Is Experiential Education Simply All Fun and Games?

[This is the fourth in a series of articles highlighting the scope of best practices in experiential Jewish education.]

by Sara Smith

The competitive edge of the sixteen participants was palpable on their third and final attempt to both complete the given task and beat the record they set on their previous attempts. The personalities in the group quickly emerged: the leaders, the followers, the challengers, and those who couldn’t care less. On their final attempt, they began to think outside the box and question assumptions as they lay on the floor, using sweaters and around-the-neck nametags, pointing their toes and encouraging each other, to create the longest line possible with their bodies. To the casual observer and perhaps to the participants themselves, this was a fun and exciting way to “break the ice” on a level beyond learning each other’s names. After all, this was the third day of an intense four-week summer program for high school students.

This activity, like many others on that day and scattered throughout the four weeks, was carefully orchestrated. It was not just a fun game. Rather, it set the tone for the entire summer. Knowing that these participants would be spending a month living and learning together, it was crucial to establish the notion of community from the very beginning. While icebreakers help participants to learn names and other simple pieces of information about new faces, they are merely introductory in nature. Group building activities, however, move beyond face value, and they do it quickly. Whether during the activity itself or in the short debrief session immediately following, values and personalities emerge naturally and quickly, enabling the members of the group to learn about themselves and others. In experiential learning, team building is not an end in and of itself, it is a means to the most important end – values.

Educators often think of icebreakers as fun games that we facilitate at the beginning of a learning experience so that we can move on to the “real learning.” But icebreakers can grow into group building if they are infused with a real sense of purpose and, ultimately, educational value. If properly structured, they can move from “getting-to-know-you” games into tools for group building that can be used throughout an educational experience. In my time in Yeshiva University’s Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education, my cohort worked with Dr. Jim Cain to analyze our own group formation so that we would be able to utilize group-building techniques in our educational work. Using ourselves as participants, we became participant-observers, dissecting and evaluating our own behavior so that we would be better equipped to do the same for our learners. It was fascinating to discuss various theories of group formation and see ourselves and our own processes in each of them.

The power of group building in both formal and informal educational experiences cannot be underestimated. If not done properly, all of the learning that takes place in a given setting may be compromised. Learning, and especially experiential learning, occurs within a group, and how that group interacts, behaves, and relates to each other greatly impacts the learning. Reflecting on my experience in EJE, I concluded that real learning only happened once we had created a safe space, one in which we could feel vulnerable, one that was free of judgment, and one that perpetuated a culture of gratitude throughout. If this was the case with adults who were already self-aware, reflective, and thoughtful, how much more valuable would it be for adolescents and emerging adults whose identities are in flux and who crave safe spaces for experimentation without fear of judgment!

Oftentimes, educators are hesitant to invest precious time in team building, especially at the expense of content learning. Even students rarely initially see the value of these activities. But it soon becomes clear that the values discussed in conjunction with those activities are the ones that guide our learning. Sometimes those values must be revisited or adjusted, just as the group dynamics must be continually nurtured and attended to. For while group formation is crucial at the onset of the experience, it is not a one-shot deal. Just as couples sometimes require counseling to navigate through rough patches in the relationship, so too do groups require constant attention, nurturing, and maintenance.

The question running through every participant’s mind as they were lying on the floor – “why are we doing this?” – was vocalized by a brave few. They had signed up for this program so they could spend time in the science lab learning about bacteria, sharpening their skills, and engaging passionately with the subject matter. It was not until after they had spent some time in the lab that they appreciated the initial group building activities. After all, working in a science lab is not just about expanding one’s scientific knowledge and skill. It requires collaboration, creativity, innovation, trust, openness, and much more. And it is no coincidence that these values mirror life outside the lab. Experiential learning is about learning through and from our lived experiences. Group building activities help bring about this learning in a focused and directed way and should be used deliberately by educators as tools to promote personal growth, group formation, and content learning.

Sara Smith is an Avi Chai Fellow and Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar in the Doctoral Program in Education and Jewish Studies at New York University and a graduate of Cohort II of the Yeshiva University Certificate Program in Experiential Jewish Education generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.