Redefining Education: Experience and Dewey's Wise Words

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself” – John Dewey

I’m sure many of you have heard this quote before, or some rendition of it. Or something along the lines of “experience is the greatest teacher.” It’s true. At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe in my journey as an educator and as a regular human being just like yourselves. We often stamp the word “education” on the academic world without looking a little bit deeper at what is right at our fingertips. It’s everywhere. We are in a constant flow of learning all the time, from the smallest minute shift in daily routine to grand travels to new cultures that transform our value systems and self-understanding. Truly everywhere.

Sure, we can dive into the details of social constructs, school systems, and traditional pedagogies and how they have robbed us of our freedom of thought, but I’m not going in that direction. And in no way am I bashing traditional education either, as I am also a product of that world. That being said, I still believe we forget how impactful experiences can be in the light of being “education”, and how powerfully transformative they can be for each of us. Yes, we are products of our own environment, but we are also students of life, whether we like it or not. Why not embrace this truth and use it to empower change in who we choose to become?

Where does experience start? When we arrive on the day of our birth, everything is new – new colors and shapes, new smells, sounds, tastes, feelings -- fair to say we start with our five senses, yes? But it’s not just that, we are also interacting with our parents and family. The people around us. Our teachers of life. Before any school happens, any grades, any test scores, we have experiences and human interaction. Our parents over time nurture and cultivate our experiences to shape what we learn, how we learn, and who we become. Their role in crafting experiences for our development should shine some light on this. This process has not changed (not saying parents are still doing this, but you get my point). No matter how old we are, experiences are always happening, shaping us. There are always lessons to learn from them.

This is education to me. The whole process of an experience. It allows us to tap into the development of ourselves in ways that can profoundly influence our lives and is vital to our overall education as beings. To be consciously aware of this experiential process empowers us to choose how we want to engage with life. How we want to engage with our own education and our understanding of it. But it has to begin within us. There has to be a conscious need for this to happen, a choice on our part. A choice where we recognize how an experience CAN change us.

After all, we know ourselves the best. We know our strengths, our weaknesses, and most importantly, what it is we want to change about ourselves. The question is, are we taking action on this or are we still doing the same thing we always do, getting the same results? I think Einstein said it best, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

That being said, I’d like to introduce you to experiential learning and specifically David A. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, which lays the groundwork for the work that we do.

Here is a visual for you:

Simply put, we start at the top of the cycle in an experience. We are completely immersed in it (could be an activity, project, etc.), doing it, engaged in it, it’s the only thing that matters in the moment. After the experience, we reflect on it however we choose. We observe how it went, reviewing specific moments during the experience, and mainly how we felt during it. This could take form in discussions/dialogues, creative reflection like using art, writing, whatever. The point is to focus on the emotions that we felt while in the experience. Then we draw conclusions on what we learned from the experience and the reflection. What are our main takeaways from such an experience and how can we apply them for our next go-around? And finally, we try out what we learned. We take our conclusions, especially looking at what we would/could do differently on our next go-around put them into practice. Into our next experience. Trying out new things to see if they work and change the outcome is how we learn. And around we go again. (Obviously this isn’t the most descriptive explanation of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, but if you are intrigued and want to learn more, simply Google it and you will find an abundance of resources).

Being aware of the experiential learning cycle process can be life-changing. I’m not saying to literally stop every time you have an experience and throw yourself into a loop, but once in a while, take a moment to go through it for your own sake. The beauty of it is that it transcends and is applicable to all contexts; whether it be love, professional, or cross-cultural. You name it. But again, it has to start from within you. The change you seek starts with the recognition of how you are engaging with experience and learning from it. And finally, it is what you do with what you learned that will change you.

For me, education is change of heart. And without a doubt, it has been the experiences and human interactions in my life that have made me fall in love with the process of education. Experiential learning will always be at the forefront of my own education and hopefully this has opened your eyes a bit on what education means to you. In the end, define education however you like, but be certain of one thing, life is always undeniably teaching us.