The Quest in the Quest-ions
How do you create a life -altering course, or at least, the opportunities for transformative moments?
How do you quantify the learning in such a course, student’s or teacher’s?
These are the questions and aims I heard in Monday’s session with Mimi Ito, Vera Michalchik, and Bill Penuel. I had hoped I could watch the session as I did some of those life-tasks that can’t be avoided. I ended up sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter, scribbling notes and lost in thought. So much for life’s tasks.
I’ve spent my adult life thinking about questions like these, and in trying to enact some of my hopes and beliefs in course design. I’m lucky in that the work I love best, teaching writing, is a wonderful venue for combining a host of transformative elements. These include experience, memory, theory, and development of thinking, imagining, and skills, mostly without students being aware that all this is being synthesized in their own processes. I’m also lucky that my work with teachers means they can take what we do in classes and play with it in their own work. I’m seeing that Web-based tools and connections make even more learning possible.
Before I began my adventures in higher ed, I had a long time teaching in a very special program for seniors in high school. Inspired by work of Maurice Gibbons (1974, 2004), the program combined academics with experiential modules, beginning and ending the year with weeklong Outward Bound-like backpacking trips. (Some day, you could ask me about the time I facilitated getting 3 separate groups off a mountain range before a hurricane struck….)These challenge trips set the stage for a year of working with a number of principles, the most important of which was You can do more than you think you can. The trip at the end of the year was, in part, a symbolic launch into adulthood.
Perhaps its only natural, then, that I wonder what would happen if we changed our language just a bit, if instead of course we used the term experience?
How do you create a life-altering experience or, at least, the opportunities for transformative moments within that experience?
How do you design something like this within the structure (constraints) of the academic schedule? More specifically, within the domain-specific content we are expected to deliver? Is it possible?
I think so. Let me restate. I want to believe that deep engagement with ideas is a form of experience that can launch transformative moments.
I think of Mike Wesch’s end-of-term simulation extravaganza or retirement community experience, or some of Cathy Davidson’s explorations (here and here), or the marvelous storybook work that Laura Gibbs does with her students. I have a long way to go before my classes incorporate something like this, or maybe I am trying to get there in different ways? I’ll continue to mull this one over.
My personal million-dollar question is: If you are blessed/lucky/skilled enough for the sparks to start flying throughout the learning collective that is your class, how do you shepherd students from moments of insight into the action that makes something/someone different? Mimi, Vera, and Bill were asking that, too, and talked about ways we might consider doing more long-term studies. (I least I thought I heard that– I may have been too engrossed in scribbling.)
I thought I might share some of the scholarly work that grounded one of my doctoral qualifying papers. In my study, an auto-ethnography of teaching in this alternative program, I traveled into familiar and unfamiliar realms, such as work in adult education, experiential education, even business.
I relied on David A. Kolb’s (1984) work on experiential learning. This chart captures his model in a very simple form.
“David A. Kolb’s model of experiential learning can be found in many discussions of the theory and practice of adult education, informal education and lifelong learning” (http://bit.ly/1rsuutf).
I also found Jack Mezirow’s(2000) work in transformative learning useful. This PDF offers some perspectives. Eight principles of good practice for all experiential learning activities is interesting to think about– how might we adapt this to our courses?
These resources are all pretty old; the questions of Connected Courses have quite a history (e.g., A.S. Neill and many others). This is particularly true in the area of secondary education in the U.S. But the questions and attempts at application are alive and well today. Here are some examples, off the top of my head.
- NYC Outward Bound Schools 15 public schools in all boroughs of Manhattan, NY. Adapted from principles of Outward Bound.
- iEARN, “(International Education and Resource Network) is the world’s largest non-profit global network that enables teachers and youth to use the Internet and other technologies to collaborate on projects that enhance learning and make a difference in the world” (from the website).
- Chris Bigum’s Knowledge Producing Schools. In the online document, Bigum writes
Schools have always been in the business of largely being consumers of knowledge and information. From text books, to material available on the Internet, information flows into schools far outweigh the information that flows out. The relationships that schools have with the world outside is therefore largely framed by their consumption of information and knowledge….
I have been working with a small number of schools in Queensland who have been exploring the notion of schools as producers of knowledge. In doing so, they have moved beyond what I have called a “fridge door”mindset ¹ for student work and have begun to develop new and interesting relationships with groups in their local communities. Knowledge production for these schools always ends up producing a product or performance. An important part of negotiating the production of such knowledge is that the product or performance is something that students see as being valued by the consumer or audience of their work. Their work is taken seriously and the students know it. Consequently, the level of engagement, the quality of work and student learnings are impressive.1. A shorthand to indicate the normal pattern of knowledge production in schools, that is student completes an assignment, a teacher assesses it, the assignment is taken home by the student and published on the fridge door for a few days before parents discretely discard it.
This post is certainly way past long, but I needed to get these thoughts out of my head so I could return to my dissertation.
I admire the dedication the leaders of Connected Courses are bringing to questions about transforming higher education, through their research and their teaching.
I am working with similar tough, exhilarating questions as they apply to teacher education and secondary schooling. Some days the journey is an adventure, an exciting quest. Other days it’s a slog.
It’s good to have company along the way.