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November 2014 – the Situational Approach

Jurgen Zimmer, in this month’s article, “The Situational Approach in Didactics of Higher Education” makes a solid case for progressive education. There are many educational approaches encompassed under the rubric of progressive education and certainly the situational approach is pivotal. At SCLThailand the term student centered  translates into many similar or identical approaches including not only the situational approach but also: brain-based learning; the inquiry method ; the discovery method ; experiential learning and learning by doing.

Professor Zimmer brings into sharp focus what teacher education has missed. The result of “missed lessons” is teachers continuing to rely on the lecture method. Research shows much more long term memory learning when students actually participate in the learning process.   Professor Zimmer is the co-founder of the School for Life in Chiangmai, Thailand. The curriculum purpose of the school is to establish a situational approach to learning that will lead to students being prepared for life after the completion of high school and also make the school and the boarding of the students more and more self-reliant.

Taking inspiration from Professor Zimmer’s situational approach, it might be useful to give an overview of a learning project plan for students at the School for Life who are interested in coffee production and interested in using coffee as a gateway to learning how to be an entrepreneur. At each step in the process of empowering the students who join the coffee club, there will be problem solving based on knowledge gained followed by actual practice and then, reflection followed by action.

The first steps in the process of forming a coffee club at the School for Life have already started. Ms. Praewa, a coffee expert and coffee educator has introduced the art of coffee making to all the students of School for Life in three afternoon sessions during the month of November of 2014. The introduction was a hands- on experience on how to judge coffee bean quality and how to identify and select coffee beans; how coffee is harvested and how it is roasted; and finally how the barista makes the experience of coffee memorable to the end user in a café. Students thus begin to understand the importance of knowing coffee bean quality and what it takes to produce a quality  coffee bean. They also begin to understand the importance of temperature and air flow in the coffee roasting process. And  by the end of  Ms. Praewa’s course the students begin to understand the importance of marketing and presentation of coffee.   In sum, the three sessions Ms. Praewa lead are the hook used to capture the interest and enthusiasm of students who may wish to go on to join the coffee club.

The coffee club will continue to develop coffee making and entrepreneurial skills.   Interested students will register their names with the head of school who, along with a committee of teachers, will choose a group of students, a mix of 25 boys and girls, to be members of the club based on their enthusiasm and grasp of the ideas and skills Ms. Praewa presented through hand-on experiences during the three day sessions on the art of coffee making.   Once the coffee club is formed, advisors will be assigned and the coffee club will begin a mind -mapping exercise to decide what they already know about coffee; what further questions they need to ask about coffee and where they hope to get further information. The club will also do a mind mapping exercise on what they hope to achieve at the coffee club and how they will realize those objectives and what help they might need.

The club members will also have to decide how they will make decisions, how often they will meet, and how meetings will be managed.   Readers of Professor Zimmer’s article may recognize that these mind-mapping exercises may well result in the coffee club students making their own situational analysis. Indeed, that is the hoped for result.   Once the club has formed the questions that need to be answered and the skills they will need, the advisors and students will explore links with the knowledge and skills offered in the Ministry of Education curriculum. These links will probably lead to blended learning. For example, inevitably, the club will decide that they want to mount a small business. They will conclude that they have to have some way of tracking profits and losses. The need to learn certain math skills in order to do the accounting will be evident. Moreover, the students may decide it is worth learning a computer program like EXCEL to help them speed up the process of preparing financial statements.

After the club’s mind-mapping exercises, there will be a need for reflection. Are the objectives coming out of the mind-mapping exercise reasonable? Should the objectives be prioritized? What should be the time-frame? What resources are available? Where and how can other resources be found?   Again, readers of Dr. Jurgen Zimmer’s article may recognize this provision for dialogue as an integral part of the situational approach. Out of the dialogue students will use their knowledge and skills to help “steer” their own development process. The advisors will help guide and coach the coffee club toward a common purpose and goal. The students will be learning in a wide variety of situations, i.e. by going to coffee factories, visiting coffee plantations and visiting cafes. Each experience will be recorded by each the students of the coffee club in  personal student journals  and then discussed in group meetings. What has been learned? How can we apply what we have learning to our situation in the School for Life?

We return now to the purpose of School for Life. The coffee club is in league with the school goal of preparing coffee club members to be innovative entrepreneurs. And the this project also mirrors the second goal of School for Life of self-reliance by establishing a coffee production center at the school where professional coffee experts help bring in revenue through coffee productions and sales. Peter J. Foley, Ed.D.

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