Building Capacity, Exploring the Edges of Knowledge, and Finding Ways Forward
Grounding Teaching Practices in Educational Research and Philosophy
A few years ago I developed a university program — at a traditional university — that was intended to offer learners an alternative to traditional post-secondary education. I had fun, at first, and I found the work to be meaningful in a variety of ways. Learners responded well. Classes filled. And yet, I faced a growing resistance. I felt as though my ideas were not well understood by my colleagues. My discussions with curriculum committees tended to be challenging, as I consistently asked them to grapple with new language, innovative paradigms, and an educational philosophy that was completely at odds with their traditional approaches. These challenges often involved matters of basic communication, and several of our committee discussions were focused entirely on the meaning of words. For example, arriving at shared understandings of terms such as learning, classroom, and assignment was a major hurdle. Conversations were particularly problematic with regard to terms involving processes, which I used extensively to describe the fluid nature of experiential learning. However, the curriculum committees were most familiar with terms involving products, and it was very difficult to shift this perspective so that process and product could be viewed as aspects of the same continuum of learning. I tended to use the illustration of building a musical instrument as an example of my perspective: the process of building the instrument can be highly experiential and indeed transformative, regardless of whether the final instrument (the product) performs well in the act of making music (itself a process as well as a product). Such discussions, in the context of articulating assignments and grades, tended to get sidelined by objections and clarifications, stymied by confusion, and eventually stalled. Our overall progress was slow, frustrating for all, and emblematic of the fundamental distinctions between traditional paradigms and experiential approaches.
During these discussions with curriculum committees, it often seemed that participants either understood immediately what I was attempting to do, or they did not grasp my intentions no matter how much and in how many different ways I described them. Those who understood me represented a small cohort within the larger discussion; most participants were confused – or indeed, often adversarial – to my plans. In my wider discussions with peers across the spectrum of post-secondary education, it gradually became clear that I had stepped into a highly-charged struggle between cherished, traditional academic approaches and seemingly radical and threatening innovations. For my part, I viewed my attempts as being in the spirit of reinvigoration. But for traditionalists, my efforts were typically deemed unwelcome and indeed subversive.
It was, as they say, a very strange trip. And, as I’ve noted elsewhere, this project did not ultimately succeed. However, several interesting and illuminating things did emerge (and continue to emerge). One of them involves the challenging question of how learning might be understood (and assessed) within a broader, more interdisciplinary and experiential framework. I worked with my colleague Tierney Wisniewski to develop a set of considerations for this, and these are included here as resources: see the related pages below.