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Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Experiential Pedagogy


In The Rule of Benedict Joan Chittister relates the story of a visitor to a contemporary monastery asking a monk,  "'What do you do in the monastery?'  And the monastic replies, 'Well, we fall and we get up and we fall and we get up and we fall and get up."[1]


Experiential pedagogy (or experiential education), the stuff of Field Education, is variously defined as "learning by doing"[2]; or "the process that occurs between a student and an educator that combines direct experience with the learning environment and subject matter"[3]; or "a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values."[4]

Recently I attended a workshop on "Habits of Creative Problem Solving."  The presenter pointed out that the words "experience" and "experiment" share the same root, the Latin experiri which means "to try."[5]  An experience is defined by Merriam Webster as  "a direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge" or "the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation."[6]


Experiential pedagogy at its root invites – requires – experimentation.  Did you have a Young Scientist Club Science Kit Set or perhaps the Test Tube Adventures Lab?  If so, you may remember that not all experiments turn out as expected.  Some things work; some don't work; and some don't work as expected.  All three outcomes are expected in the learning process.  Similarly, experiential pedagogy requires that we risk finding out what works and what does not  and what does not work as we expected– that we risk being wrong – risk failure.


How can we best help our students to move beyond "getting it right" (whatever the current "it" may be), to move beyond a kind of ingrained academic perfectionism, and move toward experiri?  In "An Experiment in Feedback" Barbara Blogett challenges us to challenge ourselves as supervisors by differentiating between praise and feedback.  Blogett suggests that we help the student identify a specific learning event, specify learning goals for that event and request specific feedback on these learning goals.[7]  I suggest that praise can be understood as a generalized affirmation, while feedback ( Perhaps "constructive" would be a useful qualifier for feedback.) is particular to a discreet experience.  One obstacle to giving and receiving feedback, Blogett points out, may well be our own "intern inside" us, the one who likes " receiving praise for hard things as a substitute for analyzing what is hard about them."  And the one who uses "praise to cover our own anxiety about the hard things we are asking others to do."[8]


Do you remember in the 1970's and 1980's when  "continuous" or "continual" quality improvement programs were all the rage?  Some of us became worn out with the notion that nothing was ever "good enough."   I do not think this was the intention of these programs; however, the context, the organizational culture, can make all the difference in implementation.  And so, I suggest, it is with the use of feedback.  If we begin with a theological anthropology that acknowledges that "we fall and get up and we fall and get up", then perhaps we can risk admitting that we have fallen in the past and are likely to fall again in the future.  If we covenant to do this in community, to give and receive constructive feedback as a way of helping one another get up again, perhaps our "inner intern" can be stilled and the courage to risk trying can replace the fear of failure.


[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York:   Crossroad, 2010) p.

[2] "Worldview Literacy Project, Experiential Pedagogy, Middle School, High School, Web Based, Self-aware, Qualitative, Classroom Observation."  Johns Hopkins School of Education.  Winter 2011.  Web. 26 Sept. 2011.

[3] Jesse Jewell, "Experiential Pedagogy",  Web. 26 Sept. 2011 .

[4]"What is Experiential Education?" Association for Experiential Education:  a Community of Progressive Educators and Practioners, Web. 21 Sept. 2011.

[5] Eric Booth, "Creative Problem Solving", Creative Practice Boot Camp, Vanderbilt University Curb Center, Nashville, Tn. 2 Sept. 2011.

[6] "Experience – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary", Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online.  Web. 26 Sept. 2011.

[7] Barbara Blogett, "Experiment in Feedback", AlbanBuilding Up Congregations and Their Leaders. 19 Sept. 2011:

Trudy Hawkins Stringer

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