The problem of educational experience

A great confusion in education is what counts as an educational experience. At first glance this would not appear to be a great source of confusion in schooling. School administrators, teachers, policy makers, parents, and even students quickly resolve this confusion with the belief that everything that happens in schools is an educational experience. Following this belief into classrooms finds educational experience represented in definitions, lists, explanations of processes, demonstrations of procedures, note taking, recitations, and tests. Most individuals in and out of schools would nod their head in agreement—yes, these are bona fide educational experiences. John Dewey, the foremost twentieth century philosopher of education, would term these institutional definitions of educational experiences as, in his words, “mis-educative,” and “non-educative.”

      Dewey’s criteria for categorizing what occurs in classrooms as a genuine educational experience are activity structures that grows student interest and provides frameworks for critical thought. Sitting in classrooms, whether at the turn of the century or in the present, would confirm Dewey’s view, that there is little evidence of student interest or critical thought. What one does observe are lessons that conform to institutional definitions of an educational experience: transmissible, categorical, and testable. School administrators, teachers, and faculties schools of education are drawn to definitions of educational experience where institutional goals are imposed on models of teaching and curriculum design.

      For Dewey, the principal problem with institutional definitions of an educational experiences is they ignore where students come from and, instead, command students to look at a world of academic abstractions that will become meaningful to them at some unnamed time in the future. Schools, if they are doing their job well, house a vast array of intellectual tools that provide young people with curricular and teaching models that evaluate the quality of worlds young people stand in and promising ways of improving the world they will experience. When educational experience is defined this way, from where an individual stand instead of what they should be looking at, school administrators, teachers, and the publics they serve are directed towards curricular structures and teaching models which are deliberative, collaborative, and evaluative. Educational experiences, that give equal attention to where a child stands as well as what they are looking at, design curricular structures and employ pedagogies, which include the following activity structures:

  1. The educational experience begins with a situation, a case, a scenario, which stands as problem, a dilemma, or an interest or, a particular group of students.
  2. The educational experience selects a deliberative process where disciplined ways of knowing are brought to bear on a problem, a dilemma, or an interest.
  3. The educational experience designs venues where students collaborate on possible solutions to a problem, a dilemma, or an interest.
  4. The educational experience contains an activity in which a group of students feels (not sees) the consequences of the actions decided upon to resolve a problem, dilemma, or the pursuit of an interest.
  5. The educational experience determines the connections between the means-consequences of the actions undertaken by a particular group of students.
  6. The educational experience examines the means-consequences of actions in light of a valued common good.

      Strong Instructional Leaders recognize that the schools they lead are institutions designed for looking at the world and not looking from the world. A strong component of their philosophy of education and instructional agenda is devoted to developing curricular offerings, pedagogical practices, and organizational configurations which create educational experiences where all students fully undergo educational experiences from where they stand.

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