Experiential Education Across the Length & Breadth of Sri Lanka: OSC’s Week Without Walls Program
The Overseas School of Colombo’s annual Week Without Walls (WWW) is a high point for many of our students and teachers. With collective inputs of faculty members, some who have moved to other schools, the program continues to grow as a model of experiential education in a small school. I’ve had the privilege to be involved with the program from its inception. In addition to running one of the groups I coordinate the program and help to give it direction. We have now developed several distinct goals that guide the way it runs and continue to look for ways to improve the experiences. One of these key goals is the focus that is put on the host country (rather than on exotic foreign locations) and how the program fosters a better understanding of Sri Lanka. In recent years the focus has been on integrating units of study from classes with the different WWW learning experiences. In this post I’ll go back in time to review the origins of the program and then highlight some of the outcomes this year.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Experiential education is an approach in teaching and learning with roots in the writing of John Dewey and other education thinkers of the 20th Century. It is defined by the Association of Experiential Education as “a process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skills and value from direct experience” (Ibid 91). Kurt Hahn was an early practitioner of experiential education in founding the Outward Bound program and motivating the IB’s Creativity Action & Service (CAS) program. David Kolb’s 1984 publication Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development provided a theoretical basis that has underpinned the CAS program. His cycle or model of goal-setting, action, observation and reflection is a key part of the CAS learning process, and similar models are used in other areas of learning.
OSC’s WWW program had its roots in an ambitious outdoor education (OE) program that was integrated into the school’s Middle Year’s Program (MYP) in the mid 2000s. The OE program was envisioned by Elliot Bowyer, supported by Ray Lewis (MYP/DP teacher), Paul Buckley (Primary Principal), Laurie McLellan (Head of School) and several others in 2003-04 and implemented with the support of Borderlands Pvt. Ltd. Each of the middle school classes took a three-day experience and skills were built up to a culminating adventure in MYP5 that was used as a moderated sample in the PE classes. In its original design, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award program was planned to be integrated alongside the PE units. This didn’t happen and we are now reconsidering it as an add on to our program. The OE ran into difficulty when there was a change in staff and the PE department lost interest in using the program to design their moderated assessments around. As it happened, other developments at school helped the OE program evolve.
An overnight trip to the summit temple on Sri Pada in January 2007 with the MYP geography students from the class of 2009 was a key event that paved the way for the WWW program as we now know it. I was leading the experience as a part of my MYP5 geography study of culture and ecosystems. There were 12 enthusiastic students from nearly as many countries. One was the daughter of an ambassador who had a security guard shadowing us discretely. We hiked up in daylight hours and spent the night in the summit temple. Oli Toore Hancock, OSC’s secondary principal was the female chaperone. Our observations of student engagement and learning sewed the seed for what would then develop into the Week Without Walls. (an account of the experience was published in IS Magazine in 2007)
At the same time OSC was supporting eight tsunami-affected community primary schools in the south of the island. Karu Gamage, the school’s legendary service coordinator for many years, was our link to these institutions and their hard working teachers. Students groups from OSC had visited the schools for short service learning trips and these experiences were woven into the initial avatars of the WWW program. Oli presented a WWW proposal to the board in March 2007 and it was approved for the 2007-08 school year.
Evolution in Experiential Learning
As the WWW took shape we worked to establish clear goals to guide the trips as experiential learning experiences rather than visits to exotic locations. Aside from incorporating the outdoor education and service learning goals, the WWW program was designed to better expose OSC students to our host nation Sri Lanka and its varied natural and cultural treasures. The ideals of the WWW were rooted in more fully realizing the OSC mission statement, which seeks to “develop the whole person as a responsible learner, striving for personal excellence within a culturally diverse environment.” It was initially only three days and all learning experiences were single (rather than mixed) class trips. By this time Anthony Coles was the secondary principal. Laurie McLellan was still the Head of School and would soon be succeeded by Areta Williams. It was a crucial time as the conflict and violence that had engulfed the country came to an end in May 2009.
The WWW program ran parallel to the OE program for the first two years. But with OE not being used in MYP classes it was decided to integrate the learning with the WWW into a single five day-long program in 2009-10. Costs were incorporated into tuition around this time (parents had paid a subsidized fee for their children in past years). MYP 1-3 (grade 6-8) trips focused on themes of culture, history and ecology in Kandy, Galle and the Cultural Triangle. MYP 4 (grade 9) kept the full outdoor education emphasis-something that was enabled when Borderlands established a permanent camp in Kitulgala. Grade 10 combined both outdoor education at Uduwalawae with two days of service work in Hambantota. DP1 (Grade 11) did a full service trip to the tsunami-affected community schools also in Hambantota.
I found that the large class trips were difficult to manage and advocated for smaller groups where students had choice in what they did. I had seen this model work extremely well on the two “project weeks” that I planned and organized while working at MUWCI. The idea was supported by other faculty members and Eileen Niedermann, who had become OSC’s secondary principal in August 2010. In January 2013 we offered the first choice “microtrips” for the MYP5 and DP1 students. The experiences were organized around themes from the Creativity Action and Service (CAS) program. Two of the four trips emphasized physical activity, one had a strong service element and a third was arts focused. These experiences also provided unique opportunities to visit once conflict isolated locations such as Jaffna and Arugam Bay as well as known places such as Sinharaja and the Cultural Triangle.
One of the key developments during Eileen’s tenure as principal has been the development of a detailed learning continuum (scope and sequence) for experiential education at OSC. The goal of this document, is to provide a framework for experiential learning in a variety of areas at OSC. It divides the learning into three broad learning areas (Knowledge & Awareness, Skills and Attitudes) across the three IB programs. With Eileen’s leadership, OSC adopted the document in 2012-13 and we continue to use it as a guide for the learning in the WWW and other experiential learning exercises.
IDUs in WWW
This year the WWW learning experiences were grafted to the recently introduced MYP Interdisciplinary Units (IDUs). The motivation for this comes from the publication Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning in the MYP. As stated in the guidelines MYP classes are expected to run at least one IDU a school year. Veronica Boix-Mansilla from Harvard’s Project Zero was the author of the first draft of the document. She writes in the opening paragraph:
“Quality interdisciplinary education invites students to integrate concepts, theories, methods and tools from two or more disciplines to deepen their understanding of a complex topic. In so doing, interdisciplinary instruction enlists students’ multiple capabilities (aesthetic, social, analytical) and prepares them to solve problems, create products or ask questions in ways that go beyond single disciplinary perspectives” (Boix Mansilla 1).
I had to the opportunity to work with Veronica and a group of stellar IB educators on the World Studies Extended Essay (WSEE) pilot process in 2009-11. This experience, as well as my background as an Environmental Systems teacher (one of the IB DP’s few interdisciplinary subjects) puts me squarely in the IDU cheerleading stand.
The idea being the IDU is to have two subject areas integrated into the learning goals and to address questions that can be best answered using a broad-based interdisciplinary approach. This year OSC decided to graft this requirement on to our WWW program with mixed, though mostly positive success. It works very well where the subject area teachers are also involved with the planning and implementation of their WWW. It also helps when teachers have been in Sri Lanka long enough to develop suitable learning that is closely tied to their units of study. Because we are a small school where teachers teach across grade levels this is not always possible.
There is also the issue that DP1 students mixed with MYP5 students on the WWW microtrip (choice) experiences. In my original design of learning I used the CAS umbrella and its learning outcomes to guide learning objectives. This still seems to make sense to me as the best option for them. What we tried doing this year was to fuse this with the need for MYP IDUs. To make meaningful connections between the IDU and their regular learning is still a challenge that needs to be realized.
In mid-February we hosted the culmination of the program in the annual WWW Exhibition. This is designed to be a celebration of the learning experiences that students share with the broader OSC community. I am now reviewing feedback for students and teachers as well as the finances as we get ready to start planning the 2017 WWW. One of my ideas is to rename the program to make it more reflective of our program’s unique attributes. We’ll revisit the scope and sequence and see how we can better incorporate the IDUs. I look forward to many more years of experiential learning here in Sri Lanka…
Boix-Mansilla, Verónica. MYP guide to interdisciplinary teaching and learning Middle Years. Geneva: International Baccalaureate Organization, 2010. Print.
Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning in the MYP. Geneva: International Baccalaureate Organization, Print & Web.
Itin, C. M. “Reasserting the Philosophy of Experiential Education as a Vehicle for Change in the 21st Century.” The Journal of Experiential Education,.22(2), 91-98. 1999. Web.
Kolb, David. A. Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1984. Print. Web Link.
Lockwood, Ian. Experiential Education in Sri Lanka: OSC’s Week Without Walls Program. 2016. Web.
EXEMPLAR DP1 STUDENT REFLECTIONS FROM THE 2016 WWW
Sri Lanka Highlands