Experiential learning: more than words

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We have just finished a brilliant fortnight working with Grassroot Soccer, an organisation that aims to harness the power of soccer to connect young people to the information, health services and mentors they need to thrive. The workshops took place in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe to support the expansion of the focus of Grassroots Soccer to include a comprehensive approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), and adolescent health and well-being.

Sport can be a powerful tool for personal development, and also tackling some wider social and interpersonal concerns for young people. 

A report out this week from UEFA, the European Football Union, found that participating in football boosts girl’s confidence. They compared football with other sports in a study involving more than 4,000 girls, and found that teenage girls who play football report higher levels of self-confidence.

I was reminded about the power of sport in creating opportunities for learning during our work this week. It was an opportunity to step back and remember the power of experience, reflection and metaphor in understanding complex personal, social and political dynamics.

IMG_8211As a facilitator, I always use lots of activities, questions, and games. I aspire to – and usually succeed in – being interactive and flexible in my approach. I travel everywhere with coloured crayons, that I use in (sometimes poor, sometimes masterpiece) attempts to make flip charts and signs for the wall so that it may seem more like an art gallery than a meeting room. I also like to run activities outside and find open spaces for group work in gardens, by a river or other spaces where a conversation can take place in the openness of the natural environment. Yet I was reminded this week that these are all techniques that rely on words, articulation and explicit thought for the learning to take place.

Sometimes it can be too hard at a specific moment to find the right words to construct a sentence, explain a question, or pinpoint a phrase to capture the complexity of the issues under discussion. Integrating sexual and reproductive health and rights with HIV is a complex area, as are reflections about sexuality, the construction and performance of gender, and the intersecting layers of anyone’s personal identity. Facilitators and meeting congeners alike tend to forget to accommodate that challenge of communication in shaping agendas. In a micro way, workshops replicate classrooms and more formal sites of learning by trying to programme a logical unfurling of information in an intense and usually ambitiously short time frame.

IMG_8175It is so clear from the sports based activity learning used by Grassroot Soccer and others in their programming with young people, that learning without words can be very powerful. Perhaps ever more so than what we are able to explain through explicit thoughts, conversations, flip charts, and group discussions.

There must be a way we could harness the power of experiential and metaphorical learning for adult learning? Surely we can build sport, fun, open space, un-programmed space for loose and impromptu conversations within workshops such as these?

That is my new challenge. In facilitating learning processes and workshops in the future, ones that I have privileged enough to have been tasked to curate, I hope that we can embrace a creative openness to plan a programme that leaves a lot unplanned. In other words, I hope to create an agenda that includes a balance of content as well space and activities that can enable a different and more experiential type of learning and reflection to take place. I look forward to a programme that includes 4 hours of open space in the middle of each day…. where actions may have a space where they can speak louder than words.

Lucy Stackpool-Moore

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