Learning Beyond the Classroom

This February, the Task Force on General Education issued a report calling for the creation of a committee to “develop an initiative in activity-based learning.” The report suggested that an activity-based learning program could capitalize on Harvard’s flourishing extracurricular life, allowing students to forge “an intellectual link” between their academic pursuits and their endeavors outside of the classroom. Many have bristled at this promotion of activity-based learning, worried that classes would co-opt students’ extracurricular activities, transforming them into another form of stressful academic drudgery.

While these fears are understandable, they are also misplaced. Critics’ primary objections to activity-based learning stem from the particular vision outlined in the Task Force’s report—a vision that does not reflect the best that activity-based learning has to offer. Well-developed activity-based courses can create potent synergies between real-world experiences and academic exploration, an alchemy that need not intrude on students’ other extracurricular commitments. Such classes stand to significantly enrich undergraduates’ learning experiences, and deserve serious consideration from Harvard’s students and faculty members.

Last fall, we took a junior tutorial in Social Studies that proved to be one of the defining courses of our college careers. The class, “Practicing Democracy: Leadership, Community and Power,” required each of us to design a substantial community organizing project over the course of the semester. Thanks to the course’s meticulous planning, many of us novice organizers found ourselves privy to areas that would have been inaccessible through Harvard’s extracurricular programs.

One of us teamed Boston residents with architects to design a new $85.5 million community center, another organized a get-out-the-vote campaign in Roxbury, and one worked to mobilize the myriad Middle East activism groups on campus into a coherent network. No longer were our two worlds split into disparate (and competing) realms of learning; this pedagogy married more theoretical, conventional classroom learning with tangible—and holistically rewarding—activities, resulting in an incredibly refreshing and educational experience.

This course succeeded because it revolved entirely around our organizing projects. We had a personal stake in each week’s reading, and the readings in turn greatly informed our work outside the classroom. This synergy created a learning experience that transcended anything we’d previously encountered in a Harvard class.

Indeed, Harvard’s peer institutions have already recognized and embraced the potential of this type of learning. The University of Pennsylvania boasts 46 academic courses in 19 different departments that integrate classroom experience with work in the neighborhoods of West Philadelphia. Other Ivies also have strong community-based learning programs, which have flourished, in large measure, because they support professors in developing curricula that integrate activity-based work with classroom learning. Activity-based components are not merely tacked onto courses as an afterthought, as the latest model proposed by Harvard’s Task Force on General Education may appear to suggest.

Thankfully, Harvard is already well-equipped with the expertise to develop high-quality, integrative activity-based learning. Since 2005, the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning has been assessing how courses that provide opportunities for students to do public service, fieldwork, community-based research and internships in conjunction with their course work have impacted student learning outcomes. They have now collected data on twenty-nine courses involving over seven hundred Harvard students.

Anxiety over a scholarly hijacking of extracurricular pursuits also belies the current existence of several thriving courses centered on activity-based components. In addition to our Social Studies tutorial, last spring Music 194rs, “Leonard Bernstein’s Boston,” engaged students in community-based research which they later presented at a festival celebrating Bernstein’s local roots in October 2006. Sociology 96 pairs students with Boston nonprofits; Spanish, Italian and Portuguese 60 place students in organizations around the city to practice these languages in authentic settings; and Sociology 190, “Life and Death in the US: Medicine and Disease in Social Context” explores both the biological and social factors that impact public health, with some sections of students pursuing community work in conjunction with their academic work.

As deliberations on General Education progress, the Faculty should take a careful look at the innovative learning already taking place in these courses. Furthermore, we students should approach the idea of synthesizing classroom learning and “real-world” experience with open minds. Many of us who have taken the plunge into activity-based classes are eager for more. We hope the faculty will act on the Task Force’s proposal in tomorrow’s faculty meeting and form a committee to investigate a pedagogical initiative in activity-based learning, one that does not simply piggyback off Harvard’s extracurriculars but engages activity outside the classroom to create a truly educational experience.

Katharine E. S. Loncke ’08 is a social studies and women, gender and sexuality concentrator in Cabot House. Deena S. Shakir ’09 is a social studies and Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Leverett House. Thomas S. Wooten ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Quincy House.