Experiential learning – and what other kind of learning is there? – relies at its most basic upon four components: a safe environment from which to launch exploration; the hunger to discover and learn new things; the occasion to experience new things within a measured, controlled space; the opportunity to reflect on those experiences in a way that permits us to incorporate the reflection into the enhanced place from which the adventure began.
All this can be summarised conveniently in what I call The Stretch Cycle, a cycle that turns out to be more or less ubiquitous in all aspects of education.
Take the sequence we follow every day: we start in the comfort of our beds and home; we are motivated to get out of bed and/or leave home to do some business in the rest of the world; that business may occasion some discomfort and should do so if we are learning and making some kind of progress, and we are to some extent out of balance; but there are limits to how much we can experience and deal with, so we eventually make our way back towards our comfort, rebalancing our lives and accommodating our experiences in a process of reflection, to arrive back in our comfort zone but changed and enriched and strengthened. (We will look at where this process can become destructive, negative and stressful later on.)
On a day-to-day basis this is cycle is commonplace and unremarkable, but we less commonly identify the same process in other areas of life. For example, every lesson we teach in a school should follow the same sequence, perhaps several times. We take students (and, if we are good teachers, we also take ourselves), from a position of relative comfort through a process of exploration, discovery, challenge, absorption, accommodation and back to a position of comfort but in an enhanced place. Teachers also take themselves through this cycle because if they are not experiencing the learning process themselves, however many times they may have taught a particular topic, they are almost certainly not teaching it well either.
However many times we have taught a topic, we should always teach it as if we have never taught it before.
Where lessons do not follow such a pattern it is hard for experience to become learning. Things can break down in many ways:
- Some students will be reluctant to leave their comfort zone at all, which represents a motivational dysfunction;
- Some students will find being challenged in a process that unbalances them and makes them need to revise what they already know or assume unpleasant and threatening, which is a dysfunction of safety and trust;
- Some students will not want to experience whatever new ideas or adventures are on offer because they will touch an area of uncertainty or fear in them that they are unwilling to tackle at that time, for example someone who gets to an airport but then finds themself unable to board the plane; this is a dysfunction of capacity;
- Some students, even when they have left their comfort zone and had new experiences, will be reluctant to reflect deeply on them in a way that converts them from being mere experiences into being learning experiences; this is a dysfunction of growth and change.
Effecting the transitions between each of the four phases of the stretch cycle requires the teacher as facilitator to understand what can enhance and what can inhibit these processes. Too much imbalance, too challenging a discomforting experience, experiential overload that requires too long to be absorbed and accommodated, and too large a distance between one level of comfort and the next can each not only inhibit the effectiveness of the process, but destroy it, even turning it into something destructive and negative.
Experienced teachers know which areas of their syllabus will occasion more or less difficulty and they adjust the speed with which they deliver them accordingly. But too much new material can have a devastating effect on student confidence and make further progress even with easier material very difficult to achieve. Moreover, each student will have different capacities for absorption of new experiences, will start from different positions of comfort (and sometimes will not be at all comfortable), and will be more or less willing to engage with the learning objectives. Some students will accept on trust that the teacher is taking them somewhere they need to go; others will question whether they need to go there at all other than in grudging acceptance of the requirements of the syllabus.
So in addition to managing the four phases of the stretch cycle, we need to deal with an additional four transitions and the things that may enhance or inhibit them. We also need to be able to assess the travel from one level of comfort to the next if we are to make a wise decision about how much new material to cover and how challenging to make the new experiences that need to be absorbed. And we need to do this for each student, insofar as it is possible (which is often not very much).
It is worth considering the equivalent cycle in connection with other processes. What, for example, is the relationship between education and society? What seems clear is that the values and practices of education both influence and are influenced by the political expectations of society and the kinds of citizenship that society expects.
Here education is seen by society as a way of inculcating it values, and that involves a transition from living how we like to living how society wants us to live; society in its turn attempts to regulate what education inculcates, expecting education to embody the same values and ideals that society espouses. So a totalitarian society will regulate its educational institutions to support acceptance of the authority of teachers as a model of acceptance of the authority of the state; a liberal society will encourage education to promote free and critical thinking. Whether in the final analysis education creates society or society creates education is a moot point; probably they emerge together, but what is certain is that a state that becomes aware that its education system is changing the parameters of citizenship – for example from the acceptance of to the questioning of authority – will move quickly to impose tighter controls over it.
The tension between education and training adds further complexity to this interdependence. Commercial and industrial interests constantly complain, in a way that has not changed for at least two hundred years since the education of the masses began, that education does not produce sufficiently literate and numerate students. This complaint is based upon the perception that the purpose of education is to provide the employees that commerce and industry need, but this is to confuse education with training. To be prosperous, societies need trained employees, but not necessarily educated employees; in some more totalitarian or authoritarian societies the notion that citizenship involves education would be greeted with horror: an education population is much more difficult to control than a trained population because training by definition meets the needs of society whereas education does not necessarily do so. Remember Socrates, accused of “corrupting the youth of Athens” by encouraging them to think for themselves.
Unfortunately, matters are not quite that simple, especially in a rapidly-changing world. When education and training could remain unchanged for long periods of time, typically working-lifetimes, it was perfectly possible to train someone in youth and leave them to work without much further training for forty or fifty years. Now that the world is changing so rapidly, this is no longer the case, and we need a more dynamic relationship between education and training in which education advances capacity that is then brought to bear in a process of convergence into training, and training is itself enhanced by a divergent process that turns it back into education. Without this dynamic, training quickly becomes obsolete and education quickly becomes unproductive and irrelevant.
But even this needs further qualification depending on how far from the needs of contemporary training education goes and how far the needs of contemporary training can fall behind education. By and large the population, and education, have been wrong-footed by the rise of the digital revolution, for example, so now the complaint is not just that education does not supply sufficiently numerate and literate adults, but that they are not digitally savvy either (notwithstanding their adeptness at social media).
This training-education cycle maps onto the stretch cycle in an obvious way: education here consists of the challenging processes that unbalance our comfort; training consists of the regular processes that confirm it. Divergence arises from unbalancing ourselves; convergence arises from reflecting on and accommodating new experiences.
When we consider the creative dimension of citizenship we find ourselves with a different cycle, although one that still exhibit the same characteristics.
Here education provides us with the received knowledge, skills and ideas from the past, and imagination puts them together in ways that stretch them and unbalance them in a process that leads to creation. Some of the creation is more successful than others, and so reflection brings us back to a new educational body of understanding that enhances what can be passed on having refined it against the successes and failures of the creative process.
Where education fails to generate imaginative activity – where we rest content with the skills and knowledge of the past but make no attempt to extend them to deal with the question how we are to create the future – it does not add to the reservoir of human knowledge and achievement, and so it cannot rise to the challenge of creating the future. So education is forever balancing the demands of training and the challenges of creativity.
So we address the question whether the skills we need to understand the past are sufficient to create the future using a model of education that encompasses both convergent and divergent learning, imaginative and reflective creativity. And all are embraced by The Stretch Cycle.