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.

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.

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.