Experiential Learning


Dewey discussed the importance of “experience” in the education process. This concept is important for the development of modern education because it suggests that learning should be in a “context” instead of happening in the vacuum. It should be an “embodied experience”. As Dewey says in his article, “There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract”. In practice, students should be exposed to as much “educative experience” as possible, instead of being taught abstract knowledge and tested only for their grasp of such knowledge through standard tests. For educators who would like to create such experiences to facilitate students’ learning, the question is not only to have the awareness of implementing “experience” as part of the pedagogical approach, but also “what experiences will benefit students’ learning, how could teachers create ‘educative experiences’, and how much ‘experience’ do students need from the to be ‘educative’”. After all, it is not necessary, or impossible, for one to “experience” everything the “educate experience” may offer, and it is also important for students to engage their own “experience” in their learning process and interpret the “educative experience” offered by in the classroom. For example, if students are learning “the Second World War”, it is unrealistic that students should actually go to war to experience it – and even if they had been in a war before, their “experience’ is only part of the war. However, does that mean that they cannot “experience” war to understand it at all.and it is important that they have some “experience” of what the Second World War is like to understand its historical meanings.

In view of this situation, technology can serve as a powerful tool to help students “learn through experience”: First, teachers can use their knowledge and understanding to select the experiences that they deem may benefit students’ learning. And then, as Schivelbusch says in his article, Railway and Journey, technology has the effect of “shrinking and expanding spaces”. It is not only true about railways, from which he drew the above conclusion, it also applies to the multi media and and interactive technology that people are using today in an educational setting. With technology, teachers can expose students to the “experience” they are not familiar with through the “shrinking and expansion of space and time”, and make the experience “educative” according to the teacher’s understanding.

I was observed an instructor teaching a class about Japanese Americans during the Second World War in Queens College during the “Open Teaching Week” held by the Teaching and Learning Center of The Grad Center, and I feel that he vividly demonstrated how a teacher could use technology to help students to learn history through “experience”. While introducing to the students about how Japanese Americans were “relocated” to Hawaii and eventually sent out of America after the Pearl Harbor attack, the instructor presented photos shot during the years when the historical event happened, propaganda videos made by the U.S. government about the “relocation program”, and the transcript of the video to the students in order for them to “experience” what it feels like if they were in the shoes of Japanese Americans at that time, who had grown up in the U.S. and had to face the reality of being sent “back” to a country they hardly knew. While presenting the multimedia materials, the instructor also asked questions to encourage the students to think critically about how the U.S. government presented the whole “relocation” program in order to “attract” Japanese Americans to “voluntarily” to be sent out of the country eventually. This is a great example of using technology to provide “educative” experience to students through its “shrinking and expanding” space effect: The students were exposed to experiences that they may or may not be familiar with – they were very young and a lot of them were not Japanese Americans, and they were situated in New York and may or may not have been to “relocated” to Hawaii to face the reality of being expelled out of the country. However, instructional technology, well blended in the verbal instruction, shrinked the time and space for students, brought them back to the very time and space of the historical event, contextualized and historicized the knowledge they were learning, and then expanded the time and space in the classroom through engaging their existing experiences and their thinking.

The following are a few questions inspired by the readings of this week:

  1. Dewey’s theory of experiential education reminds me of the popular “task-based” learning (https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/a-task-based-approach)nowadays. If you are familiar with “task-based learning”, do you think it is a pedagogy inspired by and embodied the concept of “experiential education”? Why or why not? If not, then what do you think experiential education actually means in teaching practices? Is it meaningful to educational practice? Why or why not?
  1. As Dewey says: “It is a ground for legitimate criticism, however, when the ongoing    movement of progressive education fails to recognize that selection and organization of subject matter for study and learning is fundamental”. What kinds of subject matters should be selected as part of the curriculum? Do you agree with the current trend of cutting budgets for arts in the united states, represented by President trump’s budget plan (http://www.npr.org/2017/03/16/520401246/trumps-budget-plan-cuts-funding-for-arts-humanities-and-public-media) ? Why or why not?

3.How do Dewey’s chapters about “Social Control”, “The Nature of Freedom”, and “The Meaning of Purpose” speak to the critics of “the banking method” in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed? What do you think the “purpose”, or “means and goals of education” is?

4.In Dewey’s article, he talks about the following aspects of experiential learning:

“It is a sound educational principle that students should be introduced to scientific subject-matter and be initiated into its facts and laws through acquaintance with everyday social applications”, and Subject-matters should not be “learned in isolation”. Reflecting upon your own educational experiences, do you think the science education you have received observed or reflected, to some extent, this principle? What you think are the advantages and disadvantages of this principle?

  1. Dewey says “The future has to be taken into account at every stage of the educational process” in addition to the past and the present. How do you think teachers can, as Dewey said, “look into the past, the present and the future” in their educational practice? Is it too much to ask from a teacher since teachers nowadays usually have great workloads? How realistic do you think Dewey’s educational beliefs are to the teaching practice today and why?

1 thought on “Experiential Learning

  1. Jing,
    Thanks for these insights. Although I agree with most of the points you highlighted, I also disagree with some of Dewey’s main assumptions. His whole thought is predicated upon the primacy of “freedom” at the expense of equality (he does not use this term a single time, which is pretty puzzling in a text dedicated to education). Unfortunately, an unbridled liberal view is doomed to descend into utilitarianism when the concern of equality is so blatantly left out – and this is pretty much what happens when Dewey asserts that giving up on the few “rebellious” is fine (p24).
    Dewey’s definition of a “healthy” social control epitomizes a concomitant problem that comes with such a view. From his perspective, an “invisible hand” somehow harmoniously organizes (and “fairly” hierarchizes) the social spectrum. Indeed, through the example of the game, Dewey enhances the crucial role of the “moving spirit” of a whole group (p22) that make individuals “feel” whom to follow as leaders (p23). Following Dewey’s views and terminology, the difference between “leaders” and “not leaders” stems from an interaction between “internal” factors (the “intuition” of who gets to rule) and the rules of the game as “external” factors. It is arguable though, that such a discrimination between “leaders” by “followers” does not spring from the individual as smoothly and “intuitively” as Dewey wants it to be. Don’t we need to consider that such discrimination is itself produced by internalized (not internal) processes such as race, gender, and social class? Or, to put it differently, how about considering that these “external rules” might have been – consciously or not – set up in order to reproduce a certain hierarchizing – so the same kind of persons always end up winning or becoming leaders? Shall we not think of education as a game anyone has an equal opportunity to win, and of the educator (amongst others, such as the institution and the society as a whole) -as the one that set up “fair” rules?

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