Faculty Spotlight: Jay Roberts on Planned Serendipity and the Liberal Arts


A guest post I wrote for the Center for Integrated Learning at Earlham.

Originally posted on the CIL blog:

Faculty Spotlight

Jay RobertsJay Roberts is the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and an Associate Professor of Education, and he has also served as the Director of the Center for Integrated Learning at Earlham. He teaches courses in the Environmental Studies program, leads off-campus programs (including the Spring 2016 New Zealand program), and serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Experiential Education. In this blog, Jay explores the idea of “planned serendipity” in finding your career and life path.

In the Spring of 2003, I led a study away semester in environmental studies in the southwest of the United States. For a few weeks during that semester we were joined by then Earlham Professor of Biology Bill Buskirk to learn more about the Sonoran desert ecosystem we were travelling through. Anyone who knows Bill would not be surprised to learn that we wound up doing a little birding along the way.


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Living and Learning Adventurously: A Message to Incoming First Years


View from Killarney Provincial Park

Every year, I present a message to the incoming first year students at Earlham College who elect to come to college early to participate in August Wilderness— an outdoor pre-orientation program of three weeks that takes place in Utah (backpacking) and Canada (canoeing). What follows is my message from this year (2015).

“On behalf of the College, I’d like to welcome parents, relatives, siblings, and students to Earlham and to our August Wilderness program. For those of you I have yet to meet, my name is Jay Roberts and I am the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at Earlham.

Recently, I have been reading a proposal for a new book entitled “Adventurous Learning: A Pedagogy for a Changing World” by Simon Beames and Mike Brown and I was intrigued by the premise of the title: “adventurous learning.” In the introduction, the authors state:

We are calling for a reappraisal of educational activities of all kinds, so that students can experiment, learn from trial and error, and make mistakes without the threat of physical or psychological harm. This is not wrapping our students in cotton wool; it is about providing space for experimentation within carefully considered boundaries. Indeed, powerful learning experiences can come about when neither the teacher nor the students know the solution to a given problem and must work together to find it.

Adventurous learning, then, must move beyond the given, the known, and the scripted. Adventure, someone once said, is what happens when things don’t go according to plan. Like the authors, I believe some of the best, most transformative learning happens in just these kinds of contexts.

If there is one thing that I can pretty much guarantee about your upcoming wilderness experience, it’s that things won’t go according to plan. That place that looked great for camping on the map turns out to be a mosquito infested swamp. That delicious dinner of cheesy couscous you whipped up with your tarpmates winds up looking (and tasting) like slightly burned dog vomit. That kid you thought was annoying the first two days turns out to be your best friend.

Yet even if we can recognize the benefits of adventure, we still tend to shy away from it in our daily lives. We have lots of gadgets, devices, and structures to help us defend against uncertainty. We don’t like not knowing. For example, some of you probably used a smart phone and a mapping program to get here this morning. That helpful lady on the phone tells you when exactly to turn and even what time, down to the minute, that you will arrive. If you want to know, as comedian Pete Holmes once said, where Tom Petty is from, you can simply ask your phone and, viola, that momentary sense of wonder is relieved instantly with an answer! It’s Florida by the way. Even simple internet searches have now been cut short by the “autofill” phenomenon. As if the momentary uncertainty of typing in a word or phrase was too much, Google now tries to help you out by filling in the rest or, worse, telling you that your original search query was wrong to begin with—that Google actually knows what you want more than you do. You type “Dayton tuxedo rental” with a few spelling errors and Google replies “did you mean Death Cab for Cutie?”

But true adventure, and adventurous learning, is a completely different experience than this. As Beames and Brown note, adventure can be defined through the essential elements of risk, uncertainty, authenticity, and responsibility. Brushing your teeth, for example, would not be considered an adventure. It’s an activity that is common and known—a ritual we do everyday. There is nothing uncertain or risky about that experience. That’s an easy one. But what about going on a roller coaster ride? Isn’t that risky? While you might get nervous about riding the “Atomic Drop”, this is a contrived and staged thrill—it lacks the authenticity and personal responsibility of a true adventure. It is something done to you, not something you at least partly own and develop yourself. Now, how about going to college? To me, this is absolutely an adventure—it involves all the elements in question: risk, uncertainty, authenticity, and responsibility.

And, this is particularly true at Earlham. This is a place that creates lots of learning environments where, as the authors of the book state: “neither the teacher nor the students know the solution to a given problem and must work together to find it.”

Our mission statement at Earlham talks about the pursuit of Truth wherever it leads. Sometimes the truth comes from a single individual capable of enlightening the masses. But, more often, it comes slowly, tentatively, and incompletely through dialogue, deliberation, and social interaction. Practicing an education where we tackle complex, unscripted problems without easy answers requires that students and faculty learn alongside each other—cooperatively and collaboratively. In the end, while Google is a useful tool, it cannot answer the most important questions of life—questions of love, justice, truth, and beauty. At a time when we have readymade, easy answers at our finger tips, it is the deeper, open-ended, and more complex questions we should be wrestling with. This is one of our core values and beliefs at Earlham—the power of the open-ended question (what Quakers call “queries”) in the pursuit of truth.

And it is just these kinds of questions that inspire adventurous learning. One faculty member here loves to say: “we want to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” We expect students to wrestle with ambiguity, learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty, and see things from multiple perspectives. These are fundamental traits of a liberal arts education. And, as it turns out, these traits must be practiced and refined. “Adventurous learning” then, is not something that happens to you, it becomes something to own within yourself. It is an acquired skill, a capacity, a life orientation. On August Wilderness, you will practice this in big and small ways. Whether that involves trying to figure out, as a group, what “wilderness” and “nature” really mean, where you are on a map without using Google, or who you really are, deep down, on your reflective solo. All these experiences build up your capacity, your “tolerance” so to speak, for adventurous learning. And I can promise you, that by practicing these capacities over the next few weeks, you will be better prepared to thrive at Earlham and beyond.

In 1982, Sigurd Olson, the famous environmentalist and nature writer of the US north woods, went out on a snowshoe one cold winter morning outside his cabin in Ely, MN. Sadly, he collapsed and died of a heart attack during his hike. Some days later his wife found a single sentence left on his type writer in his study that he must have written just before he went out on his walk. It read: “a new adventure is coming and I know it will be a good one.”

So, to the students (and parents and friends) I say “a new adventure is coming and I know it will be a good one”—both on August Wilderness and at Earlham. It won’t always be easy and I cannot guarantee you an experience free of hardship. But by learning to embrace adventure—and adventurous learning— in all its wonderful variability, I can promise you a more interesting and meaningful life.

I’d like to close with a poem that speaks, I think, to this ability to embrace adventure. The poem, entitled appropriately enough “Summer Day,” is by Mary Oliver. In the last stanza, she asks a simple question that speaks to embracing adventure and, I hope, inspires you as you begin both your wilderness and your college journey.”

Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Experiential Education in the College Context

downloadMy new book, Experiential Education in the College Context: What it is, how it works, and why it matters, is currently in press with Routledge and due to come out sometime late this summer.

You can check out the marketing copy and table of contents below.

Experiential Education in the College Context provides college and university faculty with pedagogical approaches that engage students and support high-impact learning. Organized around four essential categories—active learning, integrated learning, project-based learning, and community-based learning—this resource offers examples from across disciplines to illustrate principles and best practices for designing and implementing experiential curriculum in the college and university setting. Framed by theory, this book provides practical guidance on a range of experiential teaching and learning approaches, including internships, civic engagement, project-based research, service learning, game-based learning, and inquiry learning. At a time when rising tuition, consumer-driven models, and e-learning have challenged the idea of traditional liberal education, this book provides a compelling discussion of the purposes of higher education and the role experiential education plays in sustaining and broadening notions of democratic citizenship.





Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Defining Experiential Education

Chapter 3: Models and Methodologies of Experiential Education

Chapter 4: The Instructional Paradigm: Leaving Safe Harbors


Chapter 5: Design and Experiential Education

Chapter 6: Facilitation and Experiential Education

Chapter 7: Assessment and Experiential Education

Chapter 8: The Integrated, Experiential Campus


I Have Found A New “High Stakes” Test

As the controversy over the increase in standardized testing appears to hit its zenith with parents “opting out“, governors pledging to reduce testing time in Minnesota, Florida, and Connecticut , and even noted conservative educational pundit Diane Ravitch piling on, it is worth noting that there is, in fact, a good “high stakes” educational approach out there– it’s called experiential education.

In experiential pedagogy, the focus is on student learning, not on instruction. Students are asked to demonstrate their learning in myriad ways including presentations of learning with authentic audiences. It turns out, when the results of the learning matter to someone besides the student and the teacher, good things happen. Students are more engaged, they work harder, and they care about the final product. Teachers, rather than “sage-ing on the stage,” learn alongside their students– acting as coaches, facilitators, and project directors.

Learning orchestrated in this way is indeed “high stakes.” But, the “stake” here is in relationships– between the student and teacher and between the classroom and the wider community. The idea of “authentic audience” is central to experiential education– the Expeditionary Learning School model is a great example of how this can play out in the k-12 context.

Our current high stakes testing culture in the US is the opposite of this– it misses the connections between learning and civic responsibility.

As noted educator and founder of Outward Bound Kurt Hahn once said, “let the responsible boys and girls shoulder burdens, if negligently performed, to wreck the State.”  Now that is high stakes!

When students “prepare” in the abstract, when the “stakes” are only a punched ticket in to the next grade level, and when the pressure comes not from relationships but from some narrow sense of utilitarianism, we don’t have authentic “high stakes” at all– we have artificial performance.

So please, bring on the high stakes tests– the real ones. The ones where students connect their learning to relevant issues in their local communities, where the stakeholders are real people (and not state testing bureaus), and where the consequences serve broader educational aims and purposes.

That’s my kind of high stakes testing.

Principles of Deep Experiential Education: Interaction (Part 2 of 5)

IMG_0925In the last post, we discussed the importance of Framing in experiential education. For this blog, we’ll explore another key principle that often makes the difference between shallow and deep experiential education: Interaction.

In Experience and Education, John Dewey spoke of the principle of interaction this way:

“The word ‘interaction,’ … assigns equal rights to both factors in experience– obejctive and internal conditions. Any normal experience is an interplay of these two sets of conditions. Taken together, or in their interaction, they form what we call a situation. The trouble with traditional education was not that it emphasized the external conditions that enter into the control of the experiences but that it paid so little attention to the internal factors which also decide what kind of experience is had” (p. 42).

Dewey sometimes takes some unpacking with his language so let’s try to tease apart what he is saying here about experiential education. The common debate during Dewey’s day (and still prevalent today) was that education was either too internally child-centered or that it was too externally directed from the teacher. In a classic Dewey move, he collapses the false dichotomy here and says that effective education always involves an interaction between both of these factors– the external and the internal.

Interaction in Practice

So what might that look like in practice? Shallow experiential education is shallow because it makes just the error Dewey discusses here. It either over-emphasizes the internal desires of the student or the externally directed activities designed by the teacher.

An example may help here. Imagine a civic engagement exercise in which junior high school students learn about voting through some form of a simulated election process. In fact, many schools did just this leading up to the last presidential election. Most of the scenarios I heard about involved teachers and school officials creating a “mock election” where students could vote for either Obama or Romney. On election day, students made their votes, they were tallied up by the teachers, and the school than announced the “winner.” This was all meant to introduce students to the civic virtue of democracy. Except that it wasn’t. In reality, the student “vote” did not count at all. And, students did not nominate Obama and Romney in the first place. The conditions were already set externally before they engaged in the activity. This, to me, is a key symptom of shallow experiential education.

On the other hand, one could imagine the same process entirely run by students with no direction or “framing” from teachers. Perhaps students decide to hold a vote about whether the “Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter” is the best book. While this may be of great interest to the students, it falls short of teaching the important civics lesson that the faculty know they want to help create. In this case, the experience places too much weight on the internal factors of student interest. This is another key symptom of shallow experiential education.

So, how might one put both the internal factors and the external factors in interaction with one another? Imagine faculty coming together with students and properly framing the purpose of the exercise– we want to create an election where students have the opportunity to experience the relevance and importance of democratic engagement and civic participation. Teachers and students together might decide on something of importance to their lives at school that students ought to have a real say in and where there may be disagreement– perhaps something around the dress code, or food, or music, or some other relevant issue in the school.

Now imagine a referendum vote run by students, with faculty support along the way, with something at stake– something that students care about– not a “simulation” but an “actualization.” Here the internal factors from the students and the external factors from both the teachers and society as a whole come together in interaction.  The conditions are not externally set prior to the engagement and, likewise, the students are not on their own in directing their learning. It is this kind of a process that enables deeper learning and deeper experiential education.

Interaction, at its best, helps avoid the shallow experiential traps of over-prescribing the external conditions (thus trivializing the experience) or over-emphasizing the internal conditions (thus abdicating the role of the educator).

Some things I think about related to the principle of interaction when I design experiential curricula:

1. Design for something to be “at stake.”  Relevance and real-world problem solving are critical factors in deep experiential education.

2. Do not abdicate your role as a teacher. Deep experiential education always involves the expert guidance and presence of the teacher throughout the learning process.

3. Involve your students in the design of the experience itself. Can they help plan the field trip? Can they co-design the assessment rubrics for the project? Can they identify a key community need to be researched?

4. Lose the over-emphasis on “preparation” for some distant future (for example running a “mock election”) and emphasize instead the “learning laboratory of life right now”

5. Pay attention to your students– what do they talk about? What interests them? What arguments with each other do they have? Spend time “entering their world.” Once you do, you will find countless ways to bring those internal interests into interaction with your external educational goals.

In Experience and Education, Dewey talked about two key criteria of experience: interaction and continuity. As we have seen here, paying close attention to the ways your curriculum project incorporates the principle of interaction can make all the difference in creating deeper experiential education. Next time, we’ll explore the second of Dewey’s criteria: Continuity. Stay tuned!

Principles of Deep Experiential Education: Framing (Part 1 of 5)

The Shallow and The Deep

RecycleforceDavid Orr, in the forward to Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences (2013) writes about what he calls “shallow versus deep environmental education.” He noted that too much of what passes as environmental education is of the shallow kind and what we need more of is “deep” education for sustainability.

I think we could say the same thing about experiential education. The last several decades has witnessed a rise in all sorts of experiential curricula– from service learning to problem-based learning; from internships to place-based education; and from a renewed focus on applied work to “flipped classrooms” and gamification. But, as we get busy “learning by doing,” what principles ensure that the kind of educational experience we orchestrate is deep and not shallow?

Dewey’s Lament

John Dewey, in 1936, had a similar concern. During his time, “progressivism”  and “child centered” learning was all the rage. But, as he watched practitioners implement these ideas, he grew increasingly concerned. He noted:

“An experience may be immediately enjoyable and yet promote the formation of a slack and careless attitude… Each experience may be lively, vivid, and ‘interesting,’ and yet their disconnectedness may artificially generate dispersive, disintegrated, centrifugal habits… They are then taken, either by way of enjoyment or of discontent and revolt, just as they come… Traditional education offers a plethora of examples of experiences of the kinds just mentioned.  (1936, p. 26)”

Indeed, even now, in 2014, we have a plethora of examples of such “shallow” experiential education. The internship with no support, the boring field trip, and the disconnected service project. How do we avoid this? In this series of blogs, I will explore 5 principles of “deep” experiential designWe will start with principle #1.

Principle #1 FRAMING

This is one of the things most beginner experiential practitioners under-emphasize. Framing refers to how you set up the experience as a learning endeavor. Recent research on the neuroscience of learning has indicated how important it is to make learning outcomes overt for students. Too often, we simply assume students know why it is they are going through a given experience. In my context in higher education, this is certainly the case around the liberal arts, for example. We assume our students know what the “liberal arts” are and why they might be important to their education. Yet ask any undergraduate to articulate a definition and value statement around the “liberal arts” and see what you get… usually not much.

The point is that good framing sets students up for transformative experiences. It puts questions into their head they can then bring to the learning. A good frame invites the student in. But be careful, you can also “over-frame.” Spending too much time framing an experience is disengaging.  It is what one educator described as the difference between the “gum” and the “chewing.” It is frustrating for students to have the instructor unceasingly point out the “gum”… “See this? This is gum! Here is the gum wrapper. Notice the color of the gum? It is purple…” Students want to chew the gum, not just hear about it. You can think of a bad 55 minute lecture as, in essence, over- framing. It is all gum and no chewing.  A good frame puts students in an anticipatory state and it gets them salivating for the gum chewing.

Frames can be shorter or longer depending on the size of the curriculum project. A 55 minute class might have a 5 minute frame. A semester-long study abroad might spend several weeks “framing” the experience (including the orientation period).

Here are some things I think through as I design an experiential project:

  1. What prior knowledge do my students have on this subject?
  2. What pre-exposure to the content or subject will peak their curiosity?
  3. What socratic questions will encourage critical thinking as they go through the experience?
  4. How can I make the relevance of this clear and overt but simultaneously intriguing and exploratory?
  5. How am I going to invite them in?

Good framing is the difference between being a tourist and a traveller. The tourist has Dewey’s “lively and enjoyable experiences” but the traveller goes deeper. Successful experiential education designers always think carefully about how they will FRAME the experience. It is a key difference in shallow versus deep experiential education.

In the next blog, we’ll discuss Principle #2 INTERACTION. Stay tuned!

Experiential Education in the Land of the MOOCS

“My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.”

-Anais Nin

distance-education101707amWith the rise of internet-based distance learning and projects such as EdX in higher education, significant questions are being asked about the viability of so-called “bricks and mortal” educational environments. If 200,000 people can sign up for a course for free on EdX or take a course through Coursera, what role and function does the professor-in-the-classroom have in the future of teaching and learning?

Well, there are already signs that the MOOC (Massive, Open, On-Line Courses) craze may have been a bit over-hyped (see here). Nonetheless, few would deny we are in a new “Gutenberg Press” moment in higher education. What role does experiential education play in this brave new world?

I believe the teacher-of-the-not-too distant future will be a “curator of experience.” If facts and information of all sorts are readily available in the palm of our hand, teachers are not needed to deliver said facts. We have smart phones, tablets, and networked computers that can deliver data and information at a far greater speed and at far greater scales of cost effectiveness than a teacher in a classroom. The large lecture hall, long the symbol of “academic rigor” in higher education, suddenly seems outdated and strikingly ineffective.

So what are teachers for, then? Data and information are not synonyms for learning and education. A teacher is the one, working collaboratively with students, that moves the conversation from data and information to knowledge and wisdom. The world is awash in the first two and in desperate need of the second two. The transformative teacher of the future will learn to curate experiences with and for students. Civic engagement, community-based research, place-based learning, project-based learning– these things cannot be readily outsourced to the internet. And, importantly, they represent skills the world desperately needs. Working in teams, dialoguing across differences, listening respectfully, and simply interacting in public, social, spaces are vital for democratic life. Our students must not learn that “hell is other people.”

These forms of teaching and learning don’t reject on-line, blended educational opportunities. Rather, they place such learning in proper perspective– as a supplement to what Parker Palmer called the “live encounter” between students, faculty, and communities of interest. Staring into a computer screen all day is no way to live and no way to build a vibrant, democratic society. As Nin says in the quotation above, the best ideas come “in the midst of living.”

So, bring on MOOCS, bring on distance learning, flipped classrooms, and blended education. Use this new Gutenberg moment to supplement and highlight what transformative teachers have always done best– curating high impact learning experiences for the students in their care.