Learning from Experience

In an editorial published in the Journal of Geoscience Education, a geography faculty member offers a testimonial in favor of learner-centered teaching. “Through my 15 years of teaching Earth System Science, I have explored various ways of teaching it and have become convinced that the Learner-Centered Environment, that builds upon constructivist theory principles and fosters teaching practices that recognize the active roles students must play in their learning, is particularly suitable for Earth system science education.” (p. 208)

The editorial proceeds with descriptions of her approaches to both teaching and assessment. She concludes, “[B]ased on my personal experience, I am convinced that Earth system science instructors need to move away from designing courses driven mostly by content, delivered through lectures and punctuated by objective tests towards courses centered on specific learning outcomes, based on the principles of learning, and guided by what students bring to the class-room [sic].” (p. 209)

Convincing testimony, if you also believe in learner-centered approaches; probably unconvincing if you don’t. Either way, statements based on personal experience raise interesting questions. What can teachers learn from experience? Most of us, after looking at our own teaching, would say a lot.

This geography professor believes in what she has learned. But she didn’t start out already having had a conversion experience. Her change of heart started with an activity, a kind of Earth Summit in which students presented on an environmental topic relevant to a particular country. “I noticed how ALL my students became much more engaged in the class, performing extensive research on topics of relevance to their selected country, and displaying originality in their research approach and presentations.” (p. 208) That success led to more “participatory” approaches and finally to conclusions about the common elements shared by all these approaches.

She is also honest about what the approach involves. “The learner-centered way of teaching is demanding and time consuming. It requires more planning than a conventional way of delivering material and the design and delivery need particular attention.” (p. 209) Would you opt for something harder and more work if you didn’t have pretty good evidence that justified the extra effort?

I’d say that chances are good that what the professor learned from experience has some validity. But there’s another part to the question of what can be learned from experience. What can teachers learn from each other’s experiences? Personal experience has fallen out of favor in most pedagogical periodicals. For a long time faculty reported on instructional innovations with the passion of the newly converted. “This is the greatest thing that has happened to my teaching in decades.” “It worked so well and my students liked it so much.” That’s not scholarship, not reflective, not analytical, and hence not very credible.

But I still think there should be a place in the pedagogical literature for thoughtful accounts of experiences that articulate what a teacher has learned. Those accounts can be tested against our own experiences and those of others. They can be benchmarked against educational theory and research. Accounts in which fellow teachers reflect thoughtfully and critically about a set of classroom experiences resonate with faculty. They can make teachers think and question, and sometimes even motivate teachers to take action.

Reference: Gautier, C. (2006). A personal experience of designing earth system science instruction based on learner-centered environment paradigm. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54 (3), 208-209.

Excerpted from Experience: Learning From It, The Teaching Professor, June/July 2009.