Program” in: Brautlacht, Agyapong, Owino (Eds.), Handbook of Applied Teaching and Learning, pp. 103-106 at German African University Partnership Platform for the Development of Entrepreneurs and Small/Medium Enterprises.

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