What is experiential learning? Part one: an exciting new challenge, and a bunch of new questions

I’ve embarked on another new teaching adventure. This winter term, the students in my Performance Beyond Theatres class (basically, “intro to performance studies,” and one of the classes I’ve been working on renovating in an effort to decolonize my teaching practice) will be participating in a new program that links the City of London (Ontario) with Western University, as well as with Fanshawe College (also located in LonON). Called “City Studio London”, this program allows Western and Fanshawe students to work directly with City staff on new projects designed to improve community life for all Londoners.

City Studio

A gorgeous image from City Studio Abbotsford.

My course has been paired with a class in the Faculty of Social Science taught by Psychology professor Leora Swartzman; together our students will be working on gathering data about, and then generating performance interventions supporting, London’s new diversity and inclusion strategy. Our particular focus will be on the role of the bystander in making our city a safer and happier place for all.

I’m really excited about this project! It means my students will directly encounter the challenging work of collaboration with fellow student-scholars as well as with a civic partner. We will be able to put our thinking and reading about performance as a tool for advancing social justice into practice with the support of a capable and experienced city staffer. My students will be able to work creatively on a meaningful community issue, and they will see their performance actions come to life not just for each other, but publicly, for residents in our city. They will see the impact of their creative labour first-hand.

At the same time, though, I do have some questions about this work – about how we frame it, and about what we value most within it. These questions emerge for me from the way we’ve been talking about the work ahead as we’ve begun (only begun) prepping this course. They also resonate with anxieties I have about the “experiential learning” turn, and about its cognate, the “experience economy”. (For more on the latter, click here to read foundational research by Pine and Gilmore.)

ELC-2

When you google “Experiential Learning” and hit “images”, you get diagrams. SO MANY DIAGRAMS. I’ve downloaded a few and am scattering them throughout this post. They make a compelling collage…

To be clear, I have every faith that Leora (who is practiced at community-engaged learning, one of many forms of experiential learning), our students, our community partners and I will do excellent work together, and that it will yield a range of valuable discoveries for all stakeholders. Like I said: I am, really, excited!

But as we have begun our planning work, I have become attuned to the way that experiential learning, in the context of this course and of the City Studio project more generally, is deeply, essentially linked to “deliverables” (this is the project’s language) for our City partners. City Studio begins from the premise that our students will work toward generating a measurable product meant to serve and support those partners; this is its primary objective. Positive, growth-oriented student “experiences” will (we assume; we very much hope) be had along the way, but this is an assumption that underlines, rather than supersedes, the measurable outcome as product.

Making a product for community use is of course a very valuable goal and one students are keen to participate in. I’m not opposed to it – in fact, as my dear friend and colleague Natalie Alvarez argues brilliantly in an upcoming interview in Research in Drama Education (24.3, August 2019), if we truly believe that Performance Studies is interdisciplinary in its reach and can mobilize performance as a multidisciplinary tool for teaching, learning, and discovery, then we must recognize that our partners in such discovery will have a range of outcomes in mind on their end. We have to recognize the legitimacy (and value) of those outcomes as part and parcel of our collaborative endeavours.

But still. There’s a real tension here (deliverables/outcomes = learning), and as I’ve noticed it, I’ve thought more about the value systems underlying the way our universities talk about experiential learning today. I’ve particularly noticed that the term is very often linked, or even elided, with things like internships and co-op opportunities. That is: with chances for students to go get “industry experience” as part of their degrees so they will graduate job-market ready.

 

This was not always the case. Among the earliest teachers to think outside the classroom box and imagine the labour of experiencing the world as central to a well rounded education were the American transcendentalists Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, among their many peers. (Click here for my 2016 review of a superb book on the topic by Martin Bickman; click here for a quick, related read in the Washington Post.) Their pedagogical philosophy – characterized by heading for nature, exploring widely and without a particular end-product in mind, and then discussing, writing, thinking, and debating in the service of heartfelt reflection – resonates with the first definition of experiential learning quoted by Ryerson University’s Michelle Schwartz in her “Best Practices in Experiential Learning” (2012) (the quote is from Lewis and Williams, 1994):

In its simplest form, experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking.

The philosophy behind experiential learning, then, does not define “experience” in any particular form; its openness inspires me, but, as Schwartz notes, that same openness “means that it can often be difficult to define what is and is not an experiential activity” (1). In building an “expanded definition” for the term (1-2), she cites numerous “working principles” for experiential learning from Chapman, McPhee and Proudman (1995); these include “an absence of excessive judgement” (perhaps in the form of constant quizzes and grading); “the role of reflection” both during and after activities; “creating emotional investment” for students, and shared investments between students and teachers; and “the re-examination of values” alongside “learning outside one’s perceived comfort zones” – coming to terms with difference in action.

These principles are meant to align with a range of active pedagogies, and of course they are highly socially and culturally transferable. So how did we get from learning to question our ingrained value systems and encountering difficulty productively, to internships with industry partners meant to lead to paid work? Schwartz ends her introductory comments with some sense of an answer:

From the point of view of the university, experiential learning can help institutions stay relevant to students by providing them with the necessary skills to transition into the workforce. Cantor also sees experiential learning as helping the university fulfill the need for “higher education to more closely interface with business to promote community economic development” (1995, p. 79). For institutions concerned with issues of inclusion, experiential learning can promote “the value of diversity… and bring together people of different social, ethnic, and economic classes,” preparing students for entry into the world at large (1995, p.81).

Experiential learning can also be a boon to departments with few resources, and “the literature highlights the benefits of using experiential learning to embellish lean instructional and budgetary resources” or to “bolster your available resources” (Cantor, 1995, p. 84).

What’s wrong with this picture? It comes straight from the neoliberal university playbook. This is the model that argues universities should be in the business of training students for the work force, first and foremost. In the process this model implies (or sometimes outright states!) that a social-democratic, liberal-arts education is at best an elective and at worst a waste of time to be defunded (because hey, the unlucky departments can always hunt for industry partners to “bolster [their] available resources”!).

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Notice in particular the language at the end of the longer paragraph just above: if institutions are “concerned with issues of inclusion,” experiential learning can help them promote diversity as a value. Of course this is a good thing, in itself; what’s not so good, though, is that experiential learning, in this configuration, functions as a handmaiden to support neoliberal university policy: diversify or lose student bodies, and the dollars now attached to them.

I get cranky a lot about the neoliberal university. And there’s no question that modelling experiential learning on its principles is a risky bargain. But this isn’t where I want to dwell, here or in my next post. 

Rather, what I want to emphasize is this: the “industry-partnership” version of experiential learning risks ignoring (in fact, risks making invisible) the many other, incredibly beneficial, ways in which learning is already, and always should be, “experiential” in nature and scope.

Forget “experiential learning” for a minute. What is it to experience learning? What would it mean really to “do” experience – to treat experience as a verb, “a doing” (Lewis and Williams) and not a thing, an activity we undertake in (co)motion rather than an object to possess?

Notice how, in much of what I’ve quoted above, and in the language of experiential learning that circulates around us today, “experience” always functions as a noun or an adverb. It modifies “learning”; it is a thing to be grasped and made monetizable.

Students should have stimulating experiences out in “the real world” in order to build “work experience.” In the “experience economy” we purchase cool coffee shop vibes, not lattes made for drinking.

If experience is understood, in our economy and thus our workaday world, as a thing to be purchased and coveted, how can it also be used as a tool to bring us together, to build community, to drive political change?

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Don’t get me wrong. I love a nice latte.

I find this conundrum fascinating. Is experiential learning, in a neoliberal economy, fundamentally at odds with itself? What kinds of experiences might we highlight, as students and teachers, in order to bring different, less immediately commodifiable modes of experiencing back into the field of representation?

That’s the topic for my next post, where I’ll share several short snapshots of “experiencing learning” from my recent trip to the annual CATR (Canadian Association for Theatre Research) conference in Vancouver, BC. I’ll try in that post to model an alternative praxis of learning-as-experience; I hope to take it with me into this fall’s exciting new labour with City Studio.

Meanwhile, stay cool!

Kim

 

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