Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Wizard of Oz and Experience-based Learning

A few weeks ago, I had to summarize "experience-based learning" in a few words. I found myself invoking the story of the Wizard of Oz as containing many of the elements that make a piece of learning "transformative." I am also now wondering the degree to which that story is an American story, and the degree to which it is universal. My old freshman dean in college (and the school's wrestling coach), Henry Littlefield, had written a piece that argued that L. Frank Baum's children's book was a "Parable on Populism" that told an allegorical tale of late nineteenth century political struggle. This makes some sense to me (as long as the ruby slippers are actually silver), but I wanted to unpack the mythic qualities more than the allegorical.

First, all "deep learning" (the kind of learning that is internalized and alters the way you see yourself or the world) contains expectation failure. As Satchel Paige once remarked, "It's not what you don't know that hurts you. It's what you know that just ain't so." Our own experience has taught us certain things to be true, but sometimes, in new situations, those things are shown to be inadequate. Or, as Dorothy puts it so succinctly, "Toto, I have the feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." You have entered the DKDK Zone (see earlier post)! Almost all experience-based learning has to start with this recognition.

Second, there is, in fact, almost always some form of recognition that takes place. We usually think of recognition as gaining plaudits or awards, but it is, more deeply, etymologically, from "recognize" which contains the root for "cognition." Re-cognition, then, is to perceive truth and usually with the idea that you are identifying something that you already know. This is why T.S. Eliot's remark from the Four Quartets, "And the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/And know it for the first time" is so a powerful mantra for experience-based learners. Experience-based learning, as the Romantic poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth understood, is always about "making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar." It is about understanding something you have always understood, but in a different way than you ever have before.

Lastly, experience-based learning works best as a form of creative collaboration. It is always helps to have a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and Cowardly Lion along with you on your exploration. And that part of what I was trying say at the Gala Fundraiser we had at CITYterm last month. Because when you are engaged with other people in experience-based learning the expectation failures don't seem so threatening and the recognitions seem that much deeper and more life-changing. When I am thinking about "lesson planning," I often end up going through a checklist that contains all three of these ideas--expectation failure, recognition, creative collaboration. If I don't see how they might happen, it reduces the chance of something becoming an experience.

Of course, one of the most important realizations of skipping down the Yellow Brick Road is that the Wiz isn't really a Wiz because of the "wonderful things he does," but that "you've always had the power, but you had to learn it for yourself." And, of course, that the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion were already there in Kansas you just needed to make the familiar strange to see it anew.

What do you think are some of the crucial characteristics of why some learning becomes an experience? I would love to explore some of those ideas--let me know what seems most important to you as you think about what events in your life have been transformed into experiences that you learn from all the time.

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