Experiential Education: PechaKucha Madness!

My good friend Will Burton and I designed a new course for the University of Winnipeg called Topics in Experiential Education. We felt there was a need to offer a course to teachers that took a deep dive into the theory and principles of EE. This spring, we had almost 50 teachers engage in the course, so we had to divide it up into two sections.

Here are some of the final exhibitions from my section. I am so impressed by the passion, curiosity, and rigour demonstrated by these educators. Have a look!

Will and I will be offering the course this fall as part of the Seven Oaks School Divisions PBDE in Inquiry cohort. Let me know if you want to jam.

Embracing Community, Equity, and Experience in the Time of Covid — And Beyond

As we enter our eighth week of class suspension in Manitoba, educators, learners, and families are working extremely hard to fill the democratic, emotional, intellectual, cultural, and nutritional voids that education and schools tend to fill. 

We all know that the Covid19 has made wholey visible the inequities in our society — leaving those with less struggling further. We also are highly aware that if we are not careful as educators, we can often end up overwhelming learners and families, even with the best intentions. 

So how do we approach the project of educating learners in a way that attempts to sustain community, addresses the inequitable distribution of resources and justice, and offers all learners the deep and educative experiences they deserve?

In these strange and disconcerting times, many of us have turned to history and literature, or the humanities, as a means for sense and meaning making. I have observed and been delighted that many learners and educators have turned to the 1918 pandemic as an avenue to think historically about Covid. Thinking historically allows us an opportunity to analyze the human experience, reflect on this collective experience, and develop the imagination and empathy required to navigate present-day complexities. Looking to history also brings us reassurance, that yes, pandemics do end. 

It has also been fascinating to see peers and colleagues turn to Albert Camus’ The Plague as a means to help us navigate the uncertainty of these times. Camus speaks about the dangers of a benal life when one gives up asking the big and meaty philosophical questions. — when we don’t think deeply about the human experience or when we try to explain it through systematic responses. The pandemic is arguably a time when many of us are coming to terms with existential questions and agnst. So are our learners.

I believe that we owe our learners the opportunity to fully think about their experience during this time — supporting pursuits that have meaning and that enable them to make meaning. I have noticed the incredible work by educators in our province who have skillfully designed deep experiences for their learners — keeping in mind the experience of the child while developing the necessary provocations and invitations for inquiry and growth. And I wonder how we sustain this energy when we come back as communities?

Philosopher John Dewey argues that creating mis-educative experiences or simply offering disconnected activities for our learners stunts transformation and democracy, and produces what he refers to as bad habits. Dewey’s theorizing of how we learn is fully centered on community, that is the social, and an experience that “arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently  intense to carry a person over dead places in the future….” 

Throughout this time, I have observed a few phenomena that might help us come out of this pandemic event stronger; enabling us to support learners and families with consistency and vigour, while also providing our learners with the knowledge, skills, and ways of being necessary to contemplate the good life.

First, I have witnessed the shrieks of delight when learners are connected with their teachers and friends on phones and screens. I am astounded at the snapping back of the head when a child erupts in laughter and joy when in community. Our learners need us, and they need each other. There is no denying this and no replication. I am brought to tears when I see educators on the sidewalk waving to their kids at the window, watching with glee as this loving adult writes loving messages on the worn cement. 

During and following Covid, nurturing and growing democratic communities need to be at the core of our design. 

Second, I am struck by the anxious desire of educators in Manitoba who struggle with the desire to build foundational skills, steer clear of busy work, offer deep experiences for learners, and provide meaningful feedback to families. The litany of spinning plates is overwhelming when not all families and learners have the means to connect online or have the resources to what we might refer to as “engage.” 

I have witnessed educators who have invited learners to make sense of their experience in this time. Middle Years educators who connect with their learners through developing zines, Kindergarten teachers who invite their learners to talk about how their favourite stuffy makes them feel, and Senior Years educators who tackle a New York Times op ed in community as a means to make sense of ideas such as authoritarianism, xenophobia, and social isolation. In these examples, educators know the experience of the learners, design with this experience and mind, and provide the supports and invitations for learners to reflect on their experience and grow.

During and following Covid, deep and intentional design needs to be at the core of our work.

Last, I am astounded at how quickly and nimbly schools and communities have supported our families in most need. Through hampers, school supplies, laptops, wifi, and respite work, and so much more, our schools have reached out and supported our learners and families. There was no discussion. Folks just got to work that needed to get done.

During and following Covid, equity needs to be at the core of our design and work.

As we live through this experience, there is an opportunity to consolidate our collective energy in Manitoba when it comes to schools and education. Let’s continue to and strive further to build democratic communities that are fully focused on equity and the pursuit of deep questions about the human experience. To do so, is to provide all our learners with the space, knowledge, and skills required to support their growth and transformation. Keeping these at our core will, as Deborah Meier argues, “nurture the two indisepnsable traits of a democratic society: a high degree of tolerance for others, indeed genuine empathy for them, as well as a high degree of tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and puzzlement, indeed enjoyment of them.”  

 

Summer: A Time to Learn for All

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Smilkstein’s Diagram of a Neuron

In Canada, we are well into the period where we cut off the formal learning process within schools and learners are released into the wilds for a two-month holiday. This tradition harkens back to the days when young boys and girls were beckoned back to the fields, at a time when more than half of the country’s population lived in rural communities.

But in 2016, the research points quite clearly to the fact that this two-month hiatus can often be detrimental to learning in many areas and that it can stifle the educative experiences and processes which educators have worked tirelessly to design throughout the previous ten months. The research suggests that if we were to test learners in June and then re-test them in September, that the retention rates would be pretty pitiful. The curve of forgetting demonstrates this phenomena:

The Curve of Forgetting

The Curve of Forgetting

On a more positive note, the summer holidays allow many parents the opportunity to reconnect to some degree with their children, if they are privileged enough to be afforded vacation themselves. Those with limited means, who are marginalized, and/or who suffer from the effects of poverty often do not have the time or ability to rest — a fact barely mitigated by exceptional programs like CSI and other camps.

But for those of us who are lucky enough to have some time off in the summer (and teachers hit the jackpot), summer is a time to learn about and from our children. Today just happened to be one of those days, where my kids reminded me of the learning process and how the brain is designed to learn. My eight-year-old daughter, already a learned and avid cyclist, was in the process of coaching her five-year-old brother in the art of spinning. I was astounded by how patient my daughter was, but also at her innate ability to read the experience, temperament, and stages of learning my son was in.

It was almost as though my daughter had been reading about the stages of learning, as proposed by Rita Smilkstein. Smilkstein, a brain-based educator and scholar, has been able to succinctly explain how the brain learns and the stages involved. (Take a look at the Youtube video below, as someone has summed up these stages quite nicely.)

These stages include:

  • Motivation – Perhaps we watched someone else ride a bike, or we have to, or we have been shown, or we are really interested in learning.
  • Start to Practice – This is where we begin to practice, where trial and error take place, and we begin to ask questions.
  • Advanced Practice – This is perhaps where we seek out additional lessons, where we read about bike riding, and where we develop some confidence.
  • Skillfulness – This is where we have some success, where we experience enjoyment, and where we begin to share our ideas.
  • Refinement – At this stage, we see substantial improvement, where things become natural, where we might plateau and become creative.
  • Mastery – This is where we begin to teach, where we might receive some recognition for what we do and where we seek out higher challenges.

As Smilkstein argues, “we learn through these stages because this is the how the brain learns — by constructing knowledge through sequential stages.”

My daughter had demonstrated these stages of learning and read them well as she coached my son. My son was certainly motivated to learn how to ride a two-wheeler, but he needed practice, a chance to fail, and the opportunity to ask questions in order to have some success. This was an educative experience for me, as it reminded me of what actually happens in the brain and how neuroscience relates to theories of experience as espoused by the likes of John Dewey and Paulo Freire.

Not only does this mean that I can enjoy bike rides with both of my kids, but it also speaks to the need to understand that our learners are going through a process, that their brains are physically changing when they learn, and that the task of the educator is to design experiences whereby neural connections are nurtured, built, and strengthened. This experience also has forced me to reconsider the purpose of summer holidays and that perhaps this two-month period away from school creates a further gap between those who are privileged and those who are not. Do summer holidays inhibit learning for some and do they create an imbalance in educative opportunities? In other words, do they do more harm than good? If they answer is yes, perhaps we need to rethink the status quo.

Criteria of Experience for an Ecological Literacy

Over the paMatt Hendersonst few years, I have been in the process of creating a Criteria of Experience for an Ecological Literacy to help guide my design process. I have borrowed from the Centre for Ecoliteracy, Dewey, and Freire to help me reflect on how I design educative experiences for learners. Please feel free to share, modify, or disregard altogether.

As educators, how do we equip our learners with the skills, abilities, and literacy necessary to close these two gaps? My inquiry has led me to two hypotheses. First, learners need to be immersed in educative experiences which reveal how they are interconnected and interrelated with all systems on Earth. Second, These experiences need to lead towards learner-driven action, transformation, and a new ecological literacy. 

By ecological literacy, I offer this definition: To understand one’s connectedness to all systems, to appreciate the finite carrying capacity of the Earth, to predict consequences of human activity, and to ultimately create sustainable communities through action. Literacy refers to the skills and abilities to create new knowledge and ecological literacy relies on not only knowledge of the natural world, but also the drive to take meaningful and informed action — namely the notion of praxis.

Given the need to foster this ecological literacy in order to close the knowledge and the knowledge-action gaps, I set out on a journey to try and design experiences which might lead to this goal. With my hypothesis in mind about closing these gaps, I needed to seek out other people, schools, and programmes which had already traveled down this path. Some of the schools I visited, some people I have connected with on Twitter, and others I have simply known about through the literature. Some of the schools are public, some are independent, and some are charter schools. But all have a commitment to learning and fostering this sense of ecological literacy through the design of educative experiences. Here is a sampling of some of the schools I explored:

The Met

Eagle Rock

Soundings

Forest Schools

Hobsonville Point

Riverpoint Academy

High Tech High

Northwest Passage School

Punahou School

 

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.