Sunday, April 26, 2015

Hannah's Exploratory Essay: Mental Models of Reading and Writing

As I was writing the last blog post what some people in the experience-based learning realm call "the world speaking" occurred. When this happens, you end up receiving Facebook messages, notes, phone calls, even letters from all kinds of people in your past and present who are thinking about the same things you are. It is an exciting time where you feel like your "availability" (see earlier blog post) is very high in a good way. In this case, colleagues, friends and former students all seemed to have something to say about the last post on shattering mental models in reading and writing. So, I thought I would share some of what I received since it furthers the last post nicely.

The first piece I received was on the sad occasion of the death of my friend Lisa's favorite author, Eduardo Galeano. I first came to know him through his "history" of soccer-- Soccer in Sun and Shadow--where magical realism and spirituality capture the game in a truly unique way. But Lisa's quote came from another  of his books--The Book of Embraces--where Galeano explores why he looks at the world the way he does. Lisa sent me the following entry entitled Celebration of the Marriage of Heart and Mind:

"Why does one write, if not to put one's pieces together? From the moment we enter school or church, education chops us into pieces; it teaches us to divorce soul from body and mind from heart. The fisherman of the Colombian coast must be learned doctors of ethics and morality, for they invented the word sentipensante, feeling-thinking, to define language that speaks the truth."

Analysis dominates so unrelentingly the way we approach reading and writing in high school that is does, in fact, "chop us into pieces" or at least so it feels to many of my students. Galeano deeply understands something I have been consciously struggling with for a few years now--the integrity of the "feeling-thinking." This moment is what I was exploring in any earlier post related to the immersion theater piece Sleep No More, as well as the pre-verbal experience of "awe" that I had at Delicate Arch in southern Utah.

Then my friend Miranda sent me the following quote from the Mexican painter Jose Clemente Orozco that reminded her of her time at the Teaching for Experience workshop the previous summer:

"In every painting, as in any other work of art, there is always an IDEA, never a story. The idea is the point of departure, the first cause of the plastic construction, and it is present all the time as energy creating matter. The stories and other literary associations exist only in the mind of the spectator, the painting acting as the stimulus. There are many as many literary associations as spectators. One of them, when looking at a picture representing a scene of war, for example, may start thinking of murder, another of pacifism, another anatomy, another history, and so on. consequently, to write a story and to say that it is actually TOLD by a painting is wrong and untrue."

Orozco is reminding us that the reader creates the "story" from the idea that the artist has put forth into the world. Reading is the act of creation that parallels and even mimics in its need the writer's or painter's. To deny it is to miss the point of the piece of art.

Reading in experience-based learning is about the kind of integration and synthesis of reader and artist and text that Galeano and Orozco are describing.

What reading entails is one mental model we play with at CITYterm, but the other mental model we usually have to unsettle a bit with CITYterm students is the dictatorial power of the "five-paragraph, persuasive, expository essay" as the essence of their conception of writing. Paul Graham, for example, does a lovely job of introducing people to another form of essay writing in his The Age of the Essay. However, the real goal at CITYterm is to have students come to see writing as an act of discovery--as a technique one can rely on to understand what you think. (Kind of what I use this blog for actually).

This past week I received the following "exploratory essay" from my former student Hannah. She had been in the car on the way to a college visit and the following discussion with her present history teacher just wouldn't go away. So, she decided to write an exploratory essay for herself to see what she really thought. I find it not only to be a great example of using writing for discovery (and the successful transfer of it from school into someone's outside life) but also Hannah's own thinking about reading from the point of view of someone in high school.

When reading becomes experience-based, what does that mean?--some thoughts from Hannah. Thank you so much for sending this on, and I look forward to many more conversations about this and other things with you.

Is Reading Selfish? : An Exploratory Essay

A few days ago, I sat down and had a discussion with my history teacher. We talked a lot about reading, and having empathy for characters and authors. Then, in a state of elation of having found someone who understood my perspective on learning, I let something slip.

            “Reading is selfish!” I exclaimed. There was a silence in which I immediately tried to shrink into my chair.

            “Selfish?” My teacher inquired. “How so?”

I muttered something about having a class, and then hurried out of the room. The truth is, I had no reasoning behind my statement. The blurted generalization proceeded to follow me throughout the rest of the week, nagging at the back of my brain. Was I wrong?

My generation is famous for our self-obsession. We have Twitter to let everyone know what we’re doing, Facebook to prove how many friends we have, Instagram to showcase our privilege and photography skills, and Snapchat to show just how much we party. Whenever we use these platforms as outlets for self-expression, we are immediately tagged as selfish.

“Kids these days,” I’ve heard many an adult grumble. “So obsessed with themselves, always texting on their phones. Why can’t they pick up a book?” My argument is as follows: picking up a book, in some ways, is just as self-centered as posting a selfie on Instagram.

What I’m about to claim sounds very blunt, but I believe it to be the truth. When we read, we don’t read to find the author’s message. We read to find what the book means to us, and if any author thinks otherwise they’re kidding themselves. Reading gives us an insight into our own lives: we either love or hate characters based on what we see of ourselves in them, we empathize with situations similar to our own, we make judgments based on our worldviews. We each read through our own lens, and this lens distorts everything we view based on how it relates to us.

This is why there’s no consensus that Camus is more correct than Sartre, and no agreement on the symbolism of Gatsby’s famous dock. It’s the reason people both despise and adore Draco Malfoy, and explains the huge fan base of 50 Shades of Grey. We read to fill a need, and we get different things out reading based on our lives.

Most high school English classes teach us to read selflessly. We step back from a work and analyze the themes, motifs, and symbols, trying to find the author’s exact purpose. I’ve actually had teachers tell me to “try to see it in the author’s point of view, instead of inflicting your own opinions.” Being taught to discard your judgmental lens is discouraging to a student: the teacher is basically telling you you’ve been reading wrong your whole life.

For this reason, many people (myself included) start to dislike reading after they’re required to read for school. Even if we do continue reading for pleasure, we rarely enjoy the books we read for class as much as the ones we read for fun. This is because reading selflessly is not how reading is naturally done, and we can’t properly distance ourselves from the text without first understanding how we relate to it.

Writers are also selfish creatures at their core. David Dunbar, a teacher at CITYterm, told a story to our class. He had been talking on the phone with an author, and asked the author how progress on the book was coming. The author responded, “Great! I’m almost done, I just have to put in the symbols.”
David looked around, grinning, but the class responded with only a few uncomfortable chuckles. Was it a joke?

“Exactly,” David said, slapping the table. “It seems possible that he throws the symbols in at the end, because that’s how you’re taught to learn.”

In fact, the author in question, and most authors in this world, didn’t recall adding any symbols to the book. The “symbols” found in books are created by accident, in an attempt to express the author’s own values and beliefs. Does an author expect everyone who reads his or her book to extract the symbolic nature of a top hat or a rainstorm? No, simply because he or she didn’t even realize the things were symbols in the first place. Even the all-knowing writer is selfish in his or her writing: he or she has little regard for the meaning extracted by the readers. In fact, if a reader comes away with some meaning that the author hadn’t intended, it can be exciting and rewarding for the author. 

I suppose the next step is to clarify the implications of “selfish” reading. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s how readers are meant to read. If writers write out of need, and write through their lens on life, then is it so wrong for readers to do the same thing?

As long as I remain aware of my biases and background while reading, experiencing a book the way I want to experience it makes me relate what I read back to my own life, and thus think more about myself. Some may call reading like this conceited, but I consider it self-reflective.

Thus, is being selfish really so bad? The Webster definition of selfish is “having or showing concern only for yourself and not for the needs or feelings of other people.” Selfish reading does exactly that: readers prioritize what they get out of the book before what the authors put into the book. But would you rather have an army of students who understand exactly why Marx wrote what he did, or a group of individuals who can argue about how Marxist values relate (or don’t relate) to their own lives?
I’m not attempting to challenge the high school curriculum: I understand the value of analyzing a piece of writing from the perspective of the author. I’m also not giving kids an excuse to be on their phones all the time: reading is undoubtedly a more valuable type of selfishness than Facebook.

Instead, I want to embrace reading as an act of selfishness, and emphasize that maybe being “selfish” isn’t all that bad. If everyone recognized that what they pull from a book directly correlates with their identity, then reading selfishly would improve people’s self-awareness, which in turn improves society in general. Suddenly, selfish reading becomes a very selfless thing to do.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Part Two: Challenge and Support

Earl Weaver was once asked about the essence of the game of baseball. He replied, "A very simple game--you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball." But, of course, hitting a baseball has been documented as perhaps the hardest thing to do in sports. There was a time after I had been teaching for awhile when I began to think that teaching could be distilled down to one phrase, "Challenge and Support." But, like Earl Weaver's remark about baseball, while true, that phrase is such an unbelievably hard thing to do in real life and get it right.

When you are engaged in teaching in an experience-based model, however, there are very particular kinds of challenges (and supports) that bring the greatest possible transformation in the learner.  Put most simply, if you can effect a "paradigm shift" in someone's world-view, then you have added a level of learning that will be transformational. If you do it enough times, you may have the good fortune to have that person become someone who deeply understands and can effect their own self-transformation on a repeated basis. In other words, the very act of learning becomes a form of ACTIVISM that the learner uses to effect change in themselves and their world. Sometimes I think of it as service learning on yourself.  If you get interested in the psychology behind this, Bob Kegan has been my go-to person since his book The Evolving Self transformed my own teaching in the early 1980's.
But the book that really informed my thinking about paradigms (see the earlier blog post about the paradigm shifts induced by the experience of awe) was one I discovered while teaching a History of Science class:  Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was the person who had me first seeking out the valuable "anomalies" in my own teaching that would be the key to my own craft evolving.  In addition he got me to realize that if I could effect a "Copernican Revolution" in my student's world view, then I would be creating experience-based learning. So, you may ask, how do
we do this?

Like Copernicus, you first have to have deeply understand the world the way your students (or, in his case, Ptolemy) do. They have mental models of how the world of learning works and you have to know what they know--and HOW they know it. Years ago, I was on a federal government grant team studying "effective teacher behavior." I ended up staking my claim in that study that the number one teacher ability for effectiveness was "cognitive empathy." However, Kierkegaard probably put it best in his journal when he wrote:

"If real success is to attend the effort to bring a person to a definite position, one must first of all take pains to find him where he is and begin there. This is the secret of the art of helping others.... In order to help another effectively I must understand more than he - yet first of all surely I must understand what he understands. If I do not know that, my greater understanding will be of no help to him. Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and in the way he understands it..."

The act of cognitive empathy is perhaps the foundational feature of the experience-based teacher; it is what I think should be the backbone of teacher development. If you understand the world the way your student understands it, then you can design curriculum where the student's model will "fail" or not be sufficient to fit the situation they find themselves in. It is this "expectation failure" then triggers experience-based learning.

This epistemological "split-screen" teaching where you are conscious of not only the content of what is being learned, but also the cognitive skills that are being taught, is what allows the teacher to identify the "mental models" a student is unconsciously using. What I have found so encouraging for the future of experience-based learning is that this kind of thinking/learning/teaching is available to all teachers--those new to the classroom and those with years of experience.

But let me give you two concrete examples--one that effects the student's disposition and one that effects their worldview.

On the first day classes at CITYterm students have read an excerpt about "wondering and wandering" by Harvard professor John Stilgoe. The first day of class is actually a fabulous time to design something based on re-arranging the mental models that students come in with; it is prime time because you will have already established mental models in the students by the end of the first class. CITYterm students arrive having done the reading (maybe the night before) and ready to "discuss" the reading. Some of them are also waiting for an "expectations" sheet to be handed out including plagiarism and grading policies. But after a few minutes identifying the basic concepts of the reading the students and teachers head outside for the rest of the hour to actually DO what Stilgoe is writing about. They literally spend the rest of the hour making increasingly detailed observations about everything on the campus and generating questions and hypotheses about those observations. I know this sounds simple, but it has surprised me how memorable and defining this day becomes for students in their attitude about where learning occurs. What the faculty is trying to do is to have the physically felt experience of what they will do all semester in New York City.

The second example of expectation failure is a bit more complicated but is one of the most powerful Copernican Revolutions (paradigm shifts) that can happen where students learn to read in an experience-based way. (For those of you who follow this blog,  I have discussed this in an earlier blog post about the act of reading.) The other day in class I was telling the story recounted in an earlier post about the author Junot Diaz responding to my query as to where he was on his latest book project--"Oh, yes I am just about done. All I have to do is go back and put in the symbols." However, when I tell students this story virtually none of them ever laugh. In fact, one of them remarked, "that makes a lot of sense because it would be more efficient." That is because his quip fits their mental model of reading as being decoding books for symbols--cue the "green light on the end of Daisy's dock" from The Great Gatsby.

The other mental model that students generally hold is that the author's intention is what solely controls the creation of a piece of fiction. Therefore, they are stunned when an author whose book they are reading tells them that an observation of theirs makes total sense and is very interesting but that "they (the author) did not intend that and had never seen that in the text." Students are befuddled by that until they come to realize that, as the poet Cassie Pruyn writes, "a text is a living beast."
A large part of learning how to read in an experience-based way at CITYterm is designing experiences for students that challenge previously held mental models and force them to create new paradigms for themselves. Many of them, for example, come to a new model that believes that "to read a book is to author it." That shift changes the act of reading for them forever--it is truly Copernican. It also allows them to actively create their own personal understandings of what reading really is. I have found that once you get people comfortable and embracing self-transformation they become enormously creative at it.

There is an enormous amount of creativity and joy that goes into empathizing with students, coming to understand the mental models they hold, and then designing curriculum that forces paradigmatic shifts in thinking. It is when you provide this particular kind of challenge that experience-based learning becomes transformational. It also has the effect of bonding the faculty in wonderful collaborative design efforts that evince and even create a sense of common purpose in what school is supposed to be about--creating students that are their own teachers and teachers who are constantly learning about learning.

But what of support? To be sure, some of the most essential support comes in the form of personal and psycho-emotional awareness of what the student is going through. And there is a great deal written about to be effective in this manner. In the next blog post, however, I will explore what "cognitive supports" might be most helpful in these moments pf paradigmatic, transformational change.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Part One (b): Designing with Both/And's

One of the key ideas behind any planning for experience-based learning is to identify the cognitive skills that are embedded in the text you are exploring. In other words, when you are teaching something you are never just teaching subject matter, you are also teaching a specific cognitive skill. The role of the experience-based teacher is to be transparent and precise in identifying this skill. Experience-based learning, as John Hattie's seminal study shows, dramatically increases its effect when teachers are transparent in making the learning process visible to students.

For example, I might choose to teach a short story like Irwin Shaw's "The 80 Yard Run" not only for its thematic content but also because it is a great text to practice the basic analytic, literary critical skills of reading. On the other hand, if you are trying to practice reading intuitively then a great story to use is Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" because it resists the use of rational, analytic skills precisely because it is a dream. Practicing intuitive techniques for reading is a much more rewarding skill to practice on this text. Looking at the subject you are teaching and locating the cognitive skill at its base is a fascinating exploration and best done with your fellow teachers.

Finland, in fact, has just gone one level better by ceasing to teach "subjects" but, rather, teaching interdisciplinary topics based on skill development. As the Helsinki education manager posited, “We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow."

Guy Claxton has termed this kind of teaching "split-screen" because it has the content on one side of the teaching equation and skills on the other side. Because experience-based learning is always about "doing," there has to be an identifiable skill that is being practiced. (As a side note--"short term cognitive recall" is too often the skill being practiced by students and it is not a particularly engaging one if you are trying to induce an experience in the student.

Teaching "design" is a much more complicated enterprise than simply identifying a skill needed to interpret a short story, but it is an incredibly rewarding one. The important thing to remember is that there are skills at the foundation of the act of designing something that can be identified and their practice is what often makes learning experience-based.

So, what is an example of an assignment that we do at CITYterm that has an explicit design element in it? Once you have watched and listened to something that CITYterm students designed, we can unpack what the skills were that  they were practicing.

One of my favorites, which has undergone a decade of iterations over the past decade, is the Skyscraper Visual Essay. Here is the assignment: "Choose a skyscraper in New York City and, with a group of four other people, design a visual essay of 15-18 images. You may set your essay to music, if you like."

The premise is that as short stories have authors, so buildings have architects. Each is exploring a particular problem in their medium and attempting to create a product that engenders an experience. The assignment has been scaffolded by already practicing reading stories and buildings with parallel techniques. The student's objective (although I use this in the Teaching for Experience summer workshops with teachers as well) is to design an essay that is visual (and auditory) that conveys your experience of the building.

The Flatiron Building circa 1903, with Broadway on the left and Fifth ... 

Click on this link below to watch one recent group's essay on the Flatiron Building (it takes about 2:30 minutes, but you get to listen to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World.")

Flatiron Visual Essay

There is a lot going on in the creation of that essay: group collaboration dynamics, the feeling of being an author making choices and the imposition of an order on a large mass of data. This group's author's feedback write-up revealed an enormous number of iterations in the creation of the piece--particularly the "four image conclusion" that ends with them using the reflection of the Flatiron in the sunglasses to position both themselves and the building in history--pretty inventive.

The process of designing this essay targets three big "Both/And's" (that was what I posited at the end of the last blog post as a crucial idea in making something an experience) that is one of the keys to why adding a design element helps to make learning experience-based.

First, Analysis/Synthesis

Designing something requires that the author(s) be both analytic and synthetic in the same project. You have to be adept at both taking things apart and seeing the component parts of the text you are exploring. But then you also have to be able to take those pieces and re-arrange them in a coherent order that produces an inventive synthesis. And, as Howard Gardner notes, “Alas, under ordinary circumstances, the synthesizing mind achieves little formal attention during school years.” Experimenting with different ways to synthesize things has been something CITYterm has been exploring for seven or eight years.

Second, Convergence/Divergence

Designing something means that you have to converge down onto a solution at the end of your exploration. Designing something ultimately demands it, but students get a great deal of practicing the speed, accuracy and logic of deriving a single, best answer. They get much less practice embracing the ambiguity of seeing multi-layered possible answers to a problem. Divergent thinking, the ability to come up a large number of possible answers to a problem has been generally recognized as being one of the most important tools in creativity.

Divergent thinking – more than a mere tool – is a technique very ...

Third, Routine Experts/Adaptive Experts

Research has shown that "routine experts" are people who accept the technical limits of the problem and get things done as efficiently as possible. Routine experts can be highly sophisticated in the way they work and they can often get better and better at solving problems over time. But the accompanying feeling is often one of fulfilling an assignment--no matter how complicated.

"Adaptive experts," however, tolerate ambiguity for longer periods of time and are more willing to stretch their knowledge and abilities when they are designing something. Assignments that have a modicum of "designed confusion" incorporated into them so that the person completing them has to make choices that make them feel like they are "authoring" something that is new and original will be more likely to emerge as "adaptive experts." Interestingly, David Brooks in the New York Times was just citing having the flexibility to define problems in insightful ways as one of the key 21st Century skills. People with a high adaptive expertise have this capacity to a much higher degree that routine learners--no matter how expert the latter are.

My experience as a teacher has been that schools I have taught in are very good at teaching the first part of each of these pairs--analysis, convergence and routine--but less attention gets paid to the second half of the pair--synthesis, divergence and adaptation.

Experience-based learning depends on using design as a fundamental concept precisely because it combines all of these three crucial pairs in a symbiotic manner. In other words, assignments become experiences more often--and even transformational ones--when let students both dance and choreograph (see previous blog post) in the same assignment.

One of the most rewarding things about experience-based learning is that it has such far reaching adaptations and applications. It is important to remember, and to communicate to students, that the real extension of this kind of learning is the way we design our lives, not just our school assignments.

For me, one of the great "Both/And's" is need/love. Where design takes into account both need and love, then you have something very special in terms of unity and integrity. Look at your own life and see if it isn't true in the way you have designed the way you live on a daily basis.

So I leave the final word to one of my favorite "designers" (he was strict in his parameters, by the way, once referring to free verse poetry as "like playing tennis without a net")--Robert Frost. 

This excerpt is from the end of Two Tramps in Mud Time--

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Part One (a): Designing Experience

I hear and I forget,
I see and I remember, 

I do and I understand. 

--Confucius c. 450BC

At its most basic level, experience-based learning is almost always defined as "learning by doing." While that is helpful in a broad way because it does mean that learning has to be active, it doesn't make the fine distinctions necessary to plan activities that are experience-based. John Dewey addressed this early on in his exploration of Experience and Education, "The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are mis-educative... It is not enough to insist upon the necessity of experience, nor even of activity in experience. Everything depends upon the quality of the experience which is had."

So, what influences the "quality of the experience?" One of the most important questions I ask when I start to plan experience-based activities is this, "Where and when in this activity is the student going to be designing something that is crucial to the learning that I want to occur?"

My first understanding of the importance of design came only a few years into teaching when I was coming up with a lesson plan to teach the 1929 Stock Market Crash to my United States History class. I remember this vividly because the son of the Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange was in the class and the class was happening on Parent's Day! My normal style of teaching had been a kind of "Socratic dialogue" in the true sense of that term. By that I mean Socrates always had an agenda (or least the way Plato portrays him) and he, like Professor Kingsfield from The Paper Chase in the last blog post, always had a question that played off the answer the student had just given. After you have been teaching the same material for a few years, you can get pretty good at anticipating what the answers might be that students will put forth, and you can be ready with the next question that will push their thinking in the direction you want it to go.

The class went wonderfully well, I thought, until later that afternoon as I was replaying it in my head I had a startling epiphany--sure I had been pushing the student's thinking in some ways but wasn't it remarkable that they always ended up exactly where I did at the bottom of that yellow legal sheet of paper that I had in front of me with my notes on it?  This was the beginning of one of many pedagogical "dark nights of the soul" that have haunted my teaching life. This one centered upon the realization that, in metaphoric form, while I was very good at teaching my students how to "dance," I should actually also be teaching them to be "choreographers." What I had done, unwittingly, was to take all the design aspects out of the learning that was happening. And the more I looked, the more I saw how I had been doing that not only in the way I taught class, but the way I created assignments, the way I gave feedback and the way I interacted with them. I was a good "dance teacher;" but I realized there was something more that I needed to add. Most people are able to learn to dance to someone else's choreography - think of those Arthur Murray dance centers all over the country, classes for everyone who wants to learn how to waltz, fox trot or tango in the way they've been taught forever. But how many dancers actually learn to create their own choreographed dances of steps, swings, jigs, twists, shimmies, and moonwalks that expand the definition of learning? You increase the intensity and the density of experience-based learning by not only teaching students how to dance but encouraging them to be choreographers as well.

My second glimpse into this area happened not long after that class. It began innocently enough when I was picking my own children up from elementary school. I asked them, "How was school today?" And what I got back was a litany of events about art projects they were creating, math puzzles they were playing with, games they created during recess, plays they were writing to be performed and on and on with great enthusiasm. That evening I got a call from an excited former student who wanted to talk about how she was creating the schedule for her sophomore year of college and how the courses she was choosing all fit together and led toward an internship she was pursuing in the summer that would dovetail with a two-pronged junior year abroad in Scotland and Argentina.

In short, my own children and my former students were eagerly designing things and couldn't get enough of "school." But when I talked to my own students they sounded like the inverse of that position--they were not talking about what they were "doing;" they were talking about "what was being done TO them." Why this feeling exists is a very complicated question, but one reason I realized was that high school students didn't get to design very much. As I ask that question even today--"What was the last thing you designed?"--I usually get blank stares and the mystified retort, "You mean, in school?" The most frequent answers involve "extra-curricular" activities or CD mixes for people they are dating. I also found myself much more willing to create soccer practices and even coach competitive games where my players actively made choices on the field rather then follow prearranged steps.  But it took me years to have the confidence to give up that kind of control in my classroom.

The issue of design is so delicately but firmly tied into student motivation, disposition and sense of purpose that I have found it to be one of the single most influential facets of creating experience-based learning. In recent years, there has been a recognition of the importance of design most notably through the concept of design thinking. The IDEO global consultancy headed by Tim Brown has brought an awareness to this idea as a key not only to innovation but to transformation of organizations. The at Stanford University has also been instrumental in getting the concept of design front and center in all grades K-12. And Dean Kamen's Robotics competition, FIRST, has been gaining momentum every year since its inception in the mid-1990's. So, I think there is little doubt that question, "Where and when in this activity is the student going to be designing something that is crucial to the learning that I want to occur?" is one that will gain increasing attention in all classrooms.


So, what is an example of an assignment that we do at CITYterm that has an explicit design element in it? That will be the topic of the next blog post where we can examine some of the fundamental design principles at the heart of how to give students the chance not only to be accomplished dancers but also inventive choreographers.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Introduction: What Do Experience-based Teachers Think About Learning?

A couple of weeks ago some friends of mine who work in a school in Chicago that I had recently visited called to ask for the best articles I knew of that defined experience-based learning. At first, I was ready to unearth all the wonderful books and articles I had collected over the years--John Dewey, Jean Piaget, David Kolb, Kurt Lewin, Jerome Bruner, Kurt Hahn, LevVygotsky, Kieran Egan and even the recent spate of cognitive psychologists (Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg, David Perkins, Daniel Willingham) and researchers (Ken Bain, Guy Claxton, John Hattie, Robert Kegan, Carol Dweck) that I have spent the past twenty years or more reading--when I realized that I really didn't have anything I could pass on that was written from the teacher's point of view that tried to summarize a definition of experience-based learning. I had a lot of theory-to-practice articles and a voluminous set of studies of best practices, but not really anything that pinpointed what they wanted. I tend to be someone who works practice to theory so it was fun to think of answering their request. Their request was straightforward--"Can you identify FIVE major questions that are at the foundation of the way you plan for learning to be experience-based?"

I should start, however, by saying that I got interested in this whole topic because when I first started teaching I was around teachers (and have continued to be around them throughout my career) whose students were walking out of their classrooms having had, for lack of a better word, an "experience." The kind of learning that was happening was deeper, more lasting, more "mind-blowing." All I knew was that was not how I would describe what was happening in MY classroom, and I was curious about how that was happening in those rooms next door to mine. So, experience-based learning, for me, has always been about the learning itself, not just about the place it is happening. It can happen anywhere at anytime if the conditions are right in the environment and in the learner; I just happen to be lucky enough at CITYterm to be able to radically experiment with seeing how many places it happens and what variations are possible.


However, before I start to unpack the five questions I ask myself when I am trying to be a teacher that practices experience-based learning, it is important to define what learning is as richly as possible.  Take a minute right now and answer that question yourself. What characterizes learning in your class? Describe it in all its forms.  And how do you determine when learning has occurred? Maybe give yourself a couple of examples from the past month or so.

Around the time that CITYterm started, research conducted in Sweden in the 1970's was becoming more talked about in the States. Ference Marton and Roger Saljo were able to identify two different student approaches to learning. Those engaged in "surface learning" focused on parts of what they were reading so that they could memorize material that they believed they would be questioned on later.

For the past couple decades I have been asking high school students the following question, "Assume that I am the cognitive skill God and that I can grant you one cognitive skill of your choice that you feel will allow you to be at the top of your class, what skill would you like me to give you?" In most cases, I have to explain a bit about what a cognitive skill is and give examples of how cognition works in classrooms. But, after that, the vast majority of them give the same answer, and it is rarely the same answer that their teachers give--"photographic memory." Take a moment and think about the possible reasons for their answer. There are many possibilities, I think, but since there are no teachers that I know who focus a great deal on teaching that skill, it is kidn of alarming and depressing that this answer persists. Now do an assessment inventory of an individual student's tests, quizzes, labs and so forth for the past two weeks. After you collect the student's assessments, try to identify the cognitive skills that would have been most necessary to perform at the top of the class and see what you find.

It didn't take Swedish researchers to discover this, however. When I was doing my first teaching internship in a summer school in 1973 (which I was only doing because I got to run the soccer program and was pretty sure the only thing I did not want to do was be a teacher), a movie came out that captivated my attention--The Paper Chase. The movie, in some ways, is an embodiment of all the different kinds of approaches to learning that we are exploring here. Take a moment and watch the following clip starting at 6:27 to 9:10: Paper Chase. 

Professor Kingsfield humiliates Mr. Brooks for his prodigious "surface learning" abilities but identifies another kind of learning--"strategic learning"-- that he explains earlier in the film:

"Why don’t I just give you a lecture? You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. Because through my questions you learn to teach yourselves.... Questioning and answering. At times you may feel that you have found the correct answer. I assure you that this is a total delusion on your part. You will never find the correct, absolute, and final answer. In my classroom, there is always another question—another question to follow your answer. . . . You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer."

This is an important and sophisticated approach to learning that all of the schools I have taught in do extremely well. In fact, they do it so well that their graduates often return from the first year of college announcing, essentially, that they do not have to "do any work" in order to achieve excellent grades. This occurance is another kind of concern, but one I will explore later. This kind of training of minds--the ability to manipulate data, ideas, numbers, equations, images--is much more, as Professor Kingsfield suggests, than just having a surface knowledge.

For the Swedish researchers, however, "surface learning" was in contrast to the group engaged in "deep learning" who were characterized as being in an active search for meaning. In the movie, this approach is what the main character, appropriately named Mr. HART, comes to learn by the end of the film. Ference Marton and Roger Saljo saw "deep learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by re-interpreting knowledge." What I have been doing for a long time now is talking to people (mostly my own students but not only that age group) when it appears to me they are engaged in a "deep learning" approach to their learning. Listed below are what I hear people exhibiting or overtly saying when they are taking that approach.

"Deep" learners have a relationship with what they are learning that can be identified by:

1) a quest for understanding more than knowledge
2) developing multiple perspectives
3) being meta-cognitive (constantly thinking about their own thinking)
4) relating what they are learning to previous experiences
5) being hyper-aware of assumptions that are the foundation of what they are learning
6) feeling that they were the "authors of their own learning"
7) identifying their motivation as primarily intrinsic
8) its deeply personal nature
9) seeking out feedback on how they are learning
10) a courage that invites paradigm shifts in themselves that are transformational

Personally, I think we all need all three of these approaches (surface, strategic, deep) at different times and they are all valuable. I have a surface level approach to driving my car, a strategic approach to following the daily news, and a deep approach to thinking about teaching and learning. Think this through for yourself: when do you use each of these different approaches? And ask your students when they do. Fostering a transparency about a teacher's beliefs about the nature of learning always helps students feel more in control of their own learning and makes the relationship with the teacher more collaborative and less adversarial or collusive.

Lastly Experience-based learning almost always appears to be a "both/and" proposition, not an "either/or" choice. There is not one approach to learning that we use all the time, there are many. In this way the dichotomies that are often posited by nay-sayers -- such as "skills versus content" and "transmission versus construction" -- are red herrings in that they force a choice that leads one away from making learning experiential.

One of my hypotheses about experience-based learning is that it may well require the creation of a specific environment that is peculiarly conducive to development and growth. Almost all of my five major foundations of "experience-based" learning (Design,  Challenge and Support, Collaboration, Feedback and Transfer) contain challenges to the way we operate as schools right now.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Teaching for Experience: The Symposium June 23-25, 2015

This is a little different as a blog post, but I wanted to let people who follow the blog that we have finally set up a Symposium for next summer--June 23-25 2015. You are all invited. We have tried to keep the cost as low as possible, and I am working on foundation grants to get financial aid for scholarships.  I don't want any one to miss this opportunity.

What follows below is the first page of the website:

Put that address in and you will get a page where you can see who is on the panel of Heads of School and who is presenting what kind of workshop (just click on all the links on the left hand side of the page for all the information). There is also a page for registration. It is all still a work in progress--so, if you have ideas for anything at all, write us at

And, spread the word, OK? This is going to be a lot of fun and learning!

QUESTIONS?: | 914.479.6502
QUESTIONS?: | 914.479.6502

What is TFE?

Almost twenty years ago, CITYterm at the Masters School was created as a laboratory to investigate how and why some types of learning become transformational for both students and teachers. In the same year, Swedish researchers published one of the first pieces of research confirming that there was a distinction amongst “deep, transformational learning,” “strategic learning,” and “surface learning.”

For the past two decades, CITYterm’s mission has been to explore the cognitive and affective bases for why certain kinds of teaching and learning become transformational experiences. At this point in time, over a thousand students have experienced the CITYterm program, and are exploring how they can be the “authors of their own learning” in their lives.

A decade ago, the week-long workshop, Teaching for Experience, was established to share some CITYterm’s findings with teachers from around the world, but also to have those teachers create a deep learning experience for themselves. Each summer 15 to 18 teachers attend Teaching for Experience in order to make that happen. But now over 150 teachers have come to Dobbs Ferry for the week and returned to their home schools to implement the ideas that were fostered during the workshop.

Who's Invited? 

Every summer there has been a call to come together again to take the next step in furthering those ideas. 

Next summer, from June 23-25, we are creating a network of teachers from all over the world who are interested in creating transformative learning in their classrooms and in effecting institutional change in their schools

We will have scores of TFE alums returning, but we are also inviting ALL teachers and administrators who want to create a world-wide network of like-minded educators to join us.  This gathering is not only a reunion, it’s a symposium for EVERYONE engaged in this kind of work, a way to connect with each other and build a network that supports and enlivens our work moving forward.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Walking the City of Serendipity

The American Historical Association asked me to write a couple of essays about walking New York City for their annual meeting coming up later this year. I decided I would try and look at what makes New York City different as a place to walk.  So, part of the audience for this one is professional historians who are visiting New York City. I think what I learned from writing is actually something about how hard it is to get to a mindset that will inculcate serendipity. It seems to me that it is about holding the tension between being "mindful and meta" at the same time.  I am not sure I am ready to explain that to a body of professional historians, however. But maybe they can feel it walking New York?

                                                 Walking the City of Serendipity

     Walt Whitman is New York’s patron saint of serendipity largely because of his capacity for embracing others empathically. As a result, the city never ceased to yield up surprises and discoveries that thrilled and enchanted him. Whitman changed the tradition of walking New York City forever when he made Gotham and its denizens his own. Whitman loved New York City—its crowds, its multicultural aspect, its physical landscape. And he embraced it all with a kind of cosmic empathy that embraced both immanence and transcendence. When you walk the streets of New York you will be walking in the footsteps of Walt Whitman. If there were still omnibuses roaring around Dean Man’s Curve on the southwest corner of Union Square, you could have seen Walt hanging onto the back of the bus reciting his epic poem Song of Myself to the crowds.

     But one place you should go to truly understand what New York meant to Whitman is the Fulton Ferry Landing under the Brooklyn Bridge. There, carved into the metallic railing that surrounds the pier, will be the words of the poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not:
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, know how it is.

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…

Whitman’s capacity for empathy was so vast that he even knew you were coming to Gotham, and the prospect of bumping into you on the streets delighted him.


     You will have a chance in the next few days to experience and practice one the great delights of being in New York City—serendipity.  But what is serendipity, exactly? “Serendipity” –the word-- was actually invented by Sir Horace Walpole in a letter on January 28th, 1754. He wrote, “This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called "The Three Princes of Serendip;" as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”

     Because of its size, density and that it is the most multi-cultural city in the world (in one Queens high school there are over 125 languages being spoken right now), the streets and neighborhoods of Gotham will provide you with an abundance of chances to “make discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things you were not in quest of.”

     But just as the King of Serendip hired a tutor to teach his princely sons how to cultivate this skill, we can learn from the long tradition of past “walkers of the city” who honed their skill of serendipity on the streets of Manhattan. Probably the first thing you need to know is HOW to look at the city streets. For this, let’s turn to one of finest chroniclers of city life, A. J. Liebling, “The finest thing about New York City, I think, is that it is like one of those complicated Renaissance clocks where on one level an allegorical marionette pops out to mark the day of the week, on another a skeleton death bangs the quarter hour with his scythe, and on a third the Twelve Apostles do a cakewalk. The variety of the sideshow distracts one’s attention from the advance of the hour hand.” New York is a city of microcosms that is best approached by invoking the old Zen Buddhist aphorism, “Everything changes, everything is connected, pay attention.”

     Because New York is in constant flux, you have to add a level of time to your understanding of how to really see New York (this will come in handy since you are probably an historian). As the novelist Colson Whitehead says, “No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, ‘That used to be Munsey's’ or ‘That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.’ That before the Internet cafe plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.”

     New Yorkers fell in love with walking streets because they were fascinated by the “flaneurs” of Paris and London in the 1820’s and 1830’s—Charles Dickens chief amongst them. Dickens was so admired that his visit to the city in 1842 was celebrated by a ball attended by 3000 people that was described as “the greatest affair of modern times.” Dickens himself remarked on the bustle of Broadway (though he abhorred the pigs that ran wild across his path) but found the Five Points slum “all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed.” 

     Native authors were also obsessed with observing and describing the extremes of street life in the city’s neighborhoods. Ned Buntline and George Foster were two of the first professional flaneurs who both exposed and weirdly celebrated this polarized city. Their kind of walking the streets led to elaborate descriptions of the gawdy, meretricious life style of the wealthy on Fifth Avenue to the Bowery with its “deep, dark, sullen ocean of poverty, crime and despair.” Matthew Hale Smith summarized what these flaneurs saw as the very nature of the city in his expose Sunshine and Shadow in New York when he wrote, “Great cities must ever be centers of light and darkness; the repositories of piety and wickedness; the home of the best and worst of our race; holding within themselves the highest talent for good and evil.”

     Dickens, Buntline, Foster, however, were all flaneurs who made their observations with an aloofness, almost a voyeurism that established a firm distance between them and the people on the street. They were ON the streets, but they were not OF the streets. You might take something from their courage of going places that seem to push them out of their comfort zones, but you will need to kindle your Whitman-esque attitude if you are to really become a “Prince of Serendip.”

      Returning to Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge from the Ferry Landing you will need to give yourself over to the rhythms and the characters of the streets as the modern day Whitman Vivian Gornick does in her essay, “On the Street: Nobody Watches, Everyone Performs,”

“The day is brilliant: asphalt glimmers, people knife through the crowd, buildings look cut out against a rare blue sky. The sidewalk is mobbed, the sound of the traffic deafening. I walk slowly, and people hit against me. Within a mile my pace quickens, my eyes relax, my ears clear out. Here and there, a face, a body, a gesture separates itself from the endlessly advancing crowd, attracts my reviving attention. I begin to hear the city, and feel its presence.  Two men in their twenties, think and well dressed, brush past me, one saying rapidly to the other, ‘You gotta give her credit. She made herself out of nothing. And I mean nothing.’ I laugh and lose my rhythm. Excuse me, my fault, beg your pardon….Cars honk, trucks screech, lights change… My shoulders straighten, my stride lengthens. The misery in my chest begins to dissolve out. The city is opening itself to my. I feel myself enfolded in the embrace of the crowded street, its heedless expressiveness the only invitation I need not to feel shut out.”
     As you walk the streets and investigate the neighborhoods of New York City during this conference remember—“Everything changes, everything is connected, pay attention.” If you do, I guarantee you will make serendipitous discoveries of things you were not in search of. And if you get really good at it—like Whitman or Gornick—you might even discover things about yourself in the other people walking the streets around you.