Reconstructing Experience: Curriculum Theorizing in Experiential Education
Reconstructing Experience: Curriculum Theorizing in Experiential Education
This article considers experiential education from the standpoint of curriculum theory. I argue that, to date, too little work has been undertaken interrogating the usage of the term “experiential” in curriculum theory. This has resulted in a relatively homogeneous and simple construction of the role of experience in education that misrepresents both the complexity and the level of “contestation” in the discourse. In an attempt to begin to address this problem, I have laid out three waves or “ideal types” (Weber 1969) of experiential education: experientialist, neo-experientialist, and post-experientialist. I discuss each of the three curricular waves in terms of their defining characteristics and the promises and challenges of their various constructions of experience. I conclude with a call for more theoretical and philosophical work in this area.
Keywords: Curriculum theory, experiential education, philosophy
Reconstructing Experience: Curriculum Theorizing in Experiential Education
Despite a few related attempts (Itin 2001, Fenwick 2001) little work has been done “theorizing” experiential education in the curriculum. The field of curriculum theory is well suited to help both deconstruct and reconstruct the ways in which experience is being utilized in education. By “curriculum theory” I am employing Pinar’s (2004) definition of “…that interdisciplinary field committed to the study of educational experience, especially (but not only) as that experience is encoded in the school curriculum…” (20). To Pinar and others within this field, curriculum theory can be seen as an analysis of the broad ranging sets of beliefs, explicit or tacit, about the purpose of schooling and claims about what knowledge is of the most worth. Heretofore, experiential theory has had a strong tendency to be conceptualized as a monolithic, homogeneous, and relatively unchanging whole. Experiential curricula have not, to date, been fully explored, unraveled, and interrogated as to the unstated assumptions, beliefs, and purposes underneath the title. In addition, the relative lack of theorizing within experiential education has produced, perhaps, a false impression of consensus, ignoring the conflicts and contested nature embedded within the variety of ways we construct experience in the curriculum. Experience, when laid out in the context of different curriculum theories, becomes more complex than previously theorized and can be seen to work for different and conflicting purposes. It can therefore be helpful to have a framework through which we can understand these different--and sometimes hidden--purposes . As Pinar states, “because it is highly symbolic, the theorization of curriculum requires situating it historically, socially, and autobiographically…”(20). In this paper, I develop a specific curriculum theory framework to reveal some of the more complex and contradictory aspects of the relationship between experience and its educational use. Such work may provide “free-space” (Carlson 2003) for the construction of new narratives, alliances, and theoretical strands that can further the work of those who wish to position experiential, progressive approaches as a strong alternative to the current neo-liberal discourse of achievement, accountability and assessment.
I will begin by identifying what I consider to be three distinct waves in the development of experiential theory: experientialism, neo-experientialism, and post-experientialism. These are intended to be much like Weber’s “ideal types” (1969) - an organizing framework that allows opportunity for analysis and comparison and less as an attempt to directly describe any particular reality. Each of these three waves bring with them particular theoretical emphases and practical consequences. While it is not my intention to advocate for any one approach per se, it is worth noting both the strengths and vulnerabilities of each. After I look at each of these waves separately, I will conclude with a discussion as to the merits of attempting to diversify experiential theory and whether or how these impact the position of the field in the larger educational arena.
The first wave of experiential education can be characterized by the well-known work of John Dewey, William James, William Kilpatrick, and others in the early progressive period. Schubert (2002) in his seminal work on curriculum theory describes three historic schools of curriculum thought: intellectual traditionalists, social behaviorists, and experientalists and goes on to claim that “although virtually all writers will be succeeded by other voices in their respective educational positions, Dewey is never superceded as spokesperson. Even today, he retains his posture as the single most significant voice of the experientialist perspective” (13). Of all the intellectual traditions, Dewey has, perhaps, been given the most attention in experiential curriculum theorizing and for good reason . In his writings on the role of experience, Dewey constructs a richly textured pragmatic approach that lays the moral foundation for the creation of a democratic classroom and, thus, a more democratic society. Cornell West, perhaps our most provocative modern American pragmatist, sees in Dewey’s philosophy a clear, ethical calling. “For Dewey, philosophy is a mode not of knowledge but of wisdom. And wisdom is conviction about values, a choice to do something, a preference for this rather that that form of living”(West, 1987, pg. 86). Dewey believed that schooling was the cultural institution that served as the engine for creating this form of living and at the center of this ought to be experience. Thus we reach a technical definition of education: it is that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases the ability to direct the course of subsequent experience. (1) The increment of meaning corresponds to the increased perceptions of the connections and continuities of the activities in which we are engaged (Dewey, 1938, pgs. 76-77).
It is here that we see the key elements of an educative experience for Dewey. It must achieve a continuity- where the past and present transact to create the future. And the meaning of such transaction is directly correlative to the connections we make in the process. This “continuous reconstruction of experience” (Dewey, 1938, pg. 80) defines what is essential in the educational endeavor and, as a pedagogical approach, is separate (and superior) to alternate notions of education-as preparation for future living, as recapitulation of the past, or as an unfolding toward definitive goals (Dewey, 1944).
While equated with a historical time period, that of the early 1900’s, it is important to note that the experientialist position in curriculum thought retains a contemporary presence. Many of the modern progressive writers on education who argue for schooling based upon concepts of democratic living (Lee 1986; Gutman 1987; Greene 1988, Meier 1995; Beane 1997) represent the current position of the experientialist tradition. It is beyond the scope of this paper to detail all the variations and complexities within the experientialist position. Rather, for the purposes of this paper, I will lay out what I believe to be three of the most salient characteristics as they can be seen in Dewey’s work . First, for Dewey and others in the more modern experientialist vain, experience is closely equated with democratic living. That is, “problem resolution can frequently be best obtained by the exercise of communication or group study which transaction of experience occurs among persons”(Schubert et al 13). Thus the needs of society are closely tied to the ways in which the curriculum in organized. Second, while the outside world was incorporated into experientialist curriculum, the unit of analysis remained the school and the process of formal schooling. That is, while Dewey and others advocate for the inclusion of “real world” problems, local issues, and community participation in school life, nowhere is the process of public schooling itself undermined or questioned. It is assumed, as Deb Meier has said, “Schools embody the dreams we have for our children. All of them. These dreams must remain public property” (2002, 11). Finally, as I have argued elsewhere (XXXXX 2005) the experientialist position is one that is careful not to equate experience with technique. Rather, “experience” is seen as an overarching pedagogical stance. Much different than simple “learning by doing,” the curricular theory is centered around placing experience at the center of the educational endeavor- not as an amusing deviation or novel activity. What is the difference between placing experience at the center of the educational endeavor and that of hands-on learning or learning by doing? This is very difficult to answer as those who have read Dewey carefully can attest. Dewey himself seemed to realize the challenge of what he was trying to describe and advocate:
There is no discipline in the world so severe as the discipline of experience subjected to the tests of intelligent development and direction. Hence the only ground I can see for even a temporary reaction against the standards, aims, and methods of the newer education is the failure of educators who professedly adopt them to be faithful to them in practice…the greatest danger that attends its future is, I believe, the idea that it is an easy way to follow, so easy that its course may be improvised… (Dewey, 1938, pg. 90 emphasis added). Placing experience at the center of the educational endeavor entails several distinct characteristics. Principally, Dewey’s notion of continuity must be paramount. That is, the educative experience must be meaningfully connected to previous experience and ethically bound to future growth. In this vein, one could imagine how a lecture could be seen as “experiential” while other experiences (certain kinds of ropes courses and service learning events for example) might not. Second, educative experience in the experientialist tradition is deeply contextual and not readily generalizeable or replicable. One has to facilitate environments where relational transaction occurs between the individual, her community, and the subject matter at hand. This pedagogy rejects the extremes of “scripting” (Ritzer 1996; Roberts 2005) where experiences are replicated regardless of context. On the other extreme, it also rejects the “easy improvisation” Dewey warns about when curriculum development over-emphasizes child-centered interests. Third, within this tradition, care is taken not to set up false dichotomies between “inside” and “outside” in terms of schooling. Experience is not something that can only happen while “doing” nor is it something that takes place predominantly outside of the four-walled classroom (although of course, it can). Finally, placing experience at the center of the educational endeavor necessitates an ethical connection between the individual and the social. That is, learning does not happen merely for learning sake. Rather, learning takes place with the understanding that knowledge has moral consequences that invite (and often demand) social action. While some have rightly critiqued Dewey and the early experientialist tradition for eschewing a strong social justice agenda (Noddings 1995, Bowers 2003), I am more inclined to follow others who argue that the underlying philosophy sets the stage for many of the modern progressive projects of today (Hewitt 2002).
To summarize, the experientialist tradition in curriculum thought is well documented and best exemplified in the philosophy of John Dewey though modern proponents continue to modify and adjust his notions of experience and education. Modern experientialist curricular thought expands Dewey’s notions of democratic engagement and trouble his assumed homogeneous community structures (Diggins 1994). Indeed, one of the main weaknesses of this curricular tradition is its penchant for ignoring the dynamics of power in democratic process. But, as we shall see in the next wave of curricular thought in experiential education, ignorance of power and cultural difference is not unique to just the experientialist tradition.
Sometime in the middle part of the twentieth century, a subtle but curious shift occurred in the discourse on experience in the curriculum. Dewey’s “experience in education” became “experiential education” . It is this shift, in my view, that signals the on-set of the second wave in experiential curriculum theory- that of neo-experientialism. Beginning with the work of Kurt Hahn and his schools in Scotland and England, a new wave of curriculum theory emerged that represented a distinct shift from the Deweyian experientialist tradition. In many ways, Hahn can be seen as a sort of keystone figure who straddled the line between the experientialist and neo-experientialist waves. Hahn began his work in schools, creating some of his most influential pedagogical stances in more traditional classroom settings. In this sense, Hahn seems rooted firmly in the experientialist tradition. Yet, it was how Hahn’s ideas were implemented that shifts his legacy from the experientialist to the neo-experientialist waves. As is well-documented in the literature (Miles & Priest 1990; Warren et al 1995), Hahn’s ideas went on to influence a wide variety of what I will call neo-experiential programs such as Project Adventure, Outward Bound, and many of the modern outdoor and adventure education curriculum we see today. Perhaps the best exemplar of the nascent field is its organizing body- the Association of Experiential Education (AEE). Founded in the 1970’s, AEE’s definition of experiential education reveals the connections between Deweyian constructions of experience and “experiential” education. “Experiential education is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values”(AEE website, retrieved 9-10-04). There are many definitions and discussions of what defines an educational activity as “experiential.” The following discussion by Proudman seems archetypal. Good experiential learning combines direct experience that is meaningful to the student with guided reflection and analysis. It is a challenging, active, student-centered process that impels students toward opportunities for taking initiative, responsibility, and decision making…Whatever the activity, it is the learning and teaching process that defines whether a learning experience is experiential”(Proudman, 1996, p. 241).
This theoretical wave has produced an entire industry of practical applications including ropes courses, adventure education, therapeutic wilderness programs, expeditionary learning schools, and service learning programs, among others. Despite significant obstacles against its implementation, both historically, and in the modern context, neo-experiential approaches remain a significant, if marginalized part of the educational landscape.
What differentiates experiential and neo-experiential curriculum theory? I see several defining characteristics. First, neo-experiential approaches shift the focus from the transaction of the individual and the social to more emphasis on the individual. This is what some have described at the “humanist” perspective in experiential education (Saddington 1998; Seaman 2005). Personal growth and self-actualization become central to the educational process in this wave. Indeed, many of the models developed to explain neo-experiential process rely on a construction of the individual as an autonomous actor (Kolb 1984, Joplin 1995). Second, “experience” within this curriculum construct is tightly bounded both in space and time. That is to say, experience is generally equated with activity that has a distinct beginning and end. Third, neo-experiential approaches, while not necessarily hostile to the aims of public schooling, do not situate themselves exclusively within the four walls of the classroom and the traditional public school. Adventure education, ropes course programs, service learning, and other curricular models within this theoretical wave all take place, to a large extent, away from the school grounds. This “outside” orientation is sometimes lamented and sometimes celebrated by its proponents. Fourth, deeper philosophical and theoretical work is often eschewed in order to emphasize application and practice. That is, neo-experiential theory can be seen as largely derivative of other social and educational theories and philosophies and has not generated “new” theory per se. This “applied” emphasis has pro’s and con’s as I will discuss below. Finally, the fields of psychology, recreation, and leisure studies emerge within this wave to take predominance in terms of research agendas and epistemological paradigms.
Several areas of concern have emerged as the neo-experiential wave has matured. As I have argued elsewhere (XXXX 2005), the loose equation of “experience” and “activity” that is prevalent in this curricular approach leaves the pedagogy vulnerable to larger hegemonic forces. Specifically, the scripting of neo-experiential curriculum in the form of ropes courses, climbing walls, and even mandatory service learning curriculum has led to a form of standardization that can undermine its transformative and democratic potential. This process, what Ritzer called “McDonalidization” (1996), has a sort of franchise- effect, enabling a race to the bottom as students all participate in homogeneous, yet shallow, experiential curricula. In addition, as moves to standardize and franchise neo-experiential programming strengthen, the curriculum becomes vulnerable to what Giroux described as “disnification” (1999) in the ways that “corporations hold such an inordinate amount of power in shaping children’s culture into a largely commercial endeavor, using their various cultural technologies as teaching machines to commodify and homogenize all aspects of everyday life-and in this sense posing a potential threat to the real freedoms associated with a substantive democracy”(11).
Another area of concern has to do with the research agenda within the neo-experientialist vein. While still a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods, it takes on a decidedly more positivist and post-positivist character. Certainly, this has assisted in establishing some credibility to the field as educational outcomes and best practices begin to be measured and tested. Yet, one consequence to this is the potential marginalization of other ways of knowing and doing research that do not fit within this research tradition (Walker 2005; Gee 2005). Indeed, it could be argued that research in the neo-experiential wave is closely mirroring the “scientifically-based” research ideology of the current conservative push in educational research as typified by the No Child Left Behind guidelines. As the federal government continues to push (and fund) only those educational practices that can be deemed effective through scientifically-based research , more “radical” qualitative research becomes increasingly marginalized and disempowered.
Besides the vulnerability to McDonaldization and the marginalization of other ways of knowing outside the positivist and post-positivist research paradigms, I see one other key concern emerging within the neo-experiential wave. The humanistic emphasis on the individual within this curricular theory ignores the social construction of experience, and as a result, fails to incorporate issues of power- particularly around issues of identity (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). For example, the term “challenge by choice” is employed with some regularity in neo-experiential curriculum. This term is meant to impart a type of educational value- that each person in a given group has the right to choose their level of participation during an experience- particularly when that experience involves perceived or actual risk. Yet, the bulk of work in social theory (and empirical research) strongly question the assumptions of this value. First, “challenge by choice” assumes an autonomous and rational actor capable of making a choice outside of the social domain of influence. This sort of Kantian rationality has been almost universally rejected and dismissed within both philosophy and social theory. Individuals do not make choices in a vacuum. Rather, since their identities themselves are socially constructed, the choices they make exist within context- what Bourdieu described as “habitus” and “field” (1993). As such, any discussion of “choice” must include within it the ways in which social identities, and as a result, power dynamics influence so-called “individual” choices. The lack of awareness of the social construction of experience represents a significant weakness within the neo-experiential wave of curriculum theory. By emphasizing the individual nature of experience, overly simplified and linear models have developed along the lines of Kolb and Joplin (frame-experience-reflect-apply). As Seaman (2005) has argued, this theoretical modeling resembles more of a “folk psychology” that, while important for historical purposes, is not useful for contemporary scholarship.
To conclude, the neo-experiential wave offers both possibilities and problems within experiential education curriculum theory. By expanding Deweyian progressivism outside the four-walled classroom to a greater variety of contexts and by establishing defining characteristics of the experiential approach, the neo-experiential wave provides practical applications to Dewey’s sometimes obtuse theory. In addition, the incorporation and development of the fields of educational psychology, recreation, and leisure studies has increased the amount and quality of research being done on experiential programs. This work has been crucial to defining educational impact as well as “legitimizing” novel and alternative approaches to curriculum. Yet, problems remain. The emphasis on practice and technique makes neo-experiential approaches vulnerable to the processes of McDonalidization (replication without context) and Disnification (entertainment without social critique). In addition, the influence of positivist and post-positivist research paradigms marginalize other ways of knowing and educational practice that cannot be measured through “scientifically-based” quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Finally, the development of “folk” theories and models of experience have become solidified without enough interrogation as to the embedded assumptions or how these theories resonate with the wider theoretical work in social theory and philosophy. I will now turn to an emerging curriculum theory, what I have tentatively called “post-experientialism” which attempts to address some of these concerns (while also creating new problems, of course).
Emerging out of the late modern period, a variety of voices can be loosely organized around what I am proposing to call “post-experientialism.” Perhaps beginning most clearly with the work of Paolo Freire (1970, 1987), who is cited with some regularity within the experiential education field, this emerging wave attempts to address some of the limitations of both the experientialist and neo-experientialist curriculum traditions. I use the term “post” here to connote the extent to which this curricular wave has come after the previous two in a loose historical sense and also to emphasize its connection to more general post-modern theory. Specifically, post-experientialism moves away from both experientialism and neo-experientialism by its deconstruction of the assumed neutrality of experience and the incorporation of issues of power in curriculum theorizing. Rather than viewing experience as form of living (experientialist) or as a bounded activity (neo-experientialist), post-experiential theory views experience in a much more political sense- as a tool for counter-hegemonic practice. In this way, it can be a form of associated living (but certainly not a neutral one) and it can consist of a bounded activities (but not divorced from the present and future moral consequences of those activities). Post-experiential curriculum theory, then, is not method-driven (although it certainly does not ignore method). Rather, the method is not an end in and of itself- it is intimately connected to a larger social and philosophical project. As Freire once wrote,
…[T]he liberating educator has to be very aware that transformation is not just a question of methods and techniques. If liberating education was just a question of methods, then the problem would be only to change some traditional methodologies by some modernized ones. But that is not the problem. The question is a different relationship to knowledge and to society (35, emphasis mine).
To Freire and others in post-experientialist curriculum theory, the central aim of education is not a homogeneous form of associated living and social efficiency as early experientialists argued, or a form of individualistic self-actualization as neo-experientialists emphasize. Rather, the purpose of schooling is a kind of critical consciousness that attempts to reveal structural and systemic inequality while also providing a sense of agency to act on these injustices.
What are the defining characteristics of this curriculum wave? First, and perhaps most importantly, education for post-experientialists is not seen as a neutral process. Drawing from the theoretical work in critical and feminist pedagogy as well as post-colonial theory, education and the process of schooling both function to legitimate systems of domination and reproduce current structural inequalities (Bourdieu 1993; Hooks 1994; Hill-Collins 2000; Apple 2001). Thus any educational process (including experiential ones) are immediately viewed with suspicion and a critical eye to examine the ways in which experience can be employed for hegemonic purposes. Bell Hooks (the author refers to herself as bell hooks) details this perspective in her chapter “Essentialism and Experience” in Teaching to Transgress. Hooks argues that many in the academy ignore that “…the very discursive practices that allow for the assertion of ‘the authority of experience’ have already been determined by a politics of race, sex, and class domination” (81). For a post-experientialist, assuming that an experiential curriculum will automatically further “democratic” aims is naïve and dangerous. Without a conscious effort, experience-based education is just as likely (and perhaps, in some ways more likely) to reproduce and legitimate systems of domination than any other curricular approach. Indeed, experiential education, done poorly, is perhaps more likely to do so. Freire makes this point when he refers to the dialogical teacher in Pedagogy of Transformation, “…dialogical experience which is not based in seriousness, in competency, is much worse than a banking experience where the teacher merely transfers knowledge (80, emphasis in text).
This leads to a second defining characteristic of the post-experiential wave- that of the deliberate use of experience in educational processes for counter-hegemonic aims. It can be argued that to this point, the track record of experiential education curriculum has been quite poor in relation to issues of race, gender, and other constructions of individual and social identity. Indeed, the prevalence of a term such as “hoods in the woods” is indicative of the racialized nature of the curriculum. Within the neo-experientialist wave in particular, historically marginalized groups have predominantly been the receivers of curriculum and have not been involved in the active construction of curriculum. Yet, rather than simply dismissing the use of experiential education as inherently “bad,” post-experientialists work with the racialized, gendered, and class-based nature of lived experience in order to move toward a more liberatory pedagogy. Thus, experience becomes both politicized and “lived” within this curricular tradition. Patricia Hill Collins (2000), in her work Black Feminist Thought provides a particularly salient example of this curricular construction.
…[M]any Black women have had access to another epistemology that encompasses standards for assessing the truth that are widely accepted among African-American women. An experiential, material base underlies a Black feminist epistemology, namely, collective experiences and accompanying worldviews that U.S. Black women sustained based on our particular history (256).
It is this history that constitutes what Collins calls “lived experience”- a unique, contextualized worldview that influences Black feminist thought and practice. This construction of experience highlights several salient features. First, it redefines the role of the “expert.” To African-American women, the expert becomes someone who has literally, “lived through it.” “For most African-American women those individuals who have lived through experiences about which they claim to be experts are more believable and credible than those who have merely read or thought about such experiences”(257). Second, lived experience is often laden with meaning through the use of symbolic and practical images. She quotes the famous early black feminist Sojourner Truth as evidence of the use of symbolic imagery infusing this experiential epistemology. “Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a women?” (258). While other experiential theoretical waves have referred to a mind-body connection, we see here, in Collins construction of experience, a connection that goes beyond “learning by doing” to a form of advocacy and activism through living. Experience here is strongly activist and becomes something to draw from again and again- either in the form of resistance to oppression or as a means of emancipatory story-telling. In this way, post-experiential curriculum theory politicizes experience. It first deconstructs its assumed neutrality and then seeks to employ it toward acts of resistance and liberation.
Finally, the research agenda within post-experiential curriculum theory seeks to expand the boundaries of acceptable research while questioning the ways in which certain epistemological traditions are privileged and silenced. Sharply critical of the current “scientifically validated research” discourse in education, theorists within this wave worry about the disciplinary power of positivism and post-positivism within experiential pedagogy (Roberts 2006). While not dismissive of quantitative research, the post-experiential research agenda involves a renewed interest in philosophical explorations (Itin 1999) as well as more situated theoretical work (Brooks 2003; Seaman 2005).
Despite its many positive attributes, post-experientialist curricular theory has several unresolved problems. As is true in most of current social theory and philosophy, post-experientialism struggles to move beyond “deconstruction” to “reconstruction.” That is, with its critical emphasis, the theoretical stance is somewhat of a burning platform, requiring constant shifting and lacking reliance of firm foundations. This makes it difficult to translate theory to practice as Breunig recently noted (2005). In addition, as most of post-experientialism involves significant critique of current structural and systemic inequalities, it becomes difficult to envision implementation in the current educational atmosphere. As Freire wrote, “It would be tremendously naïve to ask the ruling class in power to put into practice a kind of education which can work against it” (36). If experiential education is currently marginalized by the dominant modes of educational practice in schools today as most acknowledge that it is, what possible worth would there be in emphasizing its counter-hegemonic power? How can one see experiential education as the practice of freedom (Hooks 1995) if it operates solely from the stance of resistance and revolution ? Lastly, as it is the most recent of the experientialist waves in curriculum theory, its research stance and agenda is still underdeveloped. Because it is still in its formative stages, post-experiential curriculum theory has yet to form a coherent theoretical voice. Indeed, as part of the defining characteristics is its use of a plurality of voices and perspectives, post-experientialism may never reach the kind of cohesion of experiential or neo-experiential curricular thought. This leaves it open to caricature on one hand and attacks of over-intellectualization on the other. Nonetheless, important research questions have emerged out of this curricular theory. What are the consequences of politicizing experience? What impact does historical position (whether privileged or subjugated) have on one’s ability to value the role of experience in knowledge acquisition and transmission? How concerned should we be about the predominance of the positivist paradigm on research and theory within the experiential field? Should experiential work have a much stronger activist and social justice angle? How is “experience” being framed, employed, evoked, and utilized? Who are the receivers of experiential education and who are the producers? How do we theorize power relations in experiential education? This line of questioning can both deepen and broaden experiential research in curriculum theory.
My aim here was not necessarily to lay out a neat and clean evolutionary perspective of curriculum theorizing in experiential education. Indeed, as I have tried to emphasize, while there is some historicity to each of these “traditions,” all three types remain active and alive today (this is why I refer to them as waves here as opposed to stages). Rather, what I hoped to do was open up curriculum theorizing on experience. Clearly, we must reject monolithic constructions of experience and experiential theory and see things as much more complex than they have been heretofore. This parallels recent work in philosophy and social theory which has rejected any notion of a “grand unifying theory” choosing instead to emphasize the ways in which knowledge and power relations are contested and constructed. I have laid out three ideal types: experientialist, neo-experientialist, and post-experientialist curricular theory in an attempt to reveal the ways in which “experience” is both a constructed and contested word that is associated with larger discourses in education, philosophy, and social theory. While I have my own biases, I strongly believe that each of these waves are insufficient in and of themselves. Each tackle particular curricular problems and agendas. This isn’t to say that everything is relative or that there is no point in making distinctions. Each has significant limitations and discerning best courses of action require careful consideration of the purposes of schooling and education. This is, at heart, a philosophical query and one that has not been sufficiently explored in the field. As Gee notes:
So, in the end, it’s really about goals we as a society are interested in and the track record of various theories of various domains in meeting them. So who decides what goals we ought to be interested and invested in? That is, by and large, and rightly so, a social and ‘‘political’’ question that ought to be debated thoroughly in the public sphere… At the same time, educators and policy makers on all sides of the political fence have spent too little time engaged in rigorous inspection of the theories that give research results and the research that produced them meaning in the first place (2005, 18).
There are some distinct advantages to this type of work. It will likely yield a more inclusive and diverse intellectual ancestry as the connections between experiential traditions move beyond the current “dead white male” genealogy. It will also open up space for alliances across disparate strands of progressivism. This sort of coalition building is considered crucial for progressive educational reform (Apple 2001; Carlson 2003). More theoretical and philosophical work can strengthen connections to parallel curricular theories including environmental education, service learning, outdoor education, place-based learning, and brain-based learning to name just a few. It will also create the opportunity to discuss more forcefully the role experiential education has within the current school reform zeitgeist and the role it could and should play in the future. We should not shy away from questions, and particularly not critical ones. Nietzsche once said that a great truth wants to be criticized, not idolized. For those that believe in the transformative power of experience in the curriculum, there is important work yet to be done.
Association of Experiential Education website (n.d.). Retrieved September 10th, 2004, from http://www.aee.org.
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