Skills or Experience

I was reading Roger Schank’s blog last week, and loved his free online courses post. There are a number of points that I found refreshing to read (it is good not to be alone), however, I wonder about his complete faith in experiential learning.

The reason I wonder about it has to do with my own experience. Fifteen (or so) years ago (once you have been doing this so long, everything was just a few years ago – even the 80’s) when the skills agenda was all the rage here in the UK, I was tasked to develop a skills programme. At the time they were key skills, and they were slowly transformed into employability skills. I don’t think anyone cared what they were called, they were all the same thing. It was one of the first times I found a real disillusionment in education (prior to that, I just got on in my own little world).

According to the skills agenda, we were to embed skills into the curriculum for the students to acquire. As I went to workshops, seminars, conferences etc. etc. etc., I found that this was almost universally done in one of two ways – require the students to give a talk as an assessment in a module, and you could tick off the oral communication skill (one off embedding), or, run a key skills module for all students in their first year, and they would have the necessary skills to succeed at university (and hence, life).

Both of these approaches are phoney, for entirely different reasons. Giving someone the experience of doing something (public speaking) does not constitute teaching, and skills are, by their very definition, something that you need to initially acquire at some baseline level, and then improve on over time. By the same token, having a single class in the first year that covers a wide range of key skills does not mean that you are skilled at anything, it means that you have begun acquiring a skill at some baseline level. My attitude toward skill development is that it is something that needs to be taught and then guided. It takes time and energy. Too many of the learning opportunities that focus on experiential learning fail to ensure that the students are properly skilled at a baseline level prior to being exposed to an experience that requires the use of that skill. There is too much reliance on problem based learning without adequate background preparation.

That is why I see experiential learning as a vital and necessary component of the educational future that focuses on skills. Teach the skills explicitly (at least the basics) and then guide learners through their experiential learning environments supporting and guiding them (reminding them of the skills they have begun to acquire) and incrementally withdrawing that support while they hone their skills in a safe learning environment.

I think the skills have to be the fundamental focus, and the experiences planned and implemented to strengthen and support the skill development process. Not a world away from Roger’s thinking, but a subtle enough difference to miss the point. A person is valuable to society for what they can do, not for what they have experienced.

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