Experiential Learning & Experimental Teaching

This morning, I finally got around to reading Bonnie Stewart‘s SlideShare from her Northwestern University talk:

Bonnie is regularly brilliant, so deciding to read this SlideShare was pretty much a no-brainer. But I got caught on a set of teaching methodologies that seem to be permeating pedagogical language lately: mastery learning, competency-based education, and – the more complete version – experiential learning.

Mastery learning and competency-based education have much in common. Mastery learning tends to emphasize mastering concepts or skills before moving on to more complex applications that use those concepts or skills. For adequately-explained openly-available summary articles on mastery learning (the first of which is short and the other is medical in application), see here and here.

Competency-based education is a bit more broad, but highlights similar concepts. A student still needs to master certain concepts or skills before moving forward, but in competency-based education, there are many different ways to show mastery, especially in terms of prior education. Competency-based learning also focuses on applying and creating knowledge for meaningful learning. For a quick summary with some helpful charts, refer to the blog here.

Experiential learning builds on both of these methodologies. Experiential learning focuses on the experience of the student as they learn concepts and skills. It integrates student reflection, social awareness, and affect. As I’ve learned a fair amount about experiential learning from Bonnie, here’s her slide that defines experiential learning:

Screen Shot 2018-12-07 at 6.53.39 AM.png

I’ve also used the checklist available here as a quick way to refer to experiential learning.

In terms of teaching, mastery learning, competency-based education, and experiential learning all seem like a no-brainers and great ways to teach our students, right? So why am I getting caught on these concepts?

The answer – they all involve backwards instructional design. The instructional designer envisions the outcome of the learning design (i.e. the concept or skill to be mastered, the competency to be demonstrated, the experience the learner will have) and then designs the learning experience with that outcome in mind at all times.

My problem? I don’t buy into unidirectional design. I am thoroughly convinced that all instructional design best works when it’s bidirectional – both forwards and backwards.

Mind you, I love the idea of experiential learning. What a cool methodology! But I am at heart an experimentalist. And backwards design does not often accommodate the jazz teaching I have described elsewhere. Why? Because experimental teaching requires on the spot improve and sometimes innovation.

What happens when you’ve prepared your lesson that will create an amazing experience for your learners and the technology you thought you’d use fails? Or the students haven’t prepared? Or your students just don’t want to (or can’t) participate in the experience? What happens then?

That’s where jazz happens.

The super prepared (i.e. experienced) teacher will often have many experiences envisioned and will allow students to choose the one that best fits them. Or will think up a whole new experience on the spot to allow learning for the student who cannot “get it” because any number of reasons.

Experimental teaching allows the learning experience to change, to morph, or to fail as their learners need. And then genuine reflection can begin for both teacher and student.

So, while I love the idea of experiential learning and its intersection with digital identity, I must be both an experiential learning designer AND an experimental teacher.

My larger goal these days is to re-visualize the big, overarching skills and competencies needed by the end of a degree and to embed tangible learning products in each class that students can use to master these skills and competencies. As I’m currently mentoring an 1869 scholar at my alma mater – Trinity University – I’m using their list of competencies and skills:IMG_2232So, what kinds of ongoing learning experiences and products are critical to allow students to master these skills and competencies? And how can these intersect with digital literacy and identity in a meaningful, perhaps constructionist, way?

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