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.

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