Experience Fuels Education: How to Transform Theories into Practice in a Liberal Arts University

Aaron DeVos

If John Dewey, the great 20th century philosopher of education, were alive today, his curiosity would be piqued upon hearing about experiential education.  Much of Dewey’s life work centered on this very theme through books such as “Experience and Nature”, “Art and Experience” and “Experience and Education.” 

Dewey once said: “education is of, by, and for experience.”  Experience initiates learning.  Experience fuels learning.  And lastly, learning transforms experiences.

Experience is foundational to ensuring that ideas, thoughts, and theories stick. Experience has the power to either validate or discard the course material that is being taught. The concern is when students do not have the experience necessary to test the validity of the concepts taught. 

Dewey believed that all too often the classroom assumes that students have had an experience which can ground their conceptual learning, when far too often this is not the case.

Dewey then suggests that what can breathe life into learning is not thinking deeper or reading more.  What is insisted upon is as a richer personal experience imbued with the capacity to breathe life into the subject matter.

These comments from Dewey are contrary to practices of experiential education within most universities, including Redeemer.  Experiential education often values experience as the final goal of education, not the starting place.  Often experiential education emerges at the conclusion of the learning process, usually at the end of a course, or worse yet, at the end of undergraduate studies.

In my fourth year at Redeemer, I enrolled in a course centred on social justice.  There was an experiential learning component to the course whereby every student was to take part in Deedz and write a journal. Meanwhile, back in class, we explored the thoughts of great minds on the topic of social justice.  We met twice a week for 15 weeks, building on the ideas of great thinkers who have gone before us. 

But for the second last class, we switched gears almost completely. Rather than ideas being the framework for class discussion, it would be Deedz. According to the sheer number of students engaging with Deedz campus-wide, one might think that there would have been a lively discussion on the matter. Sadly, the classroom discussion was both shallow and short.

Why did we finish the course with a conversation about our experiences rather than start with students’ experiences?  Is that not the starting place for determining the topics that are worth delving deeper into?

Through bypassing students’ experiences we neglected the role of education to take students’ experiences, transform them, and in turn, transform our societies.  Had we started the course with such a discussion, students could have had come to an understanding of the complexity involved in seeking justice and therefore the need to return to the classroom.

So here is my challenge to you as students, faculty, and staff: seek out experiences, earlier rather than later, that can help enliven students’ learning. 

To help students along, consider thinking of the city as a microcosm of the world. Whatever it is that students hope to learn about the world can be learned right here in the city. Stories, skills, and ideas the world over are found in this city – in the very places that students live, and move, and have their being.

So I ask you students, “what is it that your heart desires to know?” Who, where, or how within this city can you find a face-to-face encounter with it?  Talk about it as you gather for dorm dinners.  Seek out opportunities within the community.  Reach out to your teachers and ask them to point you in the right direction. 

Lastly, dare to insist that your experiences belong in the classroom.  They are not finished products. They leave us with questions, opportunities and emotions that are worth discussing in depth. The classroom is a community that should provide the space for such an exploration.