Experiential Education: Book Club!

Currents of experiential education at SJR.

Currents of experiential education at SJR.

This year, the Social Studies department at St. John’s Ravenscourt School has been reading Jay Robert’s book Beyond Learning by Doing: Theoretical currents in experiential education. We have hopefully done this in an attempt to critically think about what it is we do as individual teachers and as a department, and whether or not this is meaningful for our learning communities.

Roberts has made me truly think about my practice: “It is not enough to blindly praise the real or imagined laurels of experiential education, not is it productive to simply criticize the ways it doesn’t match with our ideals and values” (p. 109). Far too often, I feel that I am too likely to praise mediocrity and not challenge myself to provide transformative and educative experiences for my students. It is difficult for educators to say “I suck,” or “what I have been doing has not been productive.” I find lately that I say these things almost every night!

As such, we are focussing today on chapters 6 & 7 in Beyond Learning by Doing. These chapters, following Roberts’ analysis of the various currents of experiential education, forces the reader to contemplate on our own practice and for a bit of a gut check in terms of what he qualifies as the “neo-experiential.”

What do you, as an educator, take away from these two chapters? Do they push you? Do they anger you? How do they relate to your own practice? We welcome comments from all educators as a greater dialogue will help us construct a larger and more fluid body of knowledge.



9 thoughts on “Experiential Education: Book Club!

  1. Chapter six raised some interesting questions for me. Weber’s understanding of the “study of meaningful action as opposed to behavior” followed logically. He adds a new dimension to previous chapters by discussing “social action.” How have other teachers incorporated “social action” that is meaningful and intentional, while student derived? It is easy enough to have a social action project, but is it worth it if it is a forced exercise for the sake of developing these useful market skills needed for university, as explained on page 90? As teachers, we of course want the study to be meaningful; however, the need to facilitate meaningful and authentic learning does does need to be derived from students. What does this look like in action? I had my large self-directed units; however, I still feel that for only half of the students that there was meaningful and authentic engagement. His market economy approach makes sense as our educational system is based upon, as Engel argues, the free market with “individual achievement, competition, choice, economic growth, etc.” I think one of the biggest struggles in changing to a more student-centered, inquiry-based approach is coming to terms with the market ideology of schooling. And, do I need to come to terms with the McDonaldization of education? Is there anything wrong with efficiency, predictability, calculability and control? I’m not so sure this is an “illusion of freedom” as Roberts suggests. Thoughts?

    • Charlotte – I think a great deal about the student versus teacher driven experience. Dewey suggests that teaches need to be central in organizing experiences for students, but I often find, from my own, practice, that I am doing the teeth pulling an dragging because I think the experience is a good one. It’s when things happen by accident or students are the drivers when I find that the magic happens. Do colour days and bake sales really provide our students with transformative experiences? I am not so sure.

      Freire would suggest that the experience should be between teacher and the students; that a dialogue should ensue that drives the construction on knowledge. This undermines many of things we do that are part of this McDonaldization – this experience for optics can of thing. This year, an organization gave my class an award for doing a citizenship test. I thought the reward was going to be a citizenship ceremony at our school. What transpired was a sham of a media event with Federal Conservative politicians prancing about and slapping each other on the back. This is one of those icky experiences where something was learned, but it was not educative.

      • I have been reading up on how to put experiential education into practice and toeing the blurry line of “how much of a role should the teacher play in this?” Rebecca Carver says in her “Theory for Practice: A Framework for Thinking About Experiential Education” that because experiential education involves the conscious application of students’ experiences, we should consider a holistic approach to education. So, where does this leave us? I think the group dynamics can determine what type of experiential education we might try to facilitate (academic-oriented programs, community-based support programs, service learning, media production, internships, etc.). It might be interesting to provide options to students on these different “types” of experiential education and seeing what intrigues them. What I liked from the article was the idea of interpersonal dynamics workshops- What would these look like for SJR? Might we consider integrating this into the advisory program? I think that interpersonal workshops are a good way to build learning communities at the start of the year that fit within the pedagogy of Ex.Ed. (authenticity, active learning, student experience, and providing the mechanisms for connecting experience to future opportunity).Dewey, in his ABC of the Student Experience, has “belonging” as one of the crucial components of the student experience. The interpersonal workshops at the start of the year might help to achieve this end. I think that the last component- mechanisms for connecting experience to future opportunity- is the area that I most want to improve upon. The dichotomy emerges of what role the teacher plays in this and how this might muddle the authenticity or create that spark that facilitates Ex. Ed. Dewey would say the teachers role is to cultivate these environments for students. To do this, we might make a department goal of creating the opportunities through resources that allow for these sparks to happen. Thoughts?

  2. As for Chapter 7, I think Roberts is more pragmatic here than previous chapters. There are a lot of concerns over “how to do” experiential education- at least this keeps me up at night! On the one hand it does require a lot of organization. I struggled to have 100 students working on different units while ensuring the curricular outcomes were covered. In my experience this year, I would say 75-80% of students not only “got it” but they embodied the democratic aspect of “question[ing] and critiqu[ing] their society.” I think there is a lot of room for growth though here and I look forward to working with the debating students and social studies students to incorporate these practices into their classes. I did see students go through the “transformative process;” however, what about the 20-25% who just don’t get it, don’t want to get it, and just want their credit? The potential is there for them to pick any avenue of study in their units that interest them; however, there are always those who just “don’t care.” How do we then help these students while balancing something like 100 self-directed units? It’s tough and makes me question if there should be a better strategy or even specialty classes (this might run into the risk of streaming students in the market economy, which the previous chapter cautions against). It took a huge personal risk for me as a second year teacher to let the students take the reigns; however, it was worth it for its ability to reach kids in a new way- plus I learned so much more about the students themselves (their learning styles, interests, etc., which helped me to bond better with my students too). I think that in students seeing me take the risk of trying something new, and being upfront that it might not work, that they were willing to make the leap as well. Their anonymous reflections certainly indicated that they enjoyed the projects. Though, struggling students and EAL students had more difficulties and wanted more traditional teacher-centered classes. How do we best reach all learners? Any suggestions? Should this be more of a school-wide or department-wide approach where we can schedule students into their classes differently? Again, is this more streaming?
    I think the self-directed units were worth it. I felt as though my students got much more from the course and their projects; however, the goal is to improve this practice. As Roberts highlights, it is still an underdeveloped area of research, so I am excited to continue my research and see more of the practical applications. How have other teachers Incorporated these ideas and with what success?

    • I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage to release the reigns. I think for me it’s less about being fearful of student backlash, but criticism from other educators and parents. What I try to do when it comes to creating educative experiences is to track what I mean by transformation. Can I really say that the students have deeply learned something and that this new knowledge which they have constructed as changed their behaviour and attitudes? This is difficult to assess, but I think it is paramount if we are seeking to provide these learning opportunities. Did the bake sale transform student A? Did the colour day for the Lake Winnipeg Foundation change the behaviour of our students? Did looking through primary documents at the Archives of Manitoba engage students into a conversation about their own history? These are the types of questions we need to address at the beginning and the end of our time with kids.

      As Roberts suggests in chapter 7, experiential education is not just a “quirky” approach. It needs to address the political, social, and democratic currents of our learning communities. shutting these down or ignoring them might render the experiences as superficial, as simply gazing over Grand Canyon.

    • I think it is amazing that you had the courage to try these self-directed units, Charlotte. When we combine research, thoughtfulness, the needs of the students, and a bit of enthusiasm, we begin to see how learning is a joyous process. I think the key element you brought to these learning experiences is a model for how we learn and how this process can become addictive and so much more rewarding. As to Robert’s and your questions related to the quality of experience, I think the simple fact that we are questioning what we do is a critical start. If we do not question what we do, we are most certainly doomed to spend an eternity in the darkness.

  3. I’m looking forward to reading the book after exams are done . . . and really looking forward to jumping into the experiences you are discussing here. From the conversation, I see old issues of student engagement being debated: the tension between those that want to leap off the bridge for the fun of it, and those others who want a predictable test that can be prepped in their spare time because they weren’t that engaged in class.

    I think this problem begins with the embedded expectations for measurement and communicating results. Given traditional relationships parents have with school – results are typically communicated in percentages, those students who are particularly vulnerable to parental expectation, and have learned to successfully prep in their own time, reflexively want an organized, predictable, schedule for what to know and when to know it, so they can perform on evaluations by showing that they know it. I have found student discomfort with breaking this relationship to be a barrier to different kinds of experiences. Take a student perspective, though and it makes sense: why would they want additional stress in an area that they don’t want to invest more time while also getting weaker results?

    Others, who may have more invested in a meaningful experience, jump at the chance to “do something different”. Students who have been turned on by a topic or activity and have begun to internalize the motives for learning will spend massive amounts of time working on an activity, often suggesting it is no work at all. Talk to an Art or Drama or Music student who loves the subject and is successful and they will tell you the course is “so easy” and “no work”. They are, in fact, tons of work- it just doesn’t feel like work to them, because it is work they enjoy doing, often because it is personal, and they have internalized the learning objectives.

    Middle Schoolers, who are less comfortable in desks and more inclined to do “real” things than “intellectual” or “theoretical” things are easy converts to “doing something different” – or is my bias showing? Maybe my tune will change by October? If we can alter the relationship the students have with measurement, and the relationship they have with their parents, with measurement, we can go a lot further towards jumping into activities that are not fully mapped out, rather awaiting co-construction. The happiest days in the Drama room are the ones when the class stops asking what their mark is, and start concentrating on the work, and the opinion of their peers (instead of me). The freedom from grades is the freedom to act and explore, to fail and recover. Notice how they were still being graded though, they just felt free from it.

    I have been experimenting with Role Play in core area subjects recently. I would not count that as experiential learning as discussed in this thread so far (again, I will get the book soon), but there is some commonality in that the students help construct meaning from the experience, an experience they were in control of. What I have learned from these experiments is that 1) students tend to understand material they have some personal experience with (we already knew that), but the “experience” could also be imaginative. 2) It is extremely difficult to pursue a meaningful personal experience with a large group of students who have somewhere else to be in 50 minutes. 3) Students don’t think they are “doing school”, which can undermine the activity in the long run.

    Does that help? Give me the book, we’ll see.

    • Thanks, Jock. Come grab the book from me at any point. We’ll buy you one, too!

      I am intrigued by your point regarding rigour: that is how the arts, often, are perceived as easy because of the very fact that they are engaging, fun, and student-focused. I have often been attacked for trying to establish or foster learning experiences that have been considered fun and therefore not rigourous. Take, for example, when my students ran for Parliament. I was bombarded by overt and not so overt criticism from far and near.

      This is not to say that many activities that are deemed “experiential” don’t veer towards the flaky, or as Roberts suggests “quirky.” We need to ensure that our experiences are rigourous. But how do we go about this? And what does rigour mean? I did some thinking about it last year in the Winnipeg Free Press: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/fyi/rigour-as-challenge-not-weather-198575911.html

      I have been grappling with the notion of rigour and experience through my research and have begun to shape a criteria which guides me in my planning. i begin with Dewey’s idea of the social and democratic educative experiences, then move to ensure that, based on Freire, there is a level of dialogue and knowledge creation (the political), and finally ensure that what I am doing is fostering a sense of ecological literacy and connectedness (the ecological). I could go more in-depth, but you would all be fast asleep. But, as I stated earlier in response to Charlotte, we need to be conscious of our thinking, planning, and purpose. If we do this, then I think we stand a good chance of fostering educative experiences that are student-centered, rigourous, and transformative.

      • Middle School, thanks to Dr. Churchill, has been transforming “Activity Days” by moving towards “Experiential Ed” days. The staff are currently grappling with what that means, but our most recent adventure, this Spring, leaps to mind as I read this thread.

        In April, Aaron and I took some students to a Sweat Lodge in Beausejour and a guided tour of the Petroglyphs near Nutamik Lake. The students chose the activity – a big bonus for this kind of learning (although some were not in their “first choice”). There were no pre communicated goals our outcomes, although Aaron and I definitely had some. The experience was awesome as well as mind expanding. The students were thankful for the experience. I can go into it in more detail in another venue, but here are some relevant takeaways from the experience:

        While being aware of how awesome the experience was, I was also mindful how it wouldn’t work for an entire class, or -gulp- grade (100 in Grade 9, huh?). There were 14 students – and it was knee to knee in the sweat. So, how could this work? (see Charlotte’s organizational concerns above) I could see a class having to choose between 4 or 5 authentic experiences in relation to a learning objective, and taking each of them in turn (goodbye free time) and asking students to share their experience and constructed knowledge with others. Maybe there are ways the schedule would allow for that in a sane way. Doing so would maintain a small group and keep things personal. It would also allow me to continue a practice I follow in Drama: Make it harder to not do it, than to do it (feel free to substitute uncomfortable with harder), without being judgemental.

        While Aaron and I had a lot of goals for the activity, we kept them to ourselves. Certainly there was guiding, like stopping the van along the Red River to look at maps that indicate the “original” settler property lines, after just experiencing a day of traditional sacred land teachings: the juxtaposition was too obvious not to be in everyone’s face. But, the connections the kids made, as they made sense of new information and experiences were much more valuable than any teaching Aaron or I could give them. They were exposed to some relevant facts among many possible that day, and drew their own conclusions- and as a result will understand them and not forget them.

        The students enjoyed themselves AND were simultaneously uncomfortable- not with the content, but with their OWN BODIES. We shouldn’t forget what it is like to be a student, where movement at school is from one desk to another desk in another classroom. To become comfortable with that is to make strange lots of other kinds of movement and energy. My students were genuinely uncomfortable walking around a park, and sitting cross legged in a dark tent. Which, of course, is part of the experience. They don’t have to be wonder filled, starry eyed, OMG all the time. That’s Kindergarten. Teens may be having a very relevant personal experience AND look disgruntled while shifting their weight from foot to foot. More and more I’m coming to terms with the fact that pushing through discomfort is a skill/experience that teens do not get any more. Planning for experience goes way beyond the knowledge that is learned- it is social dynamic, it is figuring out what is for lunch, it is dealing with the weather, it is standing for longer and walking further than you would like. These elements should never been seen as obstacles- they are contextually part of the experience.

        So get out your class 4 licence and let’s go!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s