Experience: Is Place Essential to Learning and Transformation?

Walking in the Bird Sanctuary at Phillips Academy in Andover - A place.

Walking in the Bird Sanctuary at Phillips Academy in Andover – A place.

This week I have had the extreme privilege to share time and space with outstanding educators from all over the world at the 2015 ISEEN Institute. ISEEN is the Independent Schools Experiential Education Network. Most educators, it would seem, are coming from places where outdoor, service-based, and/or global education are imperatives and are integrated into various curricula.

I am struck, however, that all three silos are based on one fundamental principle associated with experience — place. Place tends to be the common denominator when we have discussions about learning, growth, and transformation. Learners are going somewhere, are at a place, or are hanging from a mountain. David Orr spoke of place as a means to achieve an ecological literacy, as evidence through his Meadowcreek Project.

But I think experience does not have to exclusively relate to the external world. We can be transformed and become better people and agents of social change outside of this notion of place. My question then is can this type of learning happen without being grounded, rooted, or connected to geography, buildings, or nature?

Yesterday morning, Eric Hudson of Global Online Academy, presented to our group on the idea of creating educative and transformative experiences for learners through technology — where time and space are annihilated. Learning communities, according to him, were rooted in relationships, ideas and the creation of new bodies of knowledge. This understanding of experience moves away from place-based education and the lived experience and focuses learning communities on moments of disequilibrium or cognitive dissonance based on difficult concepts, conceptualizations of humanity, and our purpose on this planet.

As an educator at a university prepatory school where we are the largest consumers on the planet, I am uneasy about creating experiences which pack students up into planes and drop them into developing communities for 15 minutes. I am uncomfortable with events like WE DAY which are perhaps manipulative and a platform for corporate sponsors.

The emphasis on place might limit the experiences we attempt to foster as we are relying on only certain modes of understanding and contextualization. The emphasis on place, as it is often conceived, often requires a certain socio-economic status of our learners. Place might often exclude the vast number of learners who simply do not have the resources to leave their urban neighbourhood, First Nation reserve, or rural community.

Freire suggested that experience, and simply put learning, should be emancipatory and fundamentally based on dialogue with peers and elders (as Illich would posit in Chapter 6 of Deschooling). In many of our contexts, the majority of our students are quite affluent. The transformation, or experience in this case, must fundamentally be an emancipatory one as learners must understand how their actions, both individually and collectively, contribute to the oppression of others within their own communities abroad. (I might suggesting reading Jay Roberts’ Beyond Learning by Doing as “chapter 1” in experience.)

Experience, and educative experiences based on growth and a change in attitude and behaviours, is fundamentally about ethics and moral reasoning. We know that there are massive knowledge-action gaps pertaining to the crises of our time, and as such the transformation to what I speak arguably needs to based on dialogue, relationships, the creation of new bodies of knowledge, and Socratic self-examination. If our desire is to cultivate learning environments which produce global citizens, cosmopolitans, and an ethic of Umbuntu (I am human because you are human…), then the experience is not necessarily phenomenological; rather it can transcend time and place and transformation can occur in spaces we don’t anticipate as educators.

It has been really fascinating to speak with educators from all over the world this week, including my good friends Thomas Steele-Maley, Rebecca Powell, and Becky Anderson. I thank all participants for making me think about my philosophy of education. You are amazing educators and people. I also wish to thank all the organizers of the Institute and specifically the board members of ISEEN. Bravo.

Claudia Ruitenberg is far more eloquent than I could ever be, and I am intrigued by her metaphor and her understanding of experience and place. I leave you with her thoughts:

If one wishes to educate students to have a commitment to their social and ecological environment, one needs to start with an emphasis on commitment rather than on locality or community. Despite the commonly used metaphor, human beings do not grow actual roots on which they depend for their physical, intellectual, or ethical nourishment. Instead, nomads who have learned the ethical gestures of hospitality and openness to a community-to-come will bring nourishment to any place in which they land.

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