“I don’t know what to do, and if I did know what to do I wouldn’t tell you, because if I had to tell you today I’d have to tell you tomorrow, and when I’m gone you’d have to get somebody else to tell you.”
– Myles Horton, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change
So. Turns out picking up four humans and a cat and a hedgehog to drop them all somewhere new is…intense and amygdala-sparking and more Sisyphean than I realized. WHO KNEW?!? LOLweep. But it is December and Term One is done and it was good. And I have known myself long enough to know that only if I write will I ever start writing again so. So.
I gave a talk and then a workshop at Northwestern last week: Experiential Approaches to Digital Teaching & Learning.
The sessions was an opportunity to tie together the threads of the experiential work I did at UPEI in my final year there with the digital work I’ve been doing over the last couple of decades, in institutional roles and in the open.
Spoiler alert: turns out, from a participatory perspective on education – ie. pretty much where I’m coming from – experiential & digital approaches have a LOT in common. Not only that, experiential approaches have helped me do things in digital spaces that emphasize the participatory capacity of the web and hands-on engagement. They help me walk my own talk, and they help me help learners find ways into digital practice that aren’t about telling them what to do, but getting them doing – and hopefully understanding things from a different perspective after the doing. With structure and reflection as bookends to the process, in classic experiential style.
A caveat: as I noted in my workshop last week, experiential learning can feel a bit like a buzzword these days…one of those business-speak catch-all terms deployed primarily to align programming with funding priorities. There is definitely a market within current senior leadership sectors for incantations combining the words “AI,” “millennials,” “disrupt,” and “experiential learning” – repeat them while wearing a well-cut blazer and watch a shiny budget line emerge from the hot mess of cultural anxiety that is the contemporary social contract! Well, sometimes.
But fashion is not the fault of experiential learning…think of it as an eighty-year old concept having a moment. And a handy one for many of us trying to find ways to do digital teaching and learning that focus on practices and critical reflection, rather than tools.
Still. What *are* experiential approaches? Messy question. Important question. My bet is if you ask three different people what experiential learning or experiential education mean to them, you’ll get three different answers, because the term connotes a pretty wide swath of different things for different disciplines and in different institutional and geographic cultures.
Yes, most involve some form of doing, and some form of structured reflection upon doing. Experiential approaches can include labs, service learning placements, Co-op programs, formalized experiential teaching methods like case studies, and a slew of more informal experiential teaching methods that in some way incorporate Kolb or Dewey‘s reflexive (sometimes called interactive) cycles.
But like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, wherein each of the individuals extrapolates from his own context – tail, ear, trunk – to a larger absolute that fails to capture the complex reality in front of him, experiential learning is a pastiche of methods and practices that may not all look or feel like each other. Unlike the parable, I’m not even sure experiential learning *is* one single elephant. Or maybe that’s just not where my interest lies.
My interest lies in participatory learning. In ways to connect people to other people as part of their learning experience, and to have them contribute to each other’s learning through conversations and artifacts and reflective processes that continually work and re-work the ideas on the table.
In the slide deck, toward the end I share a few clips and screencaps from some of the experiential – read: mostly hands-on, immersive, application-focused, reflexive and participatory – approaches I’ve tried in different kinds of teaching over the last few years. I saved some of the most hands-on for the workshop rather than the talk, but everything from Twitter chats to sketchnoting & sharing reading responses to badging professional development all counts, IMO, under the broad experiential umbrella. So does working for public audiences of various sizes and privacy settings: work that’s just for me is unlikely to make much difference in a learner’s own professional practice or understanding of the world, IMO.
But the real core of what experiential offers the digital, I think, is not in any specific method or concept but in the fact that experiential learning is, ultimately, about navigating change. From where I sit, it’s a view of learning that recognizes change and complexity at its heart**.
Our digital culture forces change on us regularly, not just in technical learning curves but in the overwhelming, sensationalized narratives we have to sift through and make sense of daily just to be functional citizens of the worlds/nations/micro-cultures we inhabit. I teach teachers. I don’t need them to learn any one specific digital skill or platform, but a cocktail of of confidence and criticality in their exploration to digital space and digital culture…a cocktail I know no better way to build but through experience and reflection. Experiential approaches help us integrate new and complexity-oriented practices into existing understandings. Worth a shot.
**YMMV (your mileage may vary) – just today, with this post half-written, I got into a Twitter exchange with a colleague that was based on my slides but framed experiential learning on the spectrum of mastery learning rather than experimental learning, which is TOTALLY not how I’ve traditionally seen it…but makes some sense given our very different disciplinary backgrounds. Because I see experiential as a big tent term, I’m not sure either of us is wrong…but I have some more thinking to do.