Principles of Deep Experiential Education: Interaction (Part 2 of 5)

IMG_0925In the last post, we discussed the importance of Framing in experiential education. For this blog, we’ll explore another key principle that often makes the difference between shallow and deep experiential education: Interaction.

In Experience and Education, John Dewey spoke of the principle of interaction this way:

“The word ‘interaction,’ … assigns equal rights to both factors in experience– obejctive and internal conditions. Any normal experience is an interplay of these two sets of conditions. Taken together, or in their interaction, they form what we call a situation. The trouble with traditional education was not that it emphasized the external conditions that enter into the control of the experiences but that it paid so little attention to the internal factors which also decide what kind of experience is had” (p. 42).

Dewey sometimes takes some unpacking with his language so let’s try to tease apart what he is saying here about experiential education. The common debate during Dewey’s day (and still prevalent today) was that education was either too internally child-centered or that it was too externally directed from the teacher. In a classic Dewey move, he collapses the false dichotomy here and says that effective education always involves an interaction between both of these factors– the external and the internal.

Interaction in Practice

So what might that look like in practice? Shallow experiential education is shallow because it makes just the error Dewey discusses here. It either over-emphasizes the internal desires of the student or the externally directed activities designed by the teacher.

An example may help here. Imagine a civic engagement exercise in which junior high school students learn about voting through some form of a simulated election process. In fact, many schools did just this leading up to the last presidential election. Most of the scenarios I heard about involved teachers and school officials creating a “mock election” where students could vote for either Obama or Romney. On election day, students made their votes, they were tallied up by the teachers, and the school than announced the “winner.” This was all meant to introduce students to the civic virtue of democracy. Except that it wasn’t. In reality, the student “vote” did not count at all. And, students did not nominate Obama and Romney in the first place. The conditions were already set externally before they engaged in the activity. This, to me, is a key symptom of shallow experiential education.

On the other hand, one could imagine the same process entirely run by students with no direction or “framing” from teachers. Perhaps students decide to hold a vote about whether the “Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter” is the best book. While this may be of great interest to the students, it falls short of teaching the important civics lesson that the faculty know they want to help create. In this case, the experience places too much weight on the internal factors of student interest. This is another key symptom of shallow experiential education.

So, how might one put both the internal factors and the external factors in interaction with one another? Imagine faculty coming together with students and properly framing the purpose of the exercise– we want to create an election where students have the opportunity to experience the relevance and importance of democratic engagement and civic participation. Teachers and students together might decide on something of importance to their lives at school that students ought to have a real say in and where there may be disagreement– perhaps something around the dress code, or food, or music, or some other relevant issue in the school.

Now imagine a referendum vote run by students, with faculty support along the way, with something at stake– something that students care about– not a “simulation” but an “actualization.” Here the internal factors from the students and the external factors from both the teachers and society as a whole come together in interaction.  The conditions are not externally set prior to the engagement and, likewise, the students are not on their own in directing their learning. It is this kind of a process that enables deeper learning and deeper experiential education.

Interaction, at its best, helps avoid the shallow experiential traps of over-prescribing the external conditions (thus trivializing the experience) or over-emphasizing the internal conditions (thus abdicating the role of the educator).

Some things I think about related to the principle of interaction when I design experiential curricula:

1. Design for something to be “at stake.”  Relevance and real-world problem solving are critical factors in deep experiential education.

2. Do not abdicate your role as a teacher. Deep experiential education always involves the expert guidance and presence of the teacher throughout the learning process.

3. Involve your students in the design of the experience itself. Can they help plan the field trip? Can they co-design the assessment rubrics for the project? Can they identify a key community need to be researched?

4. Lose the over-emphasis on “preparation” for some distant future (for example running a “mock election”) and emphasize instead the “learning laboratory of life right now”

5. Pay attention to your students– what do they talk about? What interests them? What arguments with each other do they have? Spend time “entering their world.” Once you do, you will find countless ways to bring those internal interests into interaction with your external educational goals.

In Experience and Education, Dewey talked about two key criteria of experience: interaction and continuity. As we have seen here, paying close attention to the ways your curriculum project incorporates the principle of interaction can make all the difference in creating deeper experiential education. Next time, we’ll explore the second of Dewey’s criteria: Continuity. Stay tuned!

Principles of Deep Experiential Education: Framing (Part 1 of 5)

The Shallow and The Deep

RecycleforceDavid Orr, in the forward to Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences (2013) writes about what he calls “shallow versus deep environmental education.” He noted that too much of what passes as environmental education is of the shallow kind and what we need more of is “deep” education for sustainability.

I think we could say the same thing about experiential education. The last several decades has witnessed a rise in all sorts of experiential curricula– from service learning to problem-based learning; from internships to place-based education; and from a renewed focus on applied work to “flipped classrooms” and gamification. But, as we get busy “learning by doing,” what principles ensure that the kind of educational experience we orchestrate is deep and not shallow?

Dewey’s Lament

John Dewey, in 1936, had a similar concern. During his time, “progressivism”  and “child centered” learning was all the rage. But, as he watched practitioners implement these ideas, he grew increasingly concerned. He noted:

“An experience may be immediately enjoyable and yet promote the formation of a slack and careless attitude… Each experience may be lively, vivid, and ‘interesting,’ and yet their disconnectedness may artificially generate dispersive, disintegrated, centrifugal habits… They are then taken, either by way of enjoyment or of discontent and revolt, just as they come… Traditional education offers a plethora of examples of experiences of the kinds just mentioned.  (1936, p. 26)”

Indeed, even now, in 2014, we have a plethora of examples of such “shallow” experiential education. The internship with no support, the boring field trip, and the disconnected service project. How do we avoid this? In this series of blogs, I will explore 5 principles of “deep” experiential designWe will start with principle #1.

Principle #1 FRAMING

This is one of the things most beginner experiential practitioners under-emphasize. Framing refers to how you set up the experience as a learning endeavor. Recent research on the neuroscience of learning has indicated how important it is to make learning outcomes overt for students. Too often, we simply assume students know why it is they are going through a given experience. In my context in higher education, this is certainly the case around the liberal arts, for example. We assume our students know what the “liberal arts” are and why they might be important to their education. Yet ask any undergraduate to articulate a definition and value statement around the “liberal arts” and see what you get… usually not much.

The point is that good framing sets students up for transformative experiences. It puts questions into their head they can then bring to the learning. A good frame invites the student in. But be careful, you can also “over-frame.” Spending too much time framing an experience is disengaging.  It is what one educator described as the difference between the “gum” and the “chewing.” It is frustrating for students to have the instructor unceasingly point out the “gum”… “See this? This is gum! Here is the gum wrapper. Notice the color of the gum? It is purple…” Students want to chew the gum, not just hear about it. You can think of a bad 55 minute lecture as, in essence, over- framing. It is all gum and no chewing.  A good frame puts students in an anticipatory state and it gets them salivating for the gum chewing.

Frames can be shorter or longer depending on the size of the curriculum project. A 55 minute class might have a 5 minute frame. A semester-long study abroad might spend several weeks “framing” the experience (including the orientation period).

Here are some things I think through as I design an experiential project:

  1. What prior knowledge do my students have on this subject?
  2. What pre-exposure to the content or subject will peak their curiosity?
  3. What socratic questions will encourage critical thinking as they go through the experience?
  4. How can I make the relevance of this clear and overt but simultaneously intriguing and exploratory?
  5. How am I going to invite them in?

Good framing is the difference between being a tourist and a traveller. The tourist has Dewey’s “lively and enjoyable experiences” but the traveller goes deeper. Successful experiential education designers always think carefully about how they will FRAME the experience. It is a key difference in shallow versus deep experiential education.

In the next blog, we’ll discuss Principle #2 INTERACTION. Stay tuned!

Experiential Education in the Land of the MOOCS

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.”

-Anais Nin

distance-education101707amWith the rise of internet-based distance learning and projects such as EdX in higher education, significant questions are being asked about the viability of so-called “bricks and mortal” educational environments. If 200,000 people can sign up for a course for free on EdX or take a course through Coursera, what role and function does the professor-in-the-classroom have in the future of teaching and learning?

Well, there are already signs that the MOOC (Massive, Open, On-Line Courses) craze may have been a bit over-hyped (see here). Nonetheless, few would deny we are in a new “Gutenberg Press” moment in higher education. What role does experiential education play in this brave new world?

I believe the teacher-of-the-not-too distant future will be a “curator of experience.” If facts and information of all sorts are readily available in the palm of our hand, teachers are not needed to deliver said facts. We have smart phones, tablets, and networked computers that can deliver data and information at a far greater speed and at far greater scales of cost effectiveness than a teacher in a classroom. The large lecture hall, long the symbol of “academic rigor” in higher education, suddenly seems outdated and strikingly ineffective.

So what are teachers for, then? Data and information are not synonyms for learning and education. A teacher is the one, working collaboratively with students, that moves the conversation from data and information to knowledge and wisdom. The world is awash in the first two and in desperate need of the second two. The transformative teacher of the future will learn to curate experiences with and for students. Civic engagement, community-based research, place-based learning, project-based learning– these things cannot be readily outsourced to the internet. And, importantly, they represent skills the world desperately needs. Working in teams, dialoguing across differences, listening respectfully, and simply interacting in public, social, spaces are vital for democratic life. Our students must not learn that “hell is other people.”

These forms of teaching and learning don’t reject on-line, blended educational opportunities. Rather, they place such learning in proper perspective– as a supplement to what Parker Palmer called the “live encounter” between students, faculty, and communities of interest. Staring into a computer screen all day is no way to live and no way to build a vibrant, democratic society. As Nin says in the quotation above, the best ideas come “in the midst of living.”

So, bring on MOOCS, bring on distance learning, flipped classrooms, and blended education. Use this new Gutenberg moment to supplement and highlight what transformative teachers have always done best– curating high impact learning experiences for the students in their care.

The “Learning Style” Debate (aka there is no such thing as an “visual” learner)

A growing body of research has now more or less conclusively debunked the theory that people learn in specific modalities or styles. A frequently repeated notion in teacher training and professional development circles, learning styles theory claims that students brains are hard-wired toward a specific modality (e.g. visual, kinesthetic, auditory) and that teachers need to match instructional delivery to these specific learning styles.  I have even experienced a workshop where we took a “learning styles inventory” and then discussed how we should, as teachers, strive to reach each specific preference in the classroom.

This sounds good but the problem is that it’s just not true. A recent NPR story details recent findings as does this article from the Washington Post written by a cognitive psychologist. But importantly, this does NOT discount  the importance of being “multi-modal” in instructional strategies. It seems the baby may get thrown out with the bathwater here.

As a colleague in neuroscience recently told me, “there is evidence for a variety of ways to learn: text-based, pictoral, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. And people do have strengths in different areas. The problem with the idea of learning styles occurs when instruction is tailored in a particular way for particular students and other modes of instruction are neglected as a consequence. There IS evidence that learning is enhanced when multiple approaches are used — reading, drawing, listening, writing, moving, etc. This is likely due to a number of factors: re-engagement of attention, repetition of material, multiple cognitive connections to the information.”

The take-away here is that we must be careful with “naturalizing” complex cognitive functions (you see this same thing with so-called multiple intelligence theory which is also not supported in the evidence). People are not “visual” or “auditory” learners anymore than they may possess natural “spatial” intelligence over, say “musical” intelligence. But, another key take-away is that it IS important to be “multi-modal” in your instruction as often as possible. Not so that you can reach those “visual learners” but so that ALL learners get the benefits of learning in multiple forms and contexts (and this is strongly supported by the research).

So no, you are not hard-wired to learn in a specific way. But yes, you can and should learn in multiple modalities to aid retention and understanding.

Image from: http://ruleof6ix.fieldofscience.-com/2011/05/your-brain-fortress-against-infection.htm

The Science of Experiential Learning

A recent editorial in Nature argues for more experiential, informal curriculum for students in science classes. The editorial titled: “Learning in the Wild” makes the point that informal learning environments are often much more powerful and longer lasting in transfer than formal classroom curricula. They go on to note: “Indeed, researchers say, the personal and idiosyncratic nature of informal science education is precisely what makes it powerful. The question that plagues classroom science — why is this relevant? — never even arises.”

Experiential methodology is getting a little more attention these days as we learn more about how the brain functions in various learning contexts and states. The Nature editorial cites the 2009 report from the National Academies on how people learn in informal settings which can be found here. The National Academies Press also released a very useful text simply titled How People Learn in 2000 that represents a rigorous scientific approach to the issue and summarizes key findings from neuroscience and related studies. Not surprisingly to those of us who advocate for experiential education, these reports support experiential learning methodologies. It would be well worth your time to read these as it is difficult to find rigorous, evidence-based studies of experiential education from such well-regarded sources (e.g. the National Academy of Science). Here is a short-list of findings from the 2000 report:

1. You must work with and address pre-existing knowledge in learners

2. Active learning is a key component to “meta-cognition”

3. Depth of learning is more important than “superficial coverage” of topics

4. Learning is influenced by context. Therefore, attention must be paid to the social aspects of learning

For those who support experiential education, these findings ought to look and sound familiar. They speak to the heart of the experiential educational philosophy and approach. That our “hunches” are now finding support in empirical science is heartening. Here is hoping there are policy makers, school officials, and “curriculum specialists” out there reading more about the science of learning. In the meantime, for the outdoor and experiential educators out there: take heart because the National Academy of Sciences has got your back!

Teaching is Listening; Learning is Talking

Teaching is listening, learning is talking. This wonderful rule of thumb, from the educator and writer, Deborah Meier, reminds us that real learning comes, in large part, from being actively involved in the educational moment. Experiential educators have long known this and frequently advocate for teaching that involves the learner and does not, as Paulo Freire famously described, treat students as empty “banks” in which to deposit information. I once heard a feisty school superintendent from Texas describe this method as the “sit, get, spit, and forgit” model of teaching and learning.

While many in progressive education have believed active learning to be far more effective, definitive scientific evidence has been difficult to come by. There are mountains of educational studies, research, and journals advocating for this method or that, and educational conservatives and progressives both have virtually unlimited amounts of data from which to cherry-pick evidence to support their particular pedagogical approaches. There have been very few studies that have risen above the fray to clearly and succinctly shown significant, generalizable results. Until now.

One of the most respected scientific journals, Science, recently (and without much media attention), published a study that, in its simplicity, is astounding in terms of its significance. “Why Peer Discussion Improves Student Performance on In-Class Concept Questions,” published in the January 2nd edition of Science (vol. 323) is one of those simple research studies that yields powerful results. In the study, researchers used in-class “clickers” (imagine the “ask the audience” function in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) to have students answer a conceptual question in class. Then without revealing the answer, the researchers had the students discuss their answer with a neighbor and then “re-vote” after the peer discussion time.

As might be expected, the number of students clicking on the correct answer increased following the peer discussion. We might expect this because students who originally missed the question might be lucky enough to sit next to “Mr. Smarty Pants” who helped them figure out the correct answer. OK. No big deal right?

These researchers took it a step further. They wanted to find out whether peer discussion, in and of itself, increased conceptual understanding irrespective of a student sitting next to Mr. Smarty Pants or not. So, after they asked the first question and performed the peer discussion and re-vote, they asked a second question. This question was what they called “isomorphic” in that it was related, conceptually, to the first question but it required conceptual transfer from the original question. At no point during this exercise was the correct answer to the first question revealed (thus controlling for the Mr. Smarty Pants scenario). The results were astounding.

The number of students who answered the first question correctly increased after peer discussion (again, as expected). But, the number of students who answered the first question wrong, then changed their answer to the correct one after peer discussion also tended to answer the second, isomorphic question correctly. Even more significant, students who got the first question wrong both times still improved on the second question (over random guessing). So what does this all mean and why is it significant enough to appear in Science?

This study shows, very simply but very powerfully, that students learn more and they learn better through talking. Student peer discussion, rather than a waste of time or pedagogical “fluff” as some conservative educational theorists have long argued, significantly improves student conceptual understanding. Indeed, much more than getting the right answer from Mr. Smarty Pants, the students that got question one wrong twice benefited from literally “talking it out” in order to understand new concepts. As the researchers themselves say, “We speculate that when [these students] discussed, they were making sense of the information, but were unable to apply their new knowledge until presented with a fresh question on the same concept.”

This simple study provides strong evidence to something experiential educators have long advocated. Students must be involved in their own learning. The educational process must be active and social, not passive and individual.  Rather than “seat time”  and time “on-task” as the dominant currency of classroom practice, it’s high time we start listening to our students (and letting them talk more to each other) to improve academic performance. Teaching is listening and learning is talking.


Future Trends in Outdoor Education

As we turn the corner away from the 00’s or the “aughts” or whatever historians will choose to call the last decade, it’s worth taking a moment to look ahead toward future trends and issues that will affect things in the outdoor education field for the next ten years or so. Future prognosticating is, of course, a dangerous game and I make no claims that my reading of the tea leaves is any better than anyone else’s guesses. However, I do keep up to date on the goings on in the field as best as I can and spend a good deal of time talking about these issues with colleagues at other programs, institutions, and conferences. So, without further ado, here are my top five trends (in no particular order) in Outdoor Education for the 2010’s…

1. LOCALISM:  The impact of the “great recession” is certainly being felt in outdoor education. People are “nesting” more, staying closer to home, and looking for ways to enjoy the outdoors in simpler, more frugal ways. This dovetails nicely to the emerging localism movement connected to broader sustainability and environmental shifts in certain segments of the population. Interest in gardening, local green spaces, and getting kids out in nature is on the rise across the board. How can outdoor education, as a field, tap into this social shift in a way that democratizes nature and challenges some of the elitism and narcissism that has defined outdoor pursuits over the last several decades?
2. SUSTAINABILITY: It’s hip, it’s green, and it’s everywhere. Whether you think this new movement is shallow or deep, it is certainly influential. Equipment manufacturers are going green, ski slopes and other outdoor industries are ramping up sustainability efforts, and even travel and guide purveyors like REI are offering carbon off-sets for eco-tourist travel. Green gear lists for programs are on the rise as are attempts to lower the carbon footprints of everything from college outdoor programs to summer camps to environmental education centers. How can outdoor education act as an example of sustainable operations and education moving forward?
3. ACCESS: Population increases and the impacts of urbanization and suburbanization are placing incremental pressures on our natural recreation and wilderness areas. We are, in many respects, “loving them to death.” Yosemite and Yellowstone have smog alerts and traffic jams. Getting a permit in some places is like winning the lottery. As pressures increase, guided outdoor education groups will be under increasing pressure to find less-crowded and permit-driven recreation areas. Programmers can stay ahead of the curve by looking for less popular climbing areas, rivers, and trails that serve educational purposes without adding to the crowds.
4. NATURAL HISTORY: Knowing how to identify trees, birds, flowers, and the like use to be a stronger part of our national K-12 curriculum as well as the informal curriculum passed down from generation to generation. We have several generations of kids and young adults who cannot identify even the most basic plant and animal species in their own backyards let along the basic geological history or watersheds of their region. As the “no child left inside” movement and the concern for childhood obesity rates grows, re-kindling a love of the more-than-human world through natural history is, well, “natural.” How can outdoor educators leverage this emerging need into programs and new educational opportunities?
5. STANDARDIZATION: Travel to many places in northern Europe or New Zealand and Australia and you will find a professionalization and standardization of outdoor education that we have yet to see here in the States. Ropes courses, climbing walls, and other outdoor education sub-fields are all feeling the pressure toward more national standards. This is both a good and bad thing. With increased standardization comes increased need for certifications and training. This makes access into the field more expensive as a career option. But it also, potentially, increases the quality of the educational product and process. Yet, too much emphasis on “merit badges” can take the flexibility and life out of a field that has long thrived on passion, creativity, and sound judgement over rules, credentials, and bureaucracy. How will the field wrestle with the need for quality control against the strong legacy of individual freedom?

Those are my top five. I would be interested in hearing from others. What with the 2010’s hold for outdoor education?