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Creative Institutional Partnerships That Enhance Experiential Learning in Times of Crisis


Marta Vernet is the Activities, Community Service and Alumni Coordinator and Robin Berting is Admissions and Community Relations Coordinator at The American School of Barcelona. They initial presented a first version of this paper at the European Council of International Schools conference in Lisbon. Marta Vernet is an alumnaof Community Works Institute (CWI).

There is great untapped potential
for international schools to develop dynamic experiential learning programs through partnerships with a variety of institutions, including local and international NGO’s, multinational corporations, and an often overlooked set of institutions: local, regional or national governments. Establishing these partnerships not only provides students with valuable opportunities for experiential learning; it can also have a very positive impact on partner institutions and their constituents, enhancing the school’s image in the community, and thereby reinforcing the value placed on such programs within the school in a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle. The cost effectiveness of such programs is an important consideration too, especially in these times of economic crisis. In this paper, three cases of programs based on partnerships between the American School of Barcelona and public institutions and then the “virtuous partnership cycle” model for setting up these institutional partnerships is presented.

As we progressively move into the 21st century, it has become increasingly clear that education administrators need to change the way they view schools. According to the US-based “Partnership for 21st Century Skills”, the skills required for success in the 21st century include not only the new media and technology skills, but also career and life skills, as well as learning and innovation skills (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity). From an international schools’ perspective, we would add linguistic and intercultural skills. Many educators, such as those affiliated with the UK-base “Learning Outside the Classroom” organization, agree that education can and should become more relevant to pupils by moving increasingly outside the classroom walls to develop these skills in the form of experiential learning programs (including place-based education, cross-age learning, and service-learning, among others). But with increasing budget restrictions in these times of economic crisis, how can schools set up these kinds of programs to develop these 21st century skills in students?

Schools do not exist in voids; in order to set up experiential learning programs they must seek out win-win partnerships with institutions with whom such programs can be created. Typically, international schools have sought out partnerships with NGO’s (because they provide ready-made community service opportunities) or multi-national corporations (because parents at the schools work for them or because they provide enticing fundraising opportunities). More often than not, government institutions are seen as a nuisance, imposing curricular or linguistic requirements for accreditation or student graduation, or elaborate hoops to jump through for teacher and student visas. The American School of Barcelona (ASB) experience, however, has shown that these public institutions are potentially great partners for setting up serious, sustainable, long-term experiential learning programs. These partnerships do not come about easily, and require vision, school community buy-in, and human resources to achieve them. Here we provide three cases of successful experiential learning programs from ASB that were set up with public institutions. We then examine more carefully the dynamics behind setting up sustainable partnerships and suggest a virtuous cycle model to be followed by other international schools.

Case One: Place-based Learning - The Collserola Park Environmental Project
In this experiential learning program in operation since 2007 all ASB students from kindergarten to twelfth grade do environmental work in one of the largest urban parks in Europe, Collserola Park on the outskirts of Barcelona. Different groups of students regularly spend time at the park throughout the year doing environmental activities, depending on their grade level, such as clearing water channels, planting trees, or studying the composition of the soil, under the supervision of park officials. Sometimes the work is directly related to the curriculum in the classroom; sometimes it is not. However, it is always a valuable experience for the students and beneficial for the park. The students learn about the importance of protecting the environment as they develop a sense of attachment to the nearby park; park authorities benefit from the useful work they do, and perhaps more importantly, form a more environmentally conscious public.

The Collserola environmental project came about through a partnership between three institutions: the American School of Barcelona, which provides the students; Can Coll, the public institution that runs environmental education programs in the park; and the city council of Esplugues de Llobregat, which granted ASB a piece of land to look after in the Esplugues de Llobregat-run section of the park near the school. In fact, the Esplugues council convinced Can Coll to send its educators to that piece of land to run the program instead of the usual practice of having schools bus their students out to Can Coll’s centre in far-away Sant Cugat dels Valls for environmental educational sessions.


Case Two: service-learning – Sharing to Learn
“Sharing to Learn” is a service-learning program in which students in ninth grade from the American School of Barcelona act as Language Assistants (LA’s) on a weekly basis for elementary school English teachers in fifteen public and semi-public schools in Sant Joan Despi, Esplugues de Llobregat, and Sant Just Desvern, affecting over 500 elementary school students. The ASB students act as models of native or native-like English by assisting teachers through songs, games, role plays, small-group activities, and other communicative teaching methods. “Sharing to Learn” allows the ASB ninth grade students to develop important life-skills such as responsibility, problem-solving, leadership and understanding of the society in which they live. It also allows them to have a positive impact on that society, following part of the school’s mission which is “… to help make the world a better place.”

“Sharing to Learn” is beneficial for the elementary schools too. ASB provides about thirty primary school English teachers in the region with a cost-effective, sustainable resource (native-level models of the English language) on  a regular basis, helping to improve the oral English of elementary school students and, perhaps more importantly, promoting in them positive attitudes towards English and foreign languages and cultures in general.

The program has been successful in another, unplanned way as well: it has led to the development of stronger links between elementary school English teachers in the region, through regular meetings held for all the teachers from the different schools, summer workshops for teachers given by ASB instructors, and a blog (see reference) created for the program by the local Department of Education.

“Sharing to Learn”, which began in 2009-10, is the result of a partnership between ASB and the public Department of Education which oversees public and semi-public schools in the Baix Llobregat region near Barcelona for the Catalan Ministry of Education.  ASB administrators started were able to negotiate the program with government officials because of the win-win prospects the program represented for both sides: ASB was looking for serious service-learning opportunities for its students; the Department of Education was seeking cost-effective, creative ways of improving English education in the region.

Case Three: Cross-age education – Oral History Program
In this program, ten ASB students in grade eleven meet ten seniors from the Millenari Senior Center in Sant Just Desvern (just four blocks from the school) every second Wednesday, from October to May. On the Wednesday during which the meetings take place, the students and seniors talk about different themes related to the elders’ lives, such as their childhood, education, leisure activities, social life, work, politics, and history. On Wednesdays when the meetings do not occur, the students stay at the school and reflect on the interviews with each other and with their teacher and prepare for the next sets of interviews. The students benefit from the program by learning about the past in a unique, direct way, and by developing emotional bonds and empathy for seniors; the seniors, for their part, are able to reflect on their past, learn about what youth think, and spend enjoyable time with their young partners. Finally, the Sant Just Desvern local government will keep the summative documents that are created at the end of the program in the public archives of the local library.

This program came about as a partnership between ASB, the Sant Just Desvern town council, and the publicly funded Millenari Seniors Center in Sant Just Desvern. In fact, two city councilors acted as go-betweens between the school and the seniors’ center, encouraging the seniors to participate in the program. The town councilors had become familiar with and appreciative of ASB’s commitment to working with the community thanks to the fact that schools in the municipality had benefitted from the Sharing to Learn program.

Conclusions: Setting Up Win-Win Partnerships for Experiential Learning
It is clear from the three cases mentioned in this paper that partnerships with public institutions can be very beneficial for international schools. In all three examples, the experiential learning programs have been win-win for the school and for the partner institutions. The programs have provided students with the opportunity to develop important life skills. They have also allowed them to understand the community they live in much better. The school’s image in the community has been enhanced incredibly as well. From the point of view of the different public institutions that have made partnerships with ASB, the school has provided an excellent human resource in the form of its students at no direct financial cost. It has also had a real and positive impact on the lives of many of the constituents of those institutions.

Diagram: the “Virtuous Partnership Cycle”

These experiential learning programs are not “one-shot”, “here today gone tomorrow” programs. They are long-term: within the course of one school year, students participate in them again and again. This allows for deeper cognitive and emotional connections for the participants, more relevant learning and a greater impact on the community. Also, as the programs go on year after year, they affect an increasing number of students and different members of the community.

For this “Virtuous Partnership Cycle” (see diagram above) to occur, a school’s leadership team must value experiential learning, the more balanced education it provides for students and the connections that it leads to with the community. Budgeting and hiring policies must focus on creating positions for staff members who understand experiential learning, who have the time and ability to seek out partnerships with institutions, and who are able to negotiate and create experiential learning programs that meet both the school’s and the partner institutions’ needs in a sustainable, cost-effective, long-term manner. And of course, the school’s employees need to be able to co-coordinate, monitor and evaluate the programs once they are set up, and then reflect on how to improve the programs as well. When the partnerships with the institutions and the experiential learning programs go well, good will in the partner institutions increases and the school community begins to support the whole idea more and more, leading potentially to the extension of existing programs or to the creation of new ones. In the case of ASB, the success of each partnership and corresponding program made the establishment of new partnerships and programs easier: both the institutions the school was dealing with and the school community itself could increasingly see the win-win benefits.

There is no reason why this kind of model cannot work with other kinds of institutions, like NGO’s or multi-national corporations. At ASB, however, experience has shown us that perhaps our best potential partners are just down the street, at city hall, or in the department of education. Public institutions, after all, are supposed to represent the interests of the community and they run all kinds of networks and have vast resources at their disposal. Now more than ever, in these times of crisis, many public servants are looking for creative ways of dealing with all kinds of challenges. More international schools should look at partnerships with public institutions to set up sustainable experiential learning programs. Our students, our school communities, and the broader communities around us all stand to gain.

Marta Vernet is the Activities, Community Service and Alumni Coordinator and Robin Berting is Admissions and Community Relations Coordinator at The American School of Barcelona. This article was originally published in International Educator magazine and was also presented at the European Council of International Schools conference in Lisbon. Marta is a faculty member of Community Works Institute (CWI).

References This is the website of United States-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills. This is the website of the United Kingdom-based organization Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. This is the URL for the Catalan- language blog established by the Department of Education in the Baix Llobregat region near Barcelona for participants in the “Sharing to Learn” program.

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