Use Applied Learning Opportunities to Increase Leadership Skills

Professional development opportunities that utilize applied learning, including formalized community leadership programs, strengthen knowledge and personal skills through experience.

February 6, 2018 - Author: Bonnie Zoia, Bonnie Wichtner-Zoia, Michigan State University Extension

People learn in different ways, but working together on a specific project or experiencing first-hand an educational process can greatly enhance learning. Such experiences have been called place-based education or experiential learning and the focus is more on learning about the situation or issue than simply accomplishing a task.

For example, planting flowers on a Saturday afternoon around a school is an important activity but does not particularly facilitate the development of leadership skills or understanding leadership dynamics. By contrast, working with a group of parents to examine their concerns about the school building and help them plan action steps, would provide a more valuable leadership learning experience.

Professional development opportunities that utilize applied learning, including formalized community leadership programs, strengthen knowledge and personal skills through experience.

Developing Community Leadership, a guide created for Michigan State University Extension in 2005, stated several specific benefits of applied learning opportunities related to community leadership programs. The list includes:

  • A diverse group can come together in a more meaningful way when participants are working on something specific.
  • Leadership projects provide an ideal “learning laboratory” which can help participants to closely examine group interaction and group dynamics.
  • This can be a way to help participants explore why it is important for citizens to get involved in their community.
  • The group may be able to address a specific, short-term community needs.
  • Participants may learn how to do research on met and unmet needs in the community.
  • This is a way to learn more about some of the policy issues facing the community.
  • This can be a springboard for future action by individuals, small groups or the entire group.

In addition, when using applied learning practices for professional development, these points may be worth consideration:

  • Applied learning should be incorporated as part of a larger program or organizational structure; not treated as an “add-on”.
  • Adequate time should be provided for participants to discuss the process of working on the project and what they are experiencing.
  • A project must be “real”, not just an exercise.
  • It’s important for the participants to have a role in deciding what will be done.

Whether developing a community leadership program or creating a professional development opportunity, incorporating applied learning in the curriculum reinforces the lessons and increases skills; building a link between knowledge and learning.

Portions of this article were written collaboratively by a group of Michigan State University Extension Educators, including Bonnie Wichtner-Zoia, for the Michigan State University Extension Developing Community Leadership curriculum and guide, 2005.

Tags: business development, civic engagement, conflict resolution, leadership, msu extension


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