• author
    • Hannah Mikul Landon

      Explore | Wilderness & Leadership
    • August 29, 2013 in Hannah Landon

    What is an Isomorphic Connection, Anyway?

    How many times have you heard it mentioned in conversation, but feared being the person to ignorantly blurt out, “What does that mean?”  How many times have you seen it trend on twitter, maybe even hashtagged it yourself, but weren’t quite sure what you were tweeting about? This blog will address the mysterious experiential education term: isomorphic connection.

    An isomorphism is when an object looks like another object, but differs in composition. Imagine a paper Starbucks coffee cup; now imagine Starbuck’s clever porcelain version of the same cup. The two have identical forms, different compositions. In the experiential education world, “isomorphic connection” is a fancy term to describe the connection between a concept and an educational environment.

    Isomorphism in the experiential ed setting is the demonstration of one concept in two different ways

    For experiential educators, isomorphism is more complex than our Starbucks example. Isomorphism in the experiential ed setting is the demonstration one concept in two different ways. An experiential educator designs an event that inherently models a concept that we also verbally teach.

    For example, if a facilitator is working with a group of married couples, and talking about “trusting your partner,” the facilitator can focus the discussion around “the decision to trust.”  Then, the facilitator can create an event that requires both partners to decide to “trust” one another through physical means.

    The facilitator may design an event where she asks each member of each couple to individually stand on one of two cables. The cables are connected between three trees 10 inches above the ground. The cables  start together, both connected to one tree, and then form a “V,” becoming wider as they go out to the other two trees.  The couple clasps hands and leans in against one another as they walk out toward the wider end of the “V.” As the couple becomes further apart it is more difficult to trust that by leaning in against one another, they will be supported.

    The isomorphic connection is the connecting point between the idea and the event.

    In our trust example, if the couple keeps straight bodies and leans in against one another, even if one is significantly stronger than the other, they can walk a remarkable distance down the cables. Each step requires the decision to either lean in and trust, or, to lean back and not trust (which will then cause both partners to fall).  If each partner will lean in on the other, the resulting correct form will potentially allow the partners to walk all the way to the opposite end of the cables; if one or both partners do not decide to trust and maintain a straight body and lean against the other, they will fall.

    This examples simply illustrates the importance of developing trust in a relationship. For any relationship to function in a healthy manner requires both partners to learn to trust one another rather than to try to muscle their way forward independently.

    When a facilitator seeks to use isomorphism in an experiential context, he or she discerns how a concept can be broken into concrete parts and played out in a manageable real-life scenario.

    So, let’s say I am a facilitator with a terrific isomorphic lesson to teach, what is the most important step in helping my participants learn?

    Besides the obvious logistical and safety planning, and besides thinking through the conceptual and concrete aspects of my lesson, I need to pay special attention to one thing: the “frontload.”

    Frontloading an event is when the facilitator says something like, “Today I invite us all to think about the idea of trust…” and then uses group discussion, or instruction, in order to help the group think about the concept. The facilitator then may say, “While we go through this next event, think about how the things you all have said about trust apply. Afterward, we will break into pairs to talk about how this experience illustrated, or added to, our talk about trusting others.”

    Without the frontload, the participant will have a broad experience to learn from (and there is a time and place for such a facilitation style), but will lack direction toward particular learning outcomes. With the frontload, the participant is able to focus his or her thoughts, which will naturally relate to the concept the facilitator has introduced when the event is an isomorphism.

    So, there you have it. Next time you are at that hoity-toity experiential education get together, drinking your organic microbrew and wearing your Synchilla fleece, you will be able to talk isomorphic connections with the best of them!