What is Experience?

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Pock-filled battlefields of Vimy Ridge at sunrise.

As I sit on a plane hurtling across western Europe with 40 students following an eight-day whirlwind Victory in Europe tour, I am forced to contemplate some critical questions from the perspective of an educator beyond the ecological trail of mayhem we leave behind in our jet stream.

Our group traveled to Western Netherlands and Normandy, primarily, in an effort to “experience” what it might have been like to be occupied by Nazis during the second world war, what it felt like to be liberated, and how a burgeoning country with a foreign policy in its infancy contributed to this emancipatory effort. (We also made a dip into France and Belgium to immerse ourselves in WWI.)

At Holten Commonwealth Cemetery on May 4th in the Netherlands

At Holten Commonwealth Cemetery on May 4th in the Netherlands

As an educator paranoid and most likely overly-obsessed with conceptualizations of learning, transformation, growth, and experience, I am confronted with the reality that the experience created for these learners might very well be reduced to simply an experience of traveling, versus an educative experience where the outcomes are met, where brain chemistry and physiology are changed, where the learner has grown, and where new questions and pathways for curiosity are established. Put simply, how do we distinguish between generic and educative experience?

My first assumption that I will offer is that everything is an experience. Having your wisdom teeth removed, learning to smoke, writing a multiple choice test, and sitting in a white-walled room with no furniture and with no stimulation are all experiences. I would also suggest that an experience is not dependant on place, and could arguably be metaphysical and as we are ever more aware, digital.

But educative experiences are those which produce moments of cognitive dissonance, or disequilibrium, and which are bridged by scaffolding and dialogue with peers and elders. This is what I presume to be educative experiences, where neurons are stimulated, where neural connections become more complex, and as my wife tells me (who is a brain-based learning expert, for sure), where dendrites, or the sheath around the neurons, become thicker and more robust.

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Given this understanding of experience and those which might lead to positive growth and transformation, how can I be sure that the outcomes of this past experience in Europe have been educative without being able to look into the brains of the learners? The day of the pocket MRI I suspect are well in the distant future.

For me, the answer rests in the dialogic relationship that is fostered within a learning community. The conversations between individual learners, between learner and elder, and as a community become the barometer for transformative and educative experiences. 

It was fascinating to compare the experiences of the students through our informal chats in buses, at lunch, and on beaches. They remarked how our visit to the Netherlands, with various diplomatic events and crowded activities, had little impact in terms of their understanding of the occupation. They expressed frustration of being shuffled from one place to another, with little time to breath let alone reflect. On my watch, the students experienced the Groesbeek Liberation Museum in twelve minutes. For letting this type of experience occur, I am truly ashamed and should have my teaching certificate torn up in front of me.

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Inspecting a German mini-sub at the Liberation Museum.

On the other hand they had powerful questions about WWI after our deliberate and slow visits to Ypres and Vimy. The pock-filled battlefields left them in awe of the destructive power of humans and the futility of war. As we descended into the depths of the Wellington Quarries, learners asked questions as to the war aims of the Central Powers and the Triple Entente. What was WWI all about? Was it about liberation from fascists or something else? The table was set for incredible conversations and debate.

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Standing at Vimy beside my great uncle’s name, Private M.J. Parsons, April 9th, 1917.

Similarly, our visit to Normandy allowed the learners to take what knowledge we had front loaded in our year of lunchtime meetings and actually make sense of it by stepping onto the beaches, seeing the mulberries, and pulling out maps on the boardwalks when we had questions about time and space.

The educative experiences were not universal as well. Individual learners, including adults, often shared contrasting stories about how they changed or what they learned. But the lesson for me is that transformation and growth are fundamentally based on curiosity, confusion, meaningful dialogue and reflection, and the physical and chemical change of the brain. While many of us can make sense of an idea or event, this can only be equated to thinking. Making meaning and applying this information is learning. The latter process is deliberate, purposeful, rigorous, and often long and frustrating.

Back home in Winnipeg in my generic classroom, and to extend this idea past field trips, how can I foster educative experiences designed to change attitudes and behaviour? In a world that is in crisis, due to attacks on the planet itself and given the current geo-political realities, how can I make time and space for students to ask meaningful questions which affect their relationships with other humans, species, and systems? How do we create educative experiences whereby the learner is awakened to the idea that every human deserves the basic necessities for a decent life?

These questions speak to the purpose of education and move beyond discussions of common assessment, common report cards, standardized tests, and new and baseless conceptualizations of 21st century learning, whatever that might be. These questions challenge me, knock me down, and spur me on my futile quest to come within a lightyear of excellence in teaching.

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