Thursday, September 18, 2014

Learning from Experience: Approaching The Future

I wrote about the contrast between John Dewey's concept of Learning from Experience and the conventional ideas of Experiential Learning (See here) and the limitation the latter may have, despite its popularity, as we climb into a future with smart machines and pervasive globalisation. I see Dewey's concept of creating engaged individuals to be central to the system of education we ought to build - and indeed see that the modern education system, with its focus on creating humanoid workers, is precisely its anti-thesis - and believe that we need to promote the concept of experience not as isolated special events but as an opportunity to interact with one's world. 

The key difference that this different approach to experience makes is in the idea of inquiry. Learning from Experience depends on the emotional engagement with the world and asking questions: This much everyone agrees upon. But it matters what kind of questions we are asking, because they shape our abilities differently.

If we take experience as a special learning event - fitting seats on a car assembly line, for example - our engagement comes through a series of questions around if-then thinking. Predesignating something as a learning event underline this model of inquiry. Besides, that experience is an outside event - something the individual needs to draw from rather than actively shaping it - encourage this approach. This has been very useful and millions of workers across the world has been trained through this method, and therefore, this is the model of experiential learning we usually think of when confronted with the term.

In contrast, if experience is our engagement with our world, where we are actors ourselves and experience is not any special event but the way of being, we learn through a different form of inquiry: This is the what-if thinking where one engages and explores. This form of inquiry is the catalyst that transforms lived experience into a learning experience, contends Dewey. This requires a different level of enablement than learning through structured experience - structured by someone else being the central point - and is at the heart of all the abilities that we seem to demand from the learners, critical engagement, creativity, imagination.

The question of power and control was not a fashionable discussion in Dewey's world and he did not engage in it. But from today's perspective, one could perhaps see the problem, and the point, of learning from experience being the unpredictability of the outcome. The learning objective, the well-defined, written down, descriptions that we want to impose on our learners, (and which they also love as predictable chunks of 'knowledge' advertised on our shop-windows) does not fit in very well in this serendipitous world of free inquiry and what-if journey. And, creating such education is deeply disruptive, taking the power away from the educators, the state, the privileged and the employers, and vesting it in the learner, letting him free from the bounds of the past and letting her imagine the future without constraints.

Yet, as we see the future of the rise of the machines, we seem to acknowledge that in such freedom, lies our humanness, not just humanity but human advantage. Education being a forward-looking enterprise, which idea of future one subscribes to becomes central to what one expects of education. That the world will go on as usual is the assumption behind our love for 'experiential learning'; that there could be discontinuity, and we may be standing at that inflection point may make us think differently about what kind of learning we may want.

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