January 12th, 2010

Learning from Experience


I meet regularly, usually over breakfast, with my good friend and colleague Larry. We share our papers, ideas, and good stuff we’re reading. I am so lucky to have this wonderful pedgogical colleague. I’ve been working on a paper that explores the knowledge bases for teaching, one of which is the experiential knowledge faculty derive from time spent in the classroom. I used the old cliché about experience being a great teacher. Larry was all over that idea. Experience isn’t a teacher—it’s yet another case where a metaphor conveys the wrong meaning. Teachers work to form and frame content in the interest of helping students learn it. Experience doesn’t do that. Learning from experience is like any other kind of learning—it takes effort and depends on focus, reflection, and practice. It never just happens.

Furthermore, teachers learn from experience, but they aren’t blank slates. Lessons learned from experience are complicated by what we already know and believe. New lessons are also strongly influenced by lessons taken from previous experiences. This baggage accompanies us whenever we experience anything, and it definitely influences what we might learn from a new experience.

Getting my head straight about experience not teaching definitely makes it easier to understand how faculty can learn such different things from similar experiences. It also explains why some teachers learn such wrong things from experience—and how more experience only reinforces earlier lessons, thereby compounding their mistaken conclusions.

So, if a teacher has learned that students can’t be trusted with respect to the excuses they offer, when a student offers a legitimate reason, that experience of student truth telling is not likely to change what that teacher has already concluded about students and excuses. In fact, chances are good that the teacher won’t cut this student a break.

What kind of experiences might we learn the most from? Larry says, “Failure and mistakes crack open the firmament of our experience to allow us to ask new questions, take alternative perspectives, and, most importantly, experiment. Experience lulls us like a lullaby. Only when dissonance or silence disturbes the melody do we think and learn.”