Learning on the Move: Reinventing in Berlin

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By Dr. Alexander Heinz, Senior Tutor & Lead – Summer Education Program.

There is something about being in motion while learning that doesn’t come together comfortably in our heads.  Learning requires quiet concentration. Repetition is often cited as the mother of learning, and so on. Archetypal images of studious people almost invariably include somebody sitting still at a desk, reading or listening attentively.

We know that this imagination of what learning is supposed to be has never been true. It is not just technology that has made information and insight ubiquitous. We sometimes think better – or better think – on our feet; who hasn’t found it easier to concentrate on phone conversations when pacing the room? Academic solitude still has its place but we cannot spend a 21st century life in the ivory tower. Experiential learning has unsurprisingly risen to become a buzz word of today’s Higher Education community.

We in King’s Summer Programmes recently premiered our Berlin Summer Study Visit which was coordinated by King’s scholar, Aida Baghernejad in Berlin. Thirteen undergraduate students of diverse subject backgrounds were invited to understand the symphony of this city of contradictions, its resourceful, complex character, its ugliness and beauty by experiencing it up close.  The carefully choreographed course took them along many miles of road and introduced them to a plethora of faces, foods, three hundred years of history, kings and queens, roaring twenties, crimes, wars, walls. With interventions from bloggers and journalists, the group visited present day Berlin by travelling through its past first.

Off to a new place

The unconventional nature of learning on the move was an integral part of how students were to learn and understand the content of this course. Meeting eye witnesses to historical events in the place where they live is a privileged way of learning. One of Germany’s most eminent journalists, Gerd Appenzeller, spoke about his life in his divided Berlin. Plaques and the internet combined to enable us to meet witnesses who are no longer with us virtually, bringing to life the human tragedy in the houses in front of us. The Stolperstein (stumbling stone) app, for example, provides more background to little golden stone plaques embedded in the pavement in front of houses where victims of National Socialist terror used to live.

We approached and entered the monumental Olympic Stadium, accompanied by a talk on its history by doctoral researcher Sanna Stegmaier. Using Sanna’s tablet, we were able to use virtual reality to see us a 1936 Olympic torch bearer running down the steps just next to us and hear the roar of the crowd.  It really brought to life a side of the National Socialist heyday that is not often discussed or explained: its allure and glamour.  Confronting that feeling of interest married with knowledge of its terrible impact on the world felt like a very dangerous sensation.  Standing in that place, experiencing that together was a more powerful learning experience than expected.

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The site of the 1936 Olympic Games and an exercise in how to behave towards an impressive building built by the wrong people. Mobile phones provide a handy 21st century coping method.

Learning as a whole human being

Berlin’s innate ability to reinvent and renew itself, even when resources are scarce, resonated with the group. Participants came together with the objects of their study often for the first time and in a largely unexplored context.

The emotional tide participants feel during this type of experiential learning experience is substantial. In contrast to a day in the classroom, a study day tour is more easily an occasion. Berlin remains a city that is struggling economically, but a city that continues to be affordable to many, especially young people. What is the relationship between young people in today’s Germany compared to their peers in Britain? This course aimed to encourage participants’ self confidence and to nurture their ability for careful critical thinking when engaging with the present as much as it sought to explain Berlin’s rich histories.

A different group will take its baggage to Berlin next year and hopefully come back travelling lighter and more confidently. This course has done its job and opened the participants’ minds to the wealth of possibilities and ideas out there.  I wonder if any of them will take the plunge and found a start up in Berlin when they graduate? I’d like to think so…

 Do you learn better on the move? Or do you find that your students are more engaged when learning takes place when you’re on the move? Let us know in the comments below.

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