Refugee Simulation: The Experiential Cycle

Last week, three students in my Global Issues class organized a refugee simulation experience for our school as part of their Take Action Project. Muuxi Adam, a Somalian refugee and founding member of HumanKind International, had inspired them at a visit he made in January.


Muuxi Adam from HumanKind International sharing his personal experience with Grade 12 students.

The students began to make plans to host a refugee simulation to help bring attention to the dire needs of asylum seekers and specifically to the plight of refugees in the largest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab. (See the map below.)

Prior to the experience, however, our class began to research the global refugee crisis from historical and contemporary perspectives and many students chose the crisis as their topic for their major papers and Take Action Projects. In order to prepare and front load for this experience, we also participated in the Glassen Essay Contest which asked: What, if anything, should Canada do about the global refugee crisis?

In doing so, we had created a neural network that would help us properly engage in the primary experience — the simulation.

On April 29th, Muuxi , Grade 12 students, and several volunteers came to campus and designed a refugee experience that would take our learners on a journey that involved fleeing their homeland, a 6 KM march, an ambush by rebels, mind fields, and border crossings. You can see via the images and vines below  to get a sense of what the experience was like.


Students grabbing what they can to flee their homelands


Students walking to the next safe place


Rebels rob the refugees


Land minds!


More walking


The border is up a head.


Confusion at the border


Refugees try to fill out paper work in other languages. Families are split apart.


Reflecting on the experience.


Muuxi and student organizers debrief with Grade 12 and 9 students.

The students were then provided time to think and write about their experience and communicate how their research informed the experience. Here is one of the student organizers speaking on CBC about his experience:

The experience was tremendously educative for all of us and it began with the curiosity of a few members of our learning community, priming the pump in terms of creating a pre-existing neural network, designing an exceptional primary experience, and then having the time and space to reflect on our learning. This experience now feeds into greater and deeper educative experiences.


Kolb’s Cycle of Experience

I would encourage all educators to invite Muuxi and Humankind international to organize a similar experience. It is critical for understanding the plight of our fellow species mates and developing empathy for all forms of life.


Kornelsen: Stories of Transformation



In an era of ubiquity when it comes to positioning, conferences, and subsequent books on the notions of experiential education and global citizenship, Lloyd Kornelsen, professor of Education at the University of Winnipeg and former acting head of the Global College, offers a breath of fresh air and an impressive conceptual analysis of both concepts.

In Stories of Transformation: Memories of a Global Citizenship Practicum, Kornelsen describes a School Initiated Course and learning experience from 2003 whereby he accompanied a group of high school students from the University of Winnipeg Collegiate to Costa Rica. Several years later, with questions in mind regarding the utility and transformational power of such excursions, Kornelsen interviewed the participants to examine how these practicums line up with the theoretical underpinnings provided by likely suspects: Dewey, Freire, Kolb, Illich,  Nussbaum, Appiah, and more.

The power in Kornelsen’s journey is the questions he raises about the efficacy of these trips — where affluent youth truck down to the South for the purposes of Socratic self-examination, transformation, and to gain insight into this idea of a global citizenry. Kornelsen pulls no punches and offers several pitfalls of such learning experiences, but fundamentally asserts that two critical capacities are required for educators.

The first is what he refers to as teachers needing to take responsibility for their teaching selves. By this, educators need to be global citizens, defined principally by Nussbaum and Appiah. Teachers must be critical thinkers, and examine that jumping on a plane and living with local families may have its limitations and ethical uneasiness. How do we as educators provide our students with the support and experiences necessary to overcome these limitations? Are we simply sending students on trips and hoping for the best?

The second capacity refers to something that I fail at often — that is the need to relate to our learners as Korenlesen suggests, “inter-subjectively.” Educators must foster and facilitate learning communities whereby the experience of each learner is honoured and respected and where the elders provide nudges and insight for further educative experiences and dissonance.

This book is well researched, painfully honest, and a window into what excellence in teaching looks like. Stories of Transformation is a must read for all teachers who truly seek to engage learners in meaningful conversations about who we are as a species and our purpose on this planet.

Database of Experiences

Henderson & Powell want to suck your brain!!

Henderson & Powell want to suck your brain!!

Here’s to a bit of crowd sourcing, so to speak! My colleague, Rebecca Powell, and I are on a journey to seek out what you and your schools are doing by way of experiential education, ecological literacy, and or 21st century learning (cringe).

Our plan is to compile a database of sorts based on criteria we are putting together for our school in terms of how people frame the notion of experience. Our school is really interested in this idea of experience.

So, we would love your input and expertise. Please share what you do or what your learning community does to use the experience of your learners to create educative experiences. Please include your name, your school’s name, and a short blurb below in the comment section. We are planning to produce this database in late 2014 and we will most definitely share it with you.


The Language of Experience: The role of parents in learning

I would like to offer my most sincere apology in advance to the teachers of my children. My daughter begins her journey through public education this fall, as she will bravely cross the threshold into Kindergarten at our local French immersion school. I apology for my future pokiness, my second guessing, and my general over interest in her education. Perhaps this is a sick joke that karma is playing on me for all the frustration I have caused parents as a classroom teacher.

But what is my role as a parent when it comes to learning in schools? How do I best support my children and their teachers so that we are all facilitating learning throughout the entire day – not just within the confines of the walls of school? Over the past few weeks, as our family is gearing up for the inevitable foray into public education, I have given these questions a great deal of thought and have attempted to answer them based on my role as a teacher. What support do I need from parents? What has worked best when teachers, parents, and learners get together and form a partnership?

The answers, fundamentally, come down to the concept of experience. Often a nebulous term and one co-opted to serve a variety of needs and political outcomes, learning from experience is simply what we do all day. Through many experiences, we learn really important lessons, new skills, and new knowledge. Through other experiences, we learn some pretty negative stuff. When we write multiple choice tests, for example, many of us learn how to write multiple choice tests – perhaps not the intended outcome. Or sometimes we learn that cigarettes make us look pretty cool amongst peers.

So when we look at experience in schools and in learning, we want to focus on educative experiences – experiences that will lead to new experiences and intended and positive learning outcomes. As John Dewey suggested in the mid 20th century, “if an experience arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative,and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future, continuity works in a very different way.”  As such, educative experiences move us forward, transform us, and ultimately help cultivate and inspire curiosity.

Where do the parents fit into this understanding? From my experience as a humanities teacher of high school students, this often comes down to language in the form of authentic conversations between the learner and the parent, not necessarily as place-based education or phenomenology, but rather as language itself. Derrida suggested that experience is greatly dependant on language, even going so far as to suggest that “there is nothing outside of the text.” How this translates into the relationship between the learner and the parent can be powerful. Whether at the dinner table, in a vehicle, or in a waiting room, having parents and children discuss major, complex, and global issues in an authentic manner can greatly increase the understanding of the concept for the learner, and propel them to create new understandings.

For example, I often ask parents on Fridays to contemplate a key question or understanding we are discussing in the classroom with their kids. What I find is that the students come back with new perspectives that they have synthesized or more questions. Recently, I asked parents and learners to discuss various events and buildings that were related to the Winnipeg General Strike. Students were asked to create photo-mashups of buildings from 1919 and then take contemporary pictures and blend them together. They were then asked to explain the significance of that place. What seemed like a simple and possibly mundane acquiring activity, turned into, in one case, an amazing conversation between a student, a father, and a grandfather.

Here is a comment a father of a student sent me:

“He (the student) frequently asks for my opinion on topics you are covering, such as the Great Depression or the Winnipeg General Strike. Of the latter I knew very little so together we did some research online. Paul (the learner, whose name has been changed), found that the Volunteer Monument, now standing by the planetarium, stood in front of old City Hall and was there at the time of the Strike. In fact, it can be seen in the iconic photo of the mob trying to derail the street car…. The Volunteer Monument commemorated the Battle of Batoche….”

Paul subsequently came into class with not only more questions about the Strike, but about how people in Manitoba, the home of Louis Riel, valued the contributions of Canadian soldiers in the Métis resistance of 1885. This line of inquiry kept our learning community chugging for weeks – simply because of an authentic conversation beyond the classroom. He was also able to connect with his grandfather, who also became intrigued by the monument. Connecting with our elders and their wisdom seems to be a lost practice in the 21st century.

There is also brain research which suggests that language and experience are critical to transformation and positive learning. Dr. James Zull equates learning to the physical development of neurons and their connections to experience. As such, he suggests that learning has four stages:  “We have a Con­crete expe­ri­ence, we develop Reflec­tive Obser­va­tion and Con­nec­tions, we gen­er­ate Abstract hypoth­e­sis, and we then do Active test­ing of those hypothe­ses, and there­fore have a new Con­crete expe­ri­ence, and a new Learn­ing Cycle ensues.”

With this in mind, it is the conversation between parents and the learner that help students with the last two stages of the cycle. Learners, in a meaningful conversation with learned adults, can create their own interpretations of the world and then test these theories out. This is ultimately we have been making sense of the world for thousands of years – bouncing ideas off our elders. This, unto itself, is an experience that can move us and transform us. Educators need to provide parents and learners with the deep questions and the classroom experience that will launch this higher-order thinking at home. Educative experiences at school lead to educative experiences at home with the right language.

Upon reflection, this is how I can support my daughter’s learning and her teachers. I can facilitate and nurture the curiosity that will hopefully be generated at school and allow her to test her ideas on me. I can ask the teachers what driving questions they are posing and make the effort to have these conversations with my kids. My only hope is that I can keep up.