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.

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