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 thinkI’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.

Perhaps this is like saying I want to believe that pigs can fly? Jeez, I hope not. flying pig

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

David A. Kolb’s model of experiential learning

“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” (

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.

  1. NYC Outward Bound Schools 15 public schools in all boroughs of Manhattan, NY. Adapted from principles of Outward Bound.
  2. 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).
  3. 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

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.


This looks like the complete version of the 1960 edition of A.S. Neill’s Summerhill: A radical approach to childhood learning. Run, do not walk, to download a copy. It may well blow your mind.
gynti_46. Flying Pigs at “INTERRADIO” in Hannover  via Creative Commons by-nc-sa 2.0
John Eisenschenk. I think therefore I am dangerous via Creative Commons cc-by 2.0
Written Texts
Gibbons, M. (1974). Walkabout: Searching for the right passage from childhood and school. Phi Delta Kappan, 55(9), 596–602.
Gibbons, M. (2004). Pardon me, didn’t I just hear a paradigm shift. Retrieved from
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
National Society for Experiential Education. (n.d.). Eight principles of good practice for all experiential learning activities. Retrieved from

2 responses to “The Quest in the Quest-ions”

  1. Laura Gibbs says:

    Oh wow, Karen, I love (LOVE) this chart from David Kolb. My immediate sense is: that is my life!!! And of course I would love to make that dynamic sense of growth through experience a part of my students’ lives also (as opposed to just doing the minimum to get the grade to get the degree, etc.). So, I’m bookmarking that image to put in my class announcements for sure.

    I don’t know what you think about the question of TIME, but I am more and more convinced that this is one of the essentials. That kind of process (experiencing, reflecting, applying, generalizing) is something that benefits from more time rather than less time. Your backpacking trips with the students, for example, sound like a very precious gift of both time and focus, so different from the hurried and hectic way of life we take for granted in schooling.

    Again and again it seems to me that LACK OF TIME is what is holding us back. Teachers don’t have enough time to devise and experiment, not enough time for their own processes of experience-reflect-apply-generalize, and also, of course, not enough time for one-on-one engagement with students. And so too with students: not enough time to just explore and think, not enough time for their own experience-reflect-apply-generalize, and not enough time to really benefit from what school can offer.

    So when an experiment goes awry, when a class does not go well, when a student has not learned something… it can be so hard to disentangle the factors: is the problem with the “thing” itself (the experiment, the class, whatever)… or is just an accursed lack of time that is the problem…?

    And if the answer is that we need more time, I think we have to be prepared to STOP doing some of the things we are doing now that we judge as less valuable. But it was only when I resigned my job as a tenure-track faculty member and became an instructor that I finally gained CONTROL of my time. For many college instructor, it feels (and probably rightly so) that they don’t really have a lot of choice…

    How does time work for you? For your students? I feel pretty good about my time situation. My students, though, I suspect are pretty frantic…

    • admin says:

      Sorry for the lag time! I can’t believe how crazy busy I have been– I’m usually much better at responding.

      Maybe one of the perks of being The Teacher is that we seem to have the most control over things like time. I think my students mostly feel insane about time. They are either teaching full time and doing coursework or in practice teaching settings part-time and carrying a substantial course load. The issue for me becomes what do I think matters vs. what do they think matters, and how will we decide that? I think the blogs really shine in this area. They allow for more intense conversation and I find that people tend to find the people they resonate with. (And yes, I assign partners, with specific comments about the kind of blogging relationship I expect.)

      My priority time-wise is modeling a kind of learning and teaching that challenges the dominant model that is so deeply ingrained. That means the meta-thing becomes important. The students’ priority is to collect a lot of catchy ideas for teaching. It can create some tension, in part because I honestly don’t feel that’s ethical on my part. But if they are unhappy, they are obligated to come up with something that will be of value to them, or at least to tell me what they need from me. Which also takes time, but it’s important time. Slower time. Reflective time. That’s got to be the most important thing when it comes to moving from insight to action.

      Not very specific, I fear, but it’s my best response. I think I try to create avenues for ongoing discussion of matters like this, and to acknowledge that if there isn’t enough time in our very constrained schedule, we can look for some ways around that.

      I feel sometimes like I may not be very popular and sometimes that bothers me. But I really don’t know any other way to do it.

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