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Learning from Experience


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“Only a fool learns from experience. Wisdom is learning from the experience of others.”

Is that true of teaching?

People often don't learn from their own experiences, let alone those of others. On a very personal level, that is the dilemma of a parent, trying to forewarn a beloved child of life's pitfalls, hoping that certain missteps and painful experiences may be avoided. I could not be overly dismissive of the value of teachers on this anniversary of John Lennon's death. But teachers can convey details, and at best frameworks, not wisdom. While not at all dismissing my own hopefulness that there is great benefit in the mentoring of youth, as well as personal wisdom gained through experiences facilitated by Socratic discussion as a form of creating an advanced recognition in the student when certain experiences arise in life, I am mindful of Siddhartha's comments to the Buddha in Hesse's work:

"Not for one moment did I doubt that you were the Buddha, that you have reached the highest goal which so many thousands of Brahmins and Brahmin's sons are striving to reach. You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment. The teachings of the enlightened Buddha embrace much, they teach much - how to live righteously, how to avoid evil. But there is one thing that this clear, worthy instruction does not contain; it does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced - he alone among hundreds of thousands. That is what I thought and realized when I heard your teachings. That is why I am going on my own - not to seek another and better doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone - or die."

Edited by Tim Carroll
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In view of the above discussion, I'd be interested in comments on the following two "stories" about learning. The context is a debate about an outcomes/skills based curriculum framewrork, using selective and non-sequential thematic cross-curricular learning units, versus a more traditional sequential knowledge based curriculum with skills-learning built into it.

Story shared by DGE at TN Conference 2002:The Classroom of the 21st Century – A Paradigm Shift, 29 & 30 May 2002.

SABRE TOOTH CURRICULUM

There was a man during the Paleolithic age who was very dissatisfied with the ways and standard of living in the tribe. One day as he looked at the children playing aimlessly with stones and sticks, he thought to himself that, “If I could only get these children to do the things that will give more and better food, shelter, clothing and security, then I would be helping this tribe to have a better life. When the children grow up they would have more meat to eat, more skins to keep them warm, better caves in which to sleep, and less danger from the sabre tooth-tigers.”

Having set up the educational goal he went about constructing the curriculum. He decide that the children needed to know how to catch fish with their bare hands from the creek, how to club woolly horses so that they will have wool for their clothings and blankets, and tactics to scare the sabre tooth tigers.

He taught these subjects to some children and over time it became obvious to the whole tribe that these children were better prepared for life. Schools were set up and every child in the tribe went through this systematic education and learned the three fundamental subjects of “Fish-grabbing”, “Horse-clubbing” and “Tiger-scaring”.

The tribe would have continued to prosper and remained the envy of the neighbouring tribes in the region if the conditions had not changed.

A new ice age was approaching from the north. A great glacier crept closer and closer until it finally melted into the creek. Dirt and gravel brought down by the glacier turned the once crystal-clear creek into a pool of muddy water. It was no longer possible to see the fish and, moreover, the fish were able to hide among the boulders brought down by the glacier. It was no longer possible to catch fish with bare hands. Even those who majored in fish-studies in the university were baffled by the problem. No matter how good a man’s fish-grabbing education had been, he could not catch fish when he could not find fish to grab.

The glacier also made the ground marshy and soft. This forced the woolly-horses to move to the dry, open plains in the east. Their places were taken by little antelopes who came down with the ice sheet. But these antelopes were shy and speedy and had a keen scent of danger. So no one was able to get close enough to club them. Day after day, the horse-clubbers came back empty handed.

The new dampness in the air gave the sabre tooth tigers pneumonia and many succumbed. The survivors decided to move to the deserts in the south. However, this did not mean that the tribe had no dangers. With the glacier came the ferocious glacial bears who were not fearful of the tiger-scaring tactics.

The tribe is now close to extinction. There was no fish for food, no wool to keep them warm and no safety in the night. One very hungry man stood at the brink of the muddy creek, tried all the best techniques he learned in school, but could not catch any fish. In despair he rejected all that he learned and looked around for some new way to catch fish. He saw some stout and slender vine hanging from the trees, pulled them down and fastened them rather aimlessly. But as he worked, haunted by the crying child in his cave, his vision of a net became clearer. He worked hard at it, improved the design and found that he was able to catch more fish with the net than the whole tribe could in a day using the old fish-grabbing technique.

In similar desperation, another man used young springy trees to fashion snares which he used to catch the antelopes.

A third tribesman, determined to protect his family, dug holes around his cave and found that, lo and behold, he was able to trap the ferocious glacial bears.

As knowledge of these new inventions spread, more and more members of the tribe began to learn how to make nets, set antelope snares and dig bear pits. A few thoughtful men in the tribe began to ask, “These new knowledge of net-making, snare setting and pit-digging are indispensable to modern existence. Why can’t they be taught in school ?”

The safe and sober majority, particularly the wise old men who controlled the schools, smiled indulgently at this naive question. “That wouldn’t be education. It is mere training. Anyway with all the intricate details of Fish-grabbing, Horse-clubbing and Tiger-scaring - the traditional core subjects - the school curriculum is too crowded already. We can’t add these new fads and frills. What we need to do is to give our young people a more thorough grounding in the fundamentals.”

“But how can any person with good sense be interested in such useless activities ? “ exploded one of the radicals. “What is the point of trying to catch fish with bare hands when one can catch more with the net ? How can a boy learn to club horses when there are no more horses left to club ? And why in the hell should children learn to scare tigers with fire when the tigers are dead and gone ?”

“Don’t be foolish, “ said the wise old men. “We don’t teach Fish-grabbing to grab fish; we teach it to develop a generalised agility which can never be developed by mere training. We don’t teach Horse-clubbing to club horses; we teach it to develop a generalised strength in the learner which he can never get from so prosaic and specialised a thing as antelope-snare-setting. We don’t teach Tiger-scaring to scare tigers; we teach it for the purpose of giving that noble courage which carries over into all affairs of life and which can never come from so base an activity as bear-killing.”

“Furthermore,” the old men added sternly. “if you have any education yourself, you will know that the essence of true education is timelessness. You must know that there are some eternal truths, and the sabre-tooth curriculum is one of them !”

They had noticed before that their domesticated sheep did not like being too near the fire, so they thought: Hmmmm, maybe if we all sleep round the fire, the tigers won’t come close. So they did, and they were right.

The tribe is now bigger and smarter than it ever was. They had done what man has done for centuries, in order to have survived and developed into what we are today – they took what they already knew, thought about it hard, looked at examples around them, came up with solutions that made it possible to continue despite the adversities of nature.

A different version of the Sabre Tooth Curriculum

SABRE TOOTH CURRICULUM

There was a man during the Paleolithic age who was very dissatisfied with the ways and standard of living in the tribe. One day as he looked at the children playing aimlessly with stones and sticks, he thought to himself that, “If I could only get these children to do the things that will give more and better food, shelter, clothing and security, then I would be helping this tribe to have a better life. When the children grow up they would have more meat to eat, more skins to keep them warm, better caves in which to sleep, and less danger from the sabre tooth-tigers.”

Having set up the educational goal he went about constructing the curriculum. He decide that the children needed to know how to catch fish with their bare hands from the creek, how to club woolly horses so that they will have wool for their clothings and blankets, and tactics to scare the sabre tooth tigers.

He taught these subjects to some children and over time it became obvious to the whole tribe that these children were better prepared for life. Schools were set up and every child in the tribe went through this systematic education and learned the three fundamental subjects of “Fish-grabbing”, “Horse-clubbing” and “Tiger-scaring”.

The tribe would have continued to prosper and remained the envy of the neighbouring tribes in the region if the conditions had not changed.

A new ice age was approaching from the north. A great glacier crept closer and closer until it finally melted into the creek. Dirt and gravel brought down by the glacier turned the once crystal-clear creek into a pool of muddy water. It was no longer possible to see the fish and, moreover, the fish were able to hide among the boulders brought down by the glacier. It was no longer possible to catch fish with bare hands. Even those who majored in fish-studies in the university were baffled by the problem. No matter how good a man’s fish-grabbing education had been, he could not catch fish when he could not find fish to grab.

However, most of the young men of the tribe were intelligent, just like their teacher, and he had taught them well, so after a while they decided to hold a meeting and pool their common knowledge about the problem. They thought really hard because that is what human beings can do quite naturally.

One of them said: the fish might still be there, it’s just that we can’t see them. We might be able to catch them a different way.

So, they all sat around and thought about it and discussed it. The tallest one said: We catch flying birds to eat by using a net and fish fly through the water like birds through the air, so perhaps we could get a bird net and put it into the pool and see what happens.

So they did, and lo and behold, they caught lots and lots of fish.

The glacier also made the ground marshy and soft. This forced the woolly-horses to move to the dry, open plains in the east. Their places were taken by little antelopes who came down with the ice sheet. But these antelopes were shy and speedy and had a keen scent of danger. So no one was able to get close enough to club them. Day after day, the horse-clubbers came back empty handed.

But fortunately, some of the women of the tribe had noticed that when they had spilt seed from the wild wheat they gathered on the marshy bits of ground, it seemed to magically grow into more wheat, so they were able to reap the wheat and have a more balanced diet of both fish and bread.

For some time now, the women had been domesticating wild sheep and had been killing them for their meat and throwing away their woolly coats because woolly-horse coats were a prettier colour and didn’t show the dirt quite so much, but luckily they had kept a lot of the old coats of the sheep they had eaten at the back of the cave, and were able to keep out the cold with them.

So, although one or two caught pneumonia and died while the women were making enough clothes, the majority of the tribe, having used their brains and come up with a solution, lived happily ever after.

The new dampness in the air gave the sabre tooth tigers pneumonia and many succumbed. The survivors decided to move to the deserts in the south. However, this did not mean that the tribe had no dangers. With the glacier came the ferocious glacial bears who were not fearful of the tiger-scaring tactics.

However, now that they had the confidence to realise that if they used the knowledge they had and thought about it long enough together, and especially they had learned now to get the women involved, they would probably find a solution, for after all, how had the old teacher come up with the ways to grab fish, club horses and scare tigers. He must have worked those things out on his own or with the help of others, so they should be able to as well.

And the old man who had taught them said to himself: I have taught them well. I have given them sufficient knowledge and good examples of how to do things, to make it possible for them to think, experiment, reach conclusions and find solutions, for that is how man’s brain has developed since earliest time to the present day.

And if only he had known that in the coming centuries, people like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison and Bill Gates would astound the world with inventions that they made because they had had a sound, traditional and knowledge based education.

And what ever would he have thought if he could have come forward to the 21st century and discovered that people had thought up a skills and outcomes-based education system without having had one themselves. He would really have been amazed by that.

But lo, perhaps he would have been able to have a really good think about it and ask himself whether people who have lots and lots of skills, but a very scrambled, patchy and disorderly knowledge, understanding or appreciation of the literature, history, scientific developments and art of the past, might just end up being arrogant young people who think they know HOW to do everything, but in fact are cultural barbarians who may after a few millennium, end up back in a cave, because they don’t know that’s where we came from in the first place.

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A Paradigm Shift....

And if only he had known that in the coming centuries, people like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison and Bill Gates would astound the world with inventions that they made because they had had a sound, traditional and knowledge based education.

And what ever would he have thought if he could have come forward to the 21st century and discovered that people had thought up a skills and outcomes-based education system without having had one themselves. He would really have been amazed by that.

But lo, perhaps he would have been able to have a really good think about it and ask himself whether people who have lots and lots of skills, but a very scrambled, patchy and disorderly knowledge, understanding or appreciation of the literature, history, scientific developments and art of the past, might just end up being arrogant young people who think they know HOW to do everything, but in fact are cultural barbarians who may after a few millennium, end up back in a cave, because they don’t know that’s where we came from in the first place.

Jean:

Between variations on the Three Little Pigs and the Aesop's fable of the ant and the grasshopper preparing for winter, your point is well-taken, as I said previously, that interdisciplinary wisdom is very different than specialized knowledge and skill. Without a framework within which specialized information fits and adds to a greater whole, the forest is not seen for the trees. I believe that education, especially historical education (which should be all-encompassing) lacks framework. Thus, even the best of students usually contain a wealth of factual knowledge, but very little framework or wisdom.

Tim

Edited by Tim Carroll
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I attended an educational conference on Monday. One of the speakers made the following comment:

“Only a fool learns from experience. Wisdom is learning from the experience of others.”

Is that true of teaching?

To quote the sage of Greenbow, Alabama, Forrest Gump, "I think it's a little of both."

Only a fool stops learning. I tell my students at the beginning of each year that one of the values of history is learning how to gain artificial experience. As the stories of governments and societies from different times and places come through there are lessons to be learned.

Think back to your first experiences in a classroom as an educator. Would you do everything the same way you did then? I can't and won't. I miss some of the optimism and fire in trying to find a style of everything that I wanted to use. But my first tries at things go much better today than they did then because I have more experience.

However, relying on one's own resources solely is an ineffective way to improve as an instructor. I see myself as always being on the lookout for ideas, materials, technologies that I think will improve things in my classroom. But I fear that if I find a guru, or the all-encompassing curriculum aid, or the perfect video series, or the perfect website that worked without any adjustment or personalization by yours truly then I will have found the day that something died inside my teaching soul.

I think only a fool would throw away his own experience. I also think it is a wise person that sees exponentially expanding opportunities in watching and listening and asking of the world for ways to do things.

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I work in a society which is highly influenced by continental rationalism. One of the common subject areas in universities is 'utbildningsvetenskap', where 'utbildning' means education and 'vetenskap' means science. Usually this is the subject area responsible for teacher training.

I often make the point that when I was trained, in the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition, we saw teaching as the performance of an art, rather than as the application of a science. This doesn't necessarily make it woolly and fuzzy, though. Picasso, for example, had an extensive and detailed knowledge of chemical composition of paints and of the theories of perspective and colour … but if you think that when he stood before a blank canvas in his studio he was simply applying the theoretical knowledge he had acquired, then you don't really know what painting is. And if you put him in the same studio with a similar blank canvas a month later, he wouldn't paint the same picture.

This example is part of my explanation to teacher trainees of why a lesson will work perfectly with one class, but fail miserably with another. The people you work with and the environment in which you work are intrinsic to your success as a teacher … which is why I get so irritated with management figures who come and try to tell me how their latest scheme for centralising control over teachers and teaching is going to make things so much better.

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Tim writes:

…interdisciplinary wisdom is very different than specialized knowledge and skill…

I wonder what people make of my background. It’s very interdisciplnary:

1. Specialised in Modern Languages in the sixth form at school

2. Read German and French at university

3. Completed a Postgraduate Certificate in Education course

4. Researched (for PhD) into the terminology of the Medieval German Tournament and Heraldry

5. Developed an interest in ICT and have written numerous publications on ICT and Modern Languages

6. 19-handicap in golf

7. Former scuba diving instructor

8. Competent intermediate skiier

9. I can strip down and rebuild a motor vehicle engine

I am not sure how this contributed to my skills as a teacher :rolleyes:

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The key to becoming a multi-skilled person with a broad spectrum of knowledge, is not to take hundreds of college courses and memorise lots of facts, but to be interested in learning, to know how to figure things out, where to look things up and who to ask when you need an answer to something.

It is impossible for the human brain to simply remember vast ammounts of information, especially when they have no particular meaning to you (try memorising the populations of 20 random countries around the world and see how long its sticks), but if you are interested in something and a questions arrises and you find the answer to your question then it will stick around for a long time.

Sadly in most science classes in British schools the tendency is for the teacher to provide all of the facts and for the students to absorb them passively. These facts are then quickly forgotten and the student believes that to get answers to anything you must ask the teacher. Hardly a great foundation for life.

I think that you can teach a curriculum based on grape growing and the history of flightless birds, and this will be a good foundation for life, provided that the method allows the students to learn actively and not passively.

Rowena

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Great thread. It has done what I hoped when I made the posting. What is education?

“Only a fool learns from experience. Wisdom is learning from the experience of others.”

The quote is in fact nonsense. A fool is someone who fails to learn from experience. Although I would accept that learning from the experience of others is preferable.

It was interesting that Tim related the quote to parenting. As a parent you are constantly fearful that your children will attempt to learn from their own experience. You are only too aware that this is a highly dangerous strategy. Therefore you hope they will learn from your words of wisdom. It does not always work, but if they respect your opinion, the chances of them making serious mistakes is reduced dramatically. The important think is that they realize you love them and that you have their best interests at heart.

Jean posted two great stories that all educators should consider long and hard. One of the major problems of our education system is that we prepare students for a world that no longer exists. In that sense, we are no better than the educators who teach how to “catch fish with their bare hands from the creek”.

However, it is not enough to teach children the skills needed to exist in a modern society. We have a far more important job to do. We have to help them understand the society they are living in. That is very difficult when the vast majority of the adult population has no real understanding of what is really going on. The most important role a teacher can play is to encourage children to ask the right questions. As Elbert Hubbard said: “The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher.”

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I suppose what bothers me about the new skills based curriculum, is that many of its proponents assume it is fine to teach snippets of subject matter, in no particular order and for no particular reason except to reach the "outcomes" and teach the "skills of learning". Here, for instance, a student may go through 4 years of high school, and may very well learn about historical evidence, document analysis, research skills etc etc , but may never do any Australian history. They may do units on the Ancient Egyptians, but unconnected to any other ancient history. What is the use of having amazing historical research skills, being "able to ask the right questions", "knowing where to find the answers", if at the same time you have not the faintest notion in your head of the chronology of world history or the development of your own country?

Cross-curricular, multi-discipinary units are useful to understand that knowledge is not confined to subject boxes and skills can be transferrable, but if they become the only mode of delivery as is happening here (where in some schools science is no longer compulsory except as a small part of a stand-alone cross-curricular unit), are we developing in students, a coherent and deep understanding of subjects such as science or are we teaching them that subject matter is inferior and subserviant to skills acquisition?

I cannot find anyone here in my state who will answer these questions clearly and frankly. All I get is rhetoric about outdated knowledge, outcomes frameworks and skills for the 21st century, with no clear or consistent picture of what that actually means in terms of classroom practice.

An interesting side development of the introduction of our new standards beased curriculum is that schools in high socio-economic areas are not adapting it wholesale because their parent bodies are not supportive of it, while schools in low SE areas are, because the parent bodies do not understand it, are not connected with the school, and don't have the power to oppose it. We have another interesting example of two high schools in the same town - one retaining its traditional subjects and the other teaching entirely in multi-disciplinary units. I will leave you to guess to which one teachers are sending their children, and which one has a falling population. Answers on a postcard, please.

The other unpleasant side of all this, is that it causes educators to fall into camps about it, and it is now very unwise here to publicly criticise the new system - you will definitely not gain promotion if you do, and you will certainly be deemed a dinosaur. The thought-police are very powerful and intellectual debate is not welcomed. As a union leader, I am one of the very few who can publicly air my concerns without retribution.

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I suppose what bothers me about the new skills based curriculum, is that many of its proponents assume it is fine to teach snippets of subject matter, in no particular order and for no particular reason except to reach the "outcomes" and teach the "skills of learning". Here, for instance, a student may go through 4 years of high school, and may very well learn about historical evidence, document analysis, research skills etc etc , but may never do any Australian history.

Not that I teach much Australian history, but all I can say is "Amen sister!"

Content first. Make sure the requisite materials are being covered and then figure out how to apply learning skills to that. Learning skills as the priority with the content picked based on the suitability to the intended skill is putting the figurative cart before the horse.

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PS After re-reading my last post, I realise I have omitted to say that the schools I mention as retaining traditional elements are all building the new standards, framework values, skills and outcomes into their structure (that IS compulsory for all schools here because the assessment and reporting procedures are mandated in that way) but they are doing it by incorporating them into a sequential, knowledge/subject based curriculum in a fairly traditional timetable structure. Other schools have completely unitised their curriculum from K-10, with the skills and outcomes being developmental and sequential, but not the content.

I hope this is making sense - it's not easy to explain in a short space.

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"To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge." Confucius

Good Judgment is usually the result of experience, and experience is usually the result of bad judgment.

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So many wise things have been written so far that it is not easy to add much more.

One of the major problems of our education system is that we prepare students for a world that no longer exists. (....) However, it is not enough to teach children the skills needed to exist in a modern society. We have a far more important job to do. We have to help them understand the society they are living in. That is very difficult when the vast majority of the adult population has no real understanding of what is really going on.

I think it is right: most people don’t have a real understanding of what is going on. What teaching in particular, but education in general should provide children or students with is a critical approach to life. After all, we must teach them to be able to find the best solutions and solve the problems which will arise all their lives long, and not just in their personal lives, but in their job or public role within a company, a community, a country, etc. And they will have to do the same with their children or students, teaching them how to solve problems, take decisions, making choices, etc. which is what we all do most of the time.

Educators, not only teachers, should also be able to envisage the future, and when it is difficult to do so because our present is changing too fast, or we feel we lack correct information or our “wise” decision-makers seem to lead us astray, we must at least provide young people with tools so that they may be ready to face their future.

We have the whole past at disposal: not only history, but all the knowledge made up of snippets of contents which must not be simply transmitted to learners but presented as experiences, discoveries or examples of solutions which have been found so far, so that new generations may modify, and improve them.

As Elbert Hubbard said:  “The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher.”

Edited by Caterina Gasparini
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