Northeastern University and What’s NExT for Experiential Education

The site of Thoreau’s cabin: a local example of learner-directed, experiential learning!

I spent last week at Northeastern University in Boston working with about 70 educators to begin a network of educators committed to experiential education. Northeastern has dedicated real resources to a wide variety of experiential opportunities for its students (“real-world” experience, service learning, research, global ed, and within the classroom itself) and our conference was a natural outgrowth of this commitment. Professor Chris Unger, whose enthusiasm drove the four days of meetings, recognizes the need for all kinds of schools for all kinds of learners and the centrality of experience to learning itself.

Unger’s goal is to create what he calls the Network of Experiential Learning Teachers (NExT), an expanding group of K-12 teachers doing this kind of work in order to legitimize experiential learning in the eyes of dubious administrators and districts, and as a way of sharing resources. I appreciate this so much: so often it feels like creative teaching is a solitary act, though I know it is happening all around me.

At the core of the conference–and experiential education itself–was a dedication to democracy and education’s role in equipping young people for citizenship. In the US, “experiential education” can be a cover for producing employees and workers rather than (to borrow from the Finnish) human beings and citizens.

This is not to argue that entrepreneurship and vocational education aren’t important–both are desperately needed. But the overarching goal of the educative process is not, as the old song goes, “twenty years of schoolin’/ And they put you on the dayshift.” As Dewey wrote in “Democracy and Education,” “Now in many cases—too many cases—the activity of the immature human being is simply played upon to secure habits which are useful. He is trained like an animal rather than educated like a human being.”

Susan Ambrose, reminding us that “experiential learning” is built on thoughtful planning and that MOST learning happens away from the classroom and course.

Treating students, to use Dewey’s example, like horses who share no interest in the work at hand but labor in anticipation of the feedbag to come, means that adults don’t value their input or encourage them to see their education as their own. Our job as teachers is to facilitate students’ growth as learners and young people. There is liberation in the realization that my job is not merely to teach them stuff, to cram their heads with facts. At the same time, my immediate power feels diminished, my expertise as a historian less impressive, because my students’ learning is theirs. Professor Susan Ambrose, whose presentation was a high point for me put it this way: “Learning is a process that leads to change ….” It is something students do for themselves and it happens in the mind of the learner. Ironically, experiential learning, though more enjoyable, asks more of both student and teacher than “traditional schooling.

Understanding that many great ideas are lost on students because of the way they are presented, experiential learning is a phrase that describes whatever method which offers students the opportunity to acquire knowledge and understanding in a way that is enjoyable and–key point–lasting. Cramming for a test doesn’t lead to this kind of learning–and the material is soon forgotten. So why design assessments that encourage cramming?

(Side note: why do weddings and conferences have these dreaded round tables, always just too large for meaningful conversation? And then, inevitably, there is a speaker at a podium and half of us have to twist around to watch…)

Northeastern students presented their experiential work …
… and conference participants pitched their ideas for experiential learning to one another.

Assessment, for me, remains the trickiest piece of experiential education. If my goal is to have my students memorize the mass of the planets, the distances between them, and the numbers of their satellites (I’m talking to you, Astronomy 10 professor, Cal, 1986!), then an in-class test makes sense. But what if my students are working in a group to advise the school on ethically sourcing its athletic uniforms?

Ambrose and Professor Corliss Brown Thompson offered a number of ideas on this front, including the use of rubrics, the formative assessment of reading and discussion (this second practice is something I need to do more consistently) and a perhaps more summative assessment which includes student reflection and analysis of their learning. The presentations on assessment at the NExT conference, coming as they did hand-in-hand with discussions of the philosophy of experiential education, made me think in new ways about how I grade students on work that isn’t experiential in the traditional sense.

For example, when my students learn about the development of slavery in the Virginia Colony this September, I need to allow them to make some use of their learning. Once they encounter the historical narrative, I will ask them as I always do, to consider the relationship (the chicken and egg of it) between racism and slavery.  But now a new question is … why is this significant for them? They should get to consider the “so-what” from the expert position. There isn’t a right answer to the question, but what does it mean that our country was founded on slavery and all the suffering and violence that entails? I need to make room for their thoughts about what they’ve learned and then assess their connection of the history to their ideas.

Hopefully, making space for my students to reflect on their learning about slavery will help them make it their own. This is where their schooling will include learning, I hope, and their encounter with the particular type of horror and terror that characterized three centuries in Virginia and much of the US will become more personally meaningful to them.

Finally, the conference give me time to collaborate with my colleagues Peter Shulman and George Zaninovich on our own project for Catlin Gabel School’s US History course. We will use the proposed “Green Loop” in central Portland as our “text” and, if it works out, have a real world client for the students’ work in the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. It is enormous effort on the preparation end, but promises to be an amazing way to teach about American cities as planned spaces. Wish us luck!



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