In 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!