In this post, Emily Woollen, Academic Developer at the Institute for Academic Development, reflects on the power of combining outdoor activities and experiential learning concepts to inspire interdisciplinary thinking…
What does interdisciplinarity, outdoor activities and experiential learning all have in common? They challenge you by taking you out of your usual context in order to find new frontiers. If you’ll bear with me, I’ll try to explain!
For interdisciplinary students and researchers, working outside of your usual context and challenging yourself to think differently about a problem is the day-to-day mode of operation. However, when challenging ourselves intellectually, at the very frontiers of disciplines, the opportunities for confusion are also that much greater. Having worked in an interdisciplinary team during several of my postdoctoral years, confusion was almost a daily occurrence, and it became part and parcel of doing interdisciplinary research. As a result, interdisciplinary learning takes much longer, and finding those moments of clarity harder to find. For me, those moments of clarity did not occur when I was deeply engaged in the day-to-day work, but were largely achieved when I was physically outside of my usual working context thinking about something completely different. In my experience, when you allow your thoughts a bit of time to settle it’s often when things become clearer.
In a different life as an academic developer, I have recently had the pleasure of joining two separate groups at the wonderful Firbush Outdoor Centre, one of Edinburgh University’s many hidden gems. The first group was a group of Ingenious Women, the other the George Square Postdocs Retreat. Both events had similar aims: to create opportunities for networking and socialising with fellow academics and entrepreneurs; to create a sense of community; and to challenge participants to think more deeply about their research and careers. For me, an interesting element was that both of these groups had independently chosen a location that took participants out of their usual context, and incorporated outdoor activities into their programmes.
For the cynic amongst you, you are probably thinking that they chose this location as an excuse to go for ‘a bit of a jolly’, as they say in the UK. I can’t deny that there is an element of enjoyment in choosing an outdoor centre in a stunning location for these events. However, just taking this viewpoint misses the real value that exists in taking yourself out of your usual context. Be it sitting in a canoe out on a loch, or just enjoying a new view, it can have real value for allowing the time to reflect. The deep sense of calm that a vista can offer, or the achievement in doing something new, like hiking up that hill, should not be underrated.
Now, how does this all tie in with experiential learning? A recent Teaching Matters blog on experiential education by Dr Simon Beames, made me think that many of the key elements of experiential education he proposes can indeed be found in outdoor experiences, and, if applied to tackling the many challenges of interdisciplinarity, could be truly beneficial. Mapping on to some of Simon’s principles, the following links can be made between experiential learning, outdoor education and interdisciplinarity:
- Continuity: Linking the physical activity to the intellectual challenges of interdisciplinarity.
- Agency: Choosing the challenge/activity to focus on.
- Emotional engagement: The sense of achievement in completing a physical challenge that may be eluding you in your work
- Safe and supportive environment: Allowing participants to try new things and to fail without excessive consequences
- Reflection: Contemplating on how to use the experience to move forward or develop.
By approaching interdisciplinary challenges in the guise of an outdoor activity, you can almost ambush the confusion by tackling it in a safe and unthreatening way, and provide that space to look at it more clearly. The experiential education element provides the framework or structure for the physical activity to become educational and developmental in nature. The simplicity of doing something physical rather than mental can also be freeing.
Allowing that time for critical reflection, not just about the physical task at hand but crucially linking it back to the challenges of working and thinking at the frontiers, allows you to more deeply consider how you can tackle some of the many challenges of interdisciplinarity, and inform what you do next. We sometimes forget that learning is not limited to something we do as students in a classroom or as researchers at a desk, and allowing ourselves to experience learning in a new way can stimulate growth and development on all fronts. Particularly for interdisciplinary learners and researchers, I think experiential learning has real potential, whatever the context. Having an opportunity to un-muddle your brain and tackle some of the challenges in a stunning location and in a safe and supportive environment can only be a plus!