It has become fashionable today for most upcoming schools to brand themselves as progressive schools and they claim to promote, ‘student-led learning, collaborative learning, experiential learning, and learning by doing’- clichéd terms that have been around for centuries; much bandied but misunderstood. Progressivism in education, however, needs to be based on a Philosophy of liberalism that accepts the uniqueness of each individual and promotes respect for multiple perspectives.
An undeniable fact is that a lot of institutions that promote themselves under the banner of progressivism are in reality institutions that are based on a didactic philosophy meant to lead to a specific learning outcome and a single answer. One might argue, so truly, that there might not be any single solution to a problem, and there might, in fact, be, better solutions to the problem than the one prescribed by the textbook, or for that effect, the subject expert.
Progressivism in education can be a success only when the core philosophy is based on ‘experiential’ principles of learning. Experientialism, however, should not be confused with experimentalism (far be it that we should use learners as Guinea pigs). For experiential learning to be effective it is important to develop a culture of mutual respect, an atmosphere of tolerance and an environment of safety. Progressivism as such is not just about the use of latest technology, and the latest gadgets, rather it is about a culture conducive to learning by experience,
For progressivism to be a reality, learners need to be provided with an experientially rich environment, an environment that provides for a rich sensory experience. An experiential classroom will have suitable opportunities for students to explore their world and thus use their experiences to come up with suitable solutions to the problem. One of the key elements of experiential pedagogy is problem-solving. Ideally, the learner is presented with a problem and a list of principles to solve the same. An example in mind is the teaching of poetry. Poetry is open to a variety of interpretations, and any interpretation is valid and alright as long as it is supported by proof from the text or poem. It is surprising how students who are allowed to analyze the poem will come up with an interpretation that is quite accurate and correct, although correctness is a relative term.
Experiential learning has much to do with collaborative learning, and for this to be possible, it is important for students to sit in crews or groups. The ideal number of students in each crew or group would be four to five students. The downside of crew seating is however that the noise level might be a little high. Crew seating fosters brains storming, small group discussion, and learning through the Socratic dialogue.
The role of a teacher in a Progressive learning set up is that of a guide and a facilitator. He or she is not there to dictate or lecture answers to the learners. For this to be a possibility, the facilitator would need to undergo a period of training and unlearning where he learns to shed off his vulnerabilities, insecurities, and inhibitions about letting go of control of the class. The biggest factor that limits experiential learning is the facilitator’s own fear of losing control in the class. This might be because of a fear that the learner might come up with a better answer or an explanation. The facilitator will have to equip himself or herself for surprises in the learning situation, this includes having the patience and maturity not to react negatively towards some of the most outrageous of answers, and sometimes, the shock of realising that the learner has come up with a most original answer, one that is correct but never occurred to the facilitator.
Lesson plans prepared for an experiential lesson would require giving enough freedom and leeway for the learners to come up with their own solutions and observations. The challenge to experiential learning might, however, come from the way learners are assessed in the annual board exams. Unfortunately, students who are creative and think out of the box might not be able to score very well in the annual summative board exams. This is a challenge that needs to be given more attention, although the CBSE has made a few changes in the board question papers by introducing HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skill) questions that are based on the learner’s experiential learning skills. The framers of the CBSE Curriculum need to align the annual summative board exams with a more experiential learning pattern in schools.
While it is true that Progressive learning supported by an experiential culture ensures that the pedagogy is more student led, ideally to the ratio of 75 to 25 per cent, it doesn’t mean however that the facilitator is a mute spectator throughout! Experiential learner requires the facilitator to be more alert, and active in class than he would have been while sticking close to the green board. The experiential facilitator would have to be constantly on his feet, moving towards each group of learners, guiding, mentoring and observing the progress of the lesson. It is clear moreover that the experiential educator is more democratic and tolerant than the more traditional chalk and board, lecturer.
A few critics of experiential learning might argue about the need to conduct classes outside the classroom or the boundaries of the school. It is true that some of the well-known schools like Shantiniketan and Mirambika are experiential schools, they take their students out to learn new things, and this, however, need not be the rule for experiential learning. Educational technology can help reduce the need for expeditionary or out-bound learning by creating a virtual environment for a rich learning experience. Students who bring their own devices (BYOD) and have access to the internet can if guided carefully do their own research, visit virtual classrooms, and use the vast learning resources made available on the net. An expeditionary format of teaching and learning will not be a success unless there is proper planning for it. The ‘Big Idea’ of the lesson, along with the ‘Learning Outcomes’ need to be clearly stated to the students at the outset. The hook, the starter and the plenary at the end of the learning need to be clear in the mind of the educator. It goes without saying that every learning schedule is incomplete without the exit ticket or the plenary which sums up what has been learned during the lesson.
The detractors of the experiential form of pedagogy would have a field day in criticizing the pedagogy for leading to disruption, chaos, excess voice levels and too much of questioning, however, these issues can be done away with if the lesson is planned carefully. It is very difficult for learners to digress from the lesson when the learning outcomes are stated clearly to them, and the instructions are made clear. In many cases, a ‘note catcher’ with the relevant headings, or an ‘analysis kit’ should be given to the students so that they know what to do during the lesson.
Unfortunately, imposing a fixed lesson plan with no scope for digression or modification is highly detrimental to the experiential process of learning. What works well in one class might not work in another at all! Progressivism in pedagogy assumes that there will be enough flexibility in planning, though the learning outcomes are non-negotiable!
Progressive learning is about having students to come up with their own observations, interpretations, and conclusions through a learning process that is flexible, adaptive, and secure and healthy. The creation of a healthy and secure environment where both teachers and students adopt a non-judgmental attitude in class will go a long way in contributing to an effective learning environment. When students listen to their classmates without being sarcastic and critical, and teachers give each student the chance to express his or her views it contributes towards a more satisfying learning experience. If good teaching is about being able to fulfill one’s teaching targets, it is also about teachers learning from their students. Progressive schools promote active learning in their facilitators through workshops observations and other in-service programs. It is much more fun teaching in an experiential progressive school because teachers in this set up are as likely to learn new things and hear about new perspectives from their students as students are likely to learn from their mentors!