Walls to Bridges course embraces the transformative power of experiential learning

Andrea Daley
Andrea Daley

The transformative power of experiential education to change lives is at the heart of a course offered by the School of Social Work in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University.

Andrea Daley
Andrea Daley

The course, which is taught by York social work Professor Andrea Daley, is part of the Walls to Bridges Program, a Canadian university-based educational program inspired by the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program in the United States. It is made possible with the assistance of the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

In Daley’s course, women incarcerated at the Vanier Centre for Women, a provincial correctional institution in Milton, Ontario, study together onsite at the Vanier institution with third- and fourth-year undergraduate social work students at York University. The course participants work together as peers and engage in their learning through circle pedagogy.

A central feature of a Walls to Bridges course is the use of circle pedagogy as informed by Indigenous epistemologies and Talking Circles. “Circle pedagogy is a form of holistic learning that fosters intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical engagement with the course concepts and with the community of learners that develops,” said Daley.  “Instructors in the Walls to Bridges Program teach their regular class material off-campus within a prison setting or community-based setting. Typically, classes are comprised of equal numbers of incarcerated and campus enrolled students.”

Incarcerated students receive university-supported tuition and course costs (including course readers and texts) through a waiver that is supported by the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies. When the academic requirements are completed, all students receive a course credit from York University, or from the sponsoring university. (The national hub for the Walls to Bridges Program is located in the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University.)

“The students study in the same space, which is a teaching room at Vanier,” said Daley. “The class, which is three hours, uses circle pedagogy to create a space where all voices are heard and participation is encouraged, it is a dialogue-based process and students focus on hearing what each other are saying. Typically, I will pose a question to the group, one student will respond and then the student to the left or right of that student will respond until we work our way around the circle (students have the option of not responding by taking a pass).”

Students are encouraged to listen deeply to each other and reflect on their own responses to what they are hearing to facilitate learning about self as well as the experiences and perspectives of their peers. There are large and small group activities, university-level readings and students actively engage in the learning concepts presented in the course.

The response to the course has been overwhelming and positive, said Daley. “All students have been really engaged in dialogue and they are taking up complex theoretical concepts through activity-based learning.

“As a group, the students have many shared experiences. They gain a different understanding of how social structures impact on people and the different outcomes,” she said. “The transformative potential is huge and the pride that the students feel as they work together throughout the course to ask critical questions about the ways in which power operates within and through institutions is tremendous. There is value for everyone enrolled in the course.”

She notes that course has changed perceptions and helped social work students develop an understanding of power and the prison system.

Daley said she underwent intensive training through the Walls to Bridges Program at Wilfrid Laurier University. The course will be funded for another two years by the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor