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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Kornelsen: Stories of Transformation

From uwinnipeg.ca

From uwinnipeg.ca

In an era of ubiquity when it comes to positioning, conferences, and subsequent books on the notions of experiential education and global citizenship, Lloyd Kornelsen, professor of Education at the University of Winnipeg and former acting head of the Global College, offers a breath of fresh air and an impressive conceptual analysis of both concepts.

In Stories of Transformation: Memories of a Global Citizenship Practicum, Kornelsen describes a School Initiated Course and learning experience from 2003 whereby he accompanied a group of high school students from the University of Winnipeg Collegiate to Costa Rica. Several years later, with questions in mind regarding the utility and transformational power of such excursions, Kornelsen interviewed the participants to examine how these practicums line up with the theoretical underpinnings provided by likely suspects: Dewey, Freire, Kolb, Illich,  Nussbaum, Appiah, and more.

The power in Kornelsen’s journey is the questions he raises about the efficacy of these trips — where affluent youth truck down to the South for the purposes of Socratic self-examination, transformation, and to gain insight into this idea of a global citizenry. Kornelsen pulls no punches and offers several pitfalls of such learning experiences, but fundamentally asserts that two critical capacities are required for educators.

The first is what he refers to as teachers needing to take responsibility for their teaching selves. By this, educators need to be global citizens, defined principally by Nussbaum and Appiah. Teachers must be critical thinkers, and examine that jumping on a plane and living with local families may have its limitations and ethical uneasiness. How do we as educators provide our students with the support and experiences necessary to overcome these limitations? Are we simply sending students on trips and hoping for the best?

The second capacity refers to something that I fail at often — that is the need to relate to our learners as Korenlesen suggests, “inter-subjectively.” Educators must foster and facilitate learning communities whereby the experience of each learner is honoured and respected and where the elders provide nudges and insight for further educative experiences and dissonance.

This book is well researched, painfully honest, and a window into what excellence in teaching looks like. Stories of Transformation is a must read for all teachers who truly seek to engage learners in meaningful conversations about who we are as a species and our purpose on this planet.

The Tension Between Learning & Credentials

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A few weeks ago, the folks at KQED Mindshift published a blog post by Katrina Schwartz entitled How ‘Deprogramming Kids’ from How to ‘Deschool’ Could Improve Learning. In the article, she tells the story of a high school math and physics teacher who goes through the process of rejigging his conceptualization of learning.

The teacher goes through a process of deconstructing a variety of practices and methods which arguably have skewed the very purpose of education for the purposes of ensuring his students are learning. He enters a process whereby he admits that his conventional practice no longer moves towards notions of excellence in teaching and learning, but more towards a game of rewards, numbers, and credential acquisition.

While the term deschooling in this context is far from what Illich posits, I was struck by this narrative as I have gone through a similar process of reflection. I have only recently realized that for the past few years I have been failing many of my students, as my assessment practices only served a small minority. This has been a devastating process, but one I hope that has steered me on the elusive path towards excellence in teaching and learning.

I invite you to read the article and share your thoughts.

A Tale of Two Countries

IMG_1824Canada is a perplexing concept; our country can often be conceptualized in shimmering positivity, and then, upon closer inspection can be dragged through the dusty and bloody streets of reality. This has often been the case when we teach history or have been taught history — we try to dichotomize issues, cultures, and versions of history as an experiment in critical thought or controversy. MacLennan’s Two Solitudes is an obvious example of cultural paradoxes within the “narrative” of Canada, as is the the story of the Winnipeg General Strike.

In Manitoba we experience this in the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. Many Winnipeggers are placing their hope in our new mayor to help bridge these colonial divides and painful scars — a most difficult task to say the least. A recent CBC poll suggest that the divide between indigenous and nonindigenous on prairies and in Red River is considerably and alarminging wide: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/people-on-the-prairies-less-tolerant-cbc-poll-says-1.2831876

In recent weeks, I have also been struck by an increasingly larger divide in Canada that is often left unarticulated – that is our image as a massive expanse of natural beauty contrasted with our 400 year history of resource exploitation. This really hit home when I attended the Hudson Bay Company Archives’ screening of Kevin Nikkel’s film Romance of the Far Fur Country . Nikkel has managed to splice together two hours of original HBC footage from 1919 and curate this silent footage in such a haunting way that the viewer really is able to situate themselves in the fur trade at the beginning of the 20th century.

As beautiful as the film is, however, there is a striking recognition that as the HBC enters into indigenous communities and encounters the immense landscape, that there is only one agenda: resource exploitation, both natural and human.

What follows in the film is a shocking barrage of the treatment of the first peoples of Canada and the land itself. Created by the HBC in 1919 as a celebratory film and ultimately an advertisement for its first department stores, the Company was simply not aware of its savage devastation of all systems on earth – at least this is what I hope.

 

As the film ended and everyone left the Archives of Manitoba, my friend (who I dragged out) and I silently sat in our seats trying to process what we had just witnessed.

A few days later, I came across this photo essay in the Globe and Mail encapsulating life in Fort McMurray. I was astounded at the level of consumerism, greed, and resource exploitation that is completely unabashed.

You will notice one photo of a gentleman in a cowboy hat drinking a Coors’ Light. At first glance I thought nothing of it, and then my uber critical thinker of a wife alerted me to the paradox: A cowboy hat is a symbol of freedom. It conjures up imagery of connection to the land, notions of freedom and autonomy, and a recognition of the interconnectedness of the natural systems that sustain the land. . The fellow in the coffee shop, however, who works for Suncor, is part of a  system of resource exploitation that destroys these vast and wild lands. He’s a slave to consumption and a dogged drive for wealth accumulation above all else. This is not the wild west. This is as well-engineered money generating machine with little room for cowboy antics.

But this does fit with our history. It sounds like the HBC in 1919.

And so, as Canada delves further into oil sands development, pipeline construction, and dependence on fossil fuels, so too continues the dichotomy of Canada. On one hand we have a country jam packed with scientifically-literate, empathetic citizens who cherish our land, water, and air. On the other, we are complicent in an economic and political system that is bent on exploiting natural and human resources. These are  the new two new solitudes of our time.

As Slavoj Zizek suggests, the ecological catastrophes of the present and future will not be solved by free markets and corporations. No, Canada’s sick duality can only be synthesized into a sustainable vision through social and political action. This begins in the homes in Fort McMurray, at the kitchen tables of local constituency associations, and ultimately at the polls in 2015.

Canada’s reputation in the global community has soured as of late; we no longer lead in peacekeeping (we are ranked 65th), we rank first in deforestation, and our record on treating our indigenous peoples speaks for itself. I would reckon that we have an opportunity to build a better Canada — one that is sustainable, innovative, compassionate, and inclusive. Our first step, however, is to take an honest look at what we we have become. Let’s take off our cowboy hats for now. We have to earn the right to wear symbols of freedom. First we need to take the collective action necessary to shed the dichotomies of the past and create one singular and positive vision based on respect for the land and each other.

 

Learning in the 21st Century: Everyone is an Expert

I must agree with Margaret Wente in some respects this week. On Saturday, the Globe and Mail published her column where she had questions about the notion of 21st Century Learning. I agree with her in the sense that we need to be leery of what this means and if the learning which many claim happens, really occurs.

Margaret Wente, Globe & Mail

Margaret Wente, Globe & Mail

Like her, I am often skeptical of people who make a buck off of books, conference appearances, media outlets, and personal branding when it comes to this idea of 21st century learning. We are continually besieged by nonsensical statements or infographics concerning radical new ways of learning on Twitter and other social media venues – and these are rarely backed by academic research or at least are formed upon pedagogical foundations or philosophies of education. Today, for instance, I plunked in a search for #ISTE2014 and discovered a myriad of statements on Twitter that made absolutely no sense and/or stated the obvious (There have also been some amazing things I have learned from following this conference!). 21st century thinking in education often celebrates mediocrity and has promoted a real industry of snake oil edupreneurs.

But this is where the agreement begins to become problematic. Wente proceeds to tear a strip off of every educator in the land interested in a debate about what it means to learn and teach in the 21st century. Like many of her articles, she uses one or two sources which seem to fit with her logic and she rests her entire polemic argument on them. This is where things fall a part for her argument on 21st century learning.

Within Wente’s manifesto, there is a sense of “things were better when I was a kid” — in the 20th century. Granted, she might be right, but I might argue that her 20th century education has had her accused of plagiarism, where she has defended these allegations by suggesting she only seeks out one source and shares the same ideas and logic of other columnists. Huh? So you have no original ideas? Many educators these days are focusing greatly on the need for self-examination, critical research, and  complex argumentation which offer new knowledge — certainly aspects of learning when Socrates was around. Perhaps inquiry and having learning environments that are student-centered are not terrible bad notions after all.

Secondly, if Wente is so against this debate as to why and how we learn and that perhaps things were better in the old days, how does she explain the fact that we are experiencing an ecological crisis created by industrialized education for the purposes of greed and the exploitation of resources — including people. She cannot argue that changing the model as to how we teach and learn is unreasonable when the alternative is fundamentally destructive. It is clear by the attack on our biosphere that current practices have failed. This might be difficult to believe as we idle our SUVs outside of Starbucks, but we have surpassed three of the nine planetary boundaries as outlined by Rockstrom et al. Not pushing a new model of learning will lead to our demise.

What does she suggest? Education worked out for her, but at what and whose expense? And industrialized education does not work out for each student. Trust me, I actually am in classrooms.

Lastly, Wente gives us a perfect example of 20th century learning, as she does most weeks. She is quick to poo-poo any discussion of student inquiry or autonomy, but then offers nothing new. She does not push the debate or our collective body of knowledge concerning learning any further. All she has done is launched a grenade into an already negative environment. What do you suggest, Margaret? Simply stating that there is no evidence that some new models of education don’t work is not enough (take for example the idea of hope theory. There is a great deal of research in this area which suggests hopeis a key indicator for success).

I would argue that 21st century learning, and here I offer something from my own heart, is based on two very old ideas: global citizenship and ecological literacy. As Martha Nussbaum (1997) suggests, global citizenship is about the self-examined life, knowing a tremendous amount about the world, and having empathy for all people, and arguably all species and systems, on this earth. Ecological literacy suggests that learners understand that nature sustains all life, that we must account for the consequences of human activity, and that we are connected to a massive web of other precious systems. If we continue to leave these skills and attitudes out of the classroom, the 22nd century might be rather bleak.

Kwame Anthony Appiah eloquently speaks to this idea of global citizenship here in this video based on the notion of Cosmopolitanism:

These are critical skills required in any century if we are to survive and produce sustainable societies. I would hope that Wente and her readers might offer greater input into the debate as to how and why we educate and how we go about creating a better world. Our quota in education and in most fields for negativity has been met.