Skip to main content

Why Intention, Integration, and Reflection are Critical to Learning through Experience

Dr. Todd Peterson's speech at the 2019 Experiential Learning Summit

Dr. Todd Peterson


I brought my caffeine in a plain brown wrapper, based on my experience teaching at a fellowship here in 1999, and then I learned that you don’t have to anymore. Do we thank President Uchtdorf for that? Is that how this works? I can’t remember.

John and everyone, thank you for the introduction. Looks pretty good when you line it all up and take all the failure out from the years that that happens, as my mother used to say: It kind of cleans up nice! I’m really excited to be up here today to talk to you about experiential learning, some things that I’ve seen in about a decade’s worth of trying to work on a campus wide initiative at Southern Utah University, and being in transition myself. I’m also very excited because gloves are off! I get paid by the state and I don’t get to say some church stuff in my administrative role or faculty role, but I’m going talk about all of it today. Nephi, Brother of Jared, all of that. But also because it’s good rhetorical practice to state some ethos things.

I am a recently released first counselor in a young men’s presidency. Thank you! And Three-time Elder’s Quorum President, but most recently this, but I think, you know, its very important (I think you know where I am going with this) the announcements that have been made over the last few months, and most recently on Sunday with the face to face meeting indicates that experiential learning, such that it is, is a very, very big and important thing. Not just for BYU, but in general, at this moment in time, and particularly because the change in this program was indicated, by Elder Ballard, to be something that we’re doing for this generation in particular. So it feels really great, I think, to be part of something professionally that feels like its part of how the universe is intended to be rolling for at this point, and so I’ll be speaking at various point about that, and not simply about Japan.

So the program that I worked on with a number of colleagues, student support individuals to develop at Southern Utah University was called the EDGE Program. We used to call it the Experiential Learning Program until we all decided in one meeting that we didn’t like names that were so obvious and literal, and so we went with metaphorical branding, and we wanted edge to represent all kinds of secret things. My secret goal was I knew a center was going to be following and I wanted, in my academic career, to have created something called the “Edge Center”, and I got that wish, and now I can step back.

And in a nutshell what it was that we realized, from everything President Worthen had said, that the high impact practices data was so compelling that we needed to not leave it to “happenstance”.

That there was something so important, and Koos research actually indicates something as well, that under-represented students are the ones who benefit the most from High Impact Practices, and often they’re the least likely to avail themselves of “extras”. Extracurriculars, extra costs and etcetera, and so for us, and I know this was kind of a loaded term, but it was a social justice issue to look at doing a campus-wide program which is why we asked every student to be involved in experiential learning opportunity “of their own design”. Which, of course for those of you who follow the program for children and youth, see that that’s one of the central features, and that’s why we feel very particularly dialed in. “Of their own design”, as opposed to just showing up and having to choose form a menu, which is what so much of education is, right? Here’s the thing you can pick. “Oh I pick a major.” If you want to design your own major people are like: What? You’re crazy! That’s not gonna be anything, you have to pick something that’s been prepared for you! So education, by and large, is off the rack. We wanted to have some aspect of education where we see cede some territory back to the students and say: show us what you got, folks! And that was the edge program that we did.

We divided it into five different areas that were large scale gatherings like “community-engagement, out-door engagement because of where we’re located, creativity and entrepreneurship on and on and on and on. We are in a period of transition now, because we started this program centrally located because it's pretty difficult to launch something distributed across a whole entire campus. Isn’t that correct Dave?

It has its own challenges that we brought people together with this idea that this would be an experiential learning program that was kind of in the larval stage, knowing that it would go into a concert and emerge ad something else later, and so we kept one thing, which is that the program would be student initiated and faculty supported, and that’s been our model. It’s very similar to the one that we’ve been hearing lately about a program that is home centered but church support.

That same kind of syntactical structure that I think it's good for keeping ideas about what was going on. What does it mean to have something be student initiated, and faculty supported? In fact it's an inversion of the normal role, right friends? And I'll tell you what, that’s pretty hard to accept a different role. I have 17-year-old and I'm preparing myself to be in an inverted role within the year. Those of you who’ve crossed that threshold, hats off to you as well, but these are all the kinds of things that we have to find ourselves in. How do we move to where the activities my daughter will be daughter initiated and father supported?

So, our model in our heads was that we needed some kind of program that would function like the booster rocket of yore, right? It took a lot of fuel and energy to burn to get something high enough away from the gravity, organizational gravity and inertia to get us up into orbit with a new program where we could go, and then we knew that the program was going to have to like break off and burn up into the atmosphere, and we are currently in that situation right now where our centrally located program is now distributed.

We’re in the process of being distributed, and so all of energy that was focused on a single program is now returning to departments to say. We’ve had nine to ten years to learn how it works, to follow the students through their paths. To see what they would do to centralize the assessments and so forth. But we also had something unexpected. When we began this program our University had approximately 6000 people in it, and now our university has approximately 11,000 people in it, and they didn’t double the resources.

And so the question was: how do we distribute the load back across the university so we could use the economies of scale discussion to get things going. So we are we are right in the middle of that, and I find myself as someone who had previously been at that center has now been distributed out to the English department so that I can continue to do my work as an experiential educator back in my little neighborhood, and how to make that work and as I explained in the tables this morning, that can be difficult. When you have administrative role and you're talking about pedagogical abstraction, it is so easy to say “you should do this and you should do that” and “the research says and the research says” I’m in the process of using my sabbatical map to redesign the courses that I teach and try not to be a pain to my family, to myself, to my colleagues as I go back into screen aesthetics, writing about film, contemporary fiction for creative writers and say how do I do this book heavy stuff and still think about myself as an experiential educator. I think it’s going to do a lot for me as an individual to figure out if this is where the hard line lies, and this is where my colleagues will be, trying to figure out how they too will be taking these concepts and ideas and putting them into practice in their own spheres.

So, definitions are important. Even if we disagree about them. John Bennion put out this morning some things that I think are really useful, which is the definition is there, you can disagree with that but for the purposes of today what we don't have to get into a shouting match unless you want to. But experience is a troubling word. I found this first when I started working with our veterans population, coming in and saying “we have an experiential learning requirement” and they look me in the eye and said “I just got back from Afghanistan, Iraq, what do you have to tell me about experience?” And I said “nothing”

So I found that that word is troubling, because it presupposes that we're saying “we’re doing experiential learning” and many students were saying “do you think I have had no experience?” At the very least that's rude, but at the very most it's everybody kind of not understanding what that word means or understanding what experiential learning means.

The French have it so much easier because their words all sound the same. I’m kidding, don’t tell anybody, but many of them sound the same and it's very difficult to recognize the subtle shadings between differences. I’m thinking of this because I study critical theory. Difference and différence, this is something we’ve talked about, to no end in graduate school, but we didn’t have the time or the energy to talk about the difference between experience and experiential, because it was a suggestion that was at play. So for awhile we just shifted terms till we found something that worked.

I ended up being the director of project-based because we said “ hey all these experiences are organizing into projects, this is a little bit easier to talk about if we say everybody's going do a project, something that isn't part of the operations of their major, but something they’re going to do as a finite thing. Project language straight from the project management text box, of something that has a beginning a middle an end. It has outcomes and deliverables and all the other stuff that’s professionalization. Many students never hear that kind of stuff until their first day at work, and we wanted to just reframe it that way, but when we put our Edge Center together—see how much fun it is to say—we put this Elvis Heckley quote on the door, so that everyone coming in and leaving could have that understanding, which was a fundamental, philosophical, epistemological framework: Experience is not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you. And I felt like that. at least if people would read that and think about that and this could be a touchstone, would be important.

Now there’s a corollary to this, also from Elvis Huxley, which is: experience only teaches the teachable. I’m just going to let that soak in a little bit. John talked about, what was it that your father-in-law said?

John Bennion: Experience is the best teacher, but only a fool can’t learn any other way.

… but only a fool can’t learn any other way. And so a story I told him in my workshop was about a dog I had that kept eating bees, and you’d think that if experience was a really good teacher that the dog would eat one bee and then not eat any more bees, but the dog, being as the dog is, was not a reflective animal, he didn't go to his journal and say today: today, ate a bee, do not repeat. And so the do was doomed in Sisyphean fashion, to eat bees over and over again. Because each time they seemed like a thing to eat, and they really do! I mean they look like little candies, and I think that this is an important thing, we don't learn from experience, we’ve got to have this other kind of thing. To be teachable, I believe, is to be reflective.

Let me make a turn here a little bit. President Worthen this morning talked about this celestial skill set, and I think that that’s important, to realize that inside of education, that this is the utility of education is to build sons and daughters of heavenly parents, and that there’s a model to, you know, have a body to come and have experiences with it and so forth, but even then one of the things that isn't mentioned is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot and do not get to say in my own environment, I believe experiential learning is Atonement-based.

Because as I was trying to explain this to my own children they say “how do you atone, how do you repent, how does this even work?” and I said “well first off you have to think about what you did” oh wait a minute and I felt myself split into two. And in that moment I was a father talking to a child and I was also a teacher trying to say: Oh, I get this now! You can't repent if you aren't even aware of what's going on, and so the first steps is reflective. It’s pondering. Something happened, I have to think about that, I have to get help, I have to fold what I have learned into my new behavior. That is the Kolb cycle, and so I feel like this kind of learning is not just good educational practice, it is good life practice, and if we are doing anything as a university, if we can agree on anything, right, it’s that we’re helping people create themselves we agree on that is that fair because we should be creating the people create themselves. Can we agree on that? Is that fair? Because we shouldn’t be creating the people, there’s agency involved, there should be. But we’re helping them achieve something important, and if we can find ourselves in that space what can we do to help them do that it's we have got to teach them that cycle.

You plan something because you want to achieve something, you execute that thing then, you reflect, while you're doing it or afterwards or both ideally, and then you have plans for the next time around. Here’s what I will do next, and if you're doing that then you should be going up the stairway to heaven. I did want to mention Led Zeppelin while I was here at BYU. So my recipe for experiential learning, you will read all kinds of things, and people will tell you all kinds of things, but I think for my own thinking I boiled it down to four things that I think has to be present for something to be experiential learning. We’ll talk a little bit in a minute about things that aren't even experience of learning at all, but are still good.

Intentionality. That’s come up a lot, right? You got to go into it meaning to do something.

Authenticity. It needs to be like real and kind of not the classroom. Classrooms are great but there are these other spaces. We need to put people into that.

Reflection. And then this comes up a lot.

Risk of Failure. I don't think it's legitimate experiential learning if nobody can screw up.

Now think, for a minute, about the celestial skills, right? Plan of Salvation had risk of failure, not as a bug, as somebody has said, but as a feature. It's important. So, when I was working out these ideas in my mind, my youngest son Maxwell (yes, named after Neal A.) was a fan of the Cars movie, and he watched it incessantly over and over and over again. So, while I was putting together the program and doing work, I had this running in the background and I realized oh wait a minute cars is perfect. If we're gonna talk about intentionality, Lightening McQueen didn't go to radiator Springs because he said “I am only a moderately good racer and I need to become a better racer, so I will go to radiator Springs and I will screw up and be put to work, and then learn the humility that's necessary to become a top racer.” All those things happen to him, right, but without intentionality. He got lost, and ended up in radiator Springs. He screwed up and messed up the road, and then he got put to work, and then the rest of the movie happen and that is how life happens for most of us, but experiential learning does this a little differently.

From the onset, everybody needs to know that you’re going in to achieve something. Even if that's not a thing that happens when you're done, and it's often the case, right? “The best laid plans of Mice and Men.” I always go into something with an idea what's going happen and I always come out of it having done something else, but it’s OK. You start with a plan, you end up with a different plan. Authenticity.

My students freak out when I say that I've never read Harry Potter, and it's true I haven’t, and I said “hey when I really needed the story of a school for gifted people to learn how to use their powers to defeat evil, I just was reading X-Men comic books I didn't need that story all again but Harry Potters good for you.” But in the X-Men universe, Professor X, in his house where he was teaching gifted children, had a thing called The Danger Room. Any nerds in the room know it? The Danger Room? Nice! You’re with me on this! It was a simulation room, and Professor X would say “you need to learn to use your powers on these things that may come out there”, but danger room training is not the only thing they could do. Danger room training gotten ready, but they eventually had to leave the danger room, leave Professor X’s mansion and go out and do things in the world.

And I think that authenticity is key. Classrooms are great. They’ve been in them for a really long time. Eventually they've got to go out into the world. Even if it is lone and dreary. Reflection. I couldn't find any good brooding pictures, so I thought I would go with Batman. Not for any reason other than I liked Batman in a turtleneck. The reflection piece of something we talked about a lot today, and that’s the key to the experiential learning recipe. If you just experienced things and then you move onto other things to experience, and it is experience, experience, experience, experience with no reflection, you’re losing out. It is that reflective aspect that really makes it what it is.

We were lucky enough, a few years ago, to have a neuroscience researcher, Mary Helen Immodino Yang come and speak to us, and one of the areas of research is to talk about the emotions and learning, and what she talked to us about actually with learn anything until you process it into your emotional centers of your brain, and you do that by creating meaning, and so when people go “hard skills, soft skills, oh reflection, that’s all just limp, terrible stuff.” No! According to Mary Helen Immordino Yang, which I will say over and over again because it's the greatest name on the planet, you have to create situations for your students to create meaning with the things that they've done, so they can connect with their emotions so that they will remember it. Otherwise it just isn't working memory and then that gets dumped, and to sort of make that stuff stick around, the reflection is key!

So, risk of failure. I’ll just let this one go. It’s the time, right? You've got to have…the way to achieve authenticity and experiential learning is if this thing may not go as planned. Then what are you going do? How are you going train students, equip students to be ready for things when they do not go as planned, and I have to admit, and I don't remember his name, but I caught this from the president of Dartmouth when he was initiating their experiential learning, he said “whatever you do, if there's no risk of failure, I don’t feel like it's legit” and I completely support him, and as someone who is neither your supervisor nor you're college I can say that.

So, maybe it's easier to talk about what experiential learning isn’t. It's not active learning. Active learning is amazing and in conversations with colleagues I found a set of having a difficulty of being a booster in a cheerleader for experiential learning, and then running the risk of maybe downplaying some of the things that they’re doing that are active learning, that are awesome, but not experiential learning specifically. President Worthen I think it gets this, so you've got that going.

It’s a subset. It’s one pedagogy among many, and we should probably try to use as many tools as we can. So, experiential learning is something, I think, that’s not in the classroom. Classrooms are fine, but more of the world is covered with non-classrooms, then it is covered with classrooms. So please don't make the world your classroom, that’s bringing the world down. I think that we should have multiple spaces in which we are teaching and exploring. It's not reading, but remember, I’m a novelist, I love reading. I'm not trying to throw shade on it, but it's a way of using reading. It’s a way of verifying the truth of material that you've read and learn and in another context. When you take it out into the world and say “let me see if this is true.” Experiential learning isn’t memorizing information for later use, that’s really the educational model. The traditional one, right? You got to learn this math now if you ever want to make video games. A good friend, Jeffery Lieberman, he, for years, used to do that show where they would do the time lapse. No, what is it? The high speed photography. Oh, Jeff’s going be so mad, I can't remember what his television show was, anyway Jeff talked to me a lot about how you can teach Calculus and then ask people to go build a robot, but then he said “why don’t you say ‘build a robot’ and then you’ll be surprised at how quickly they learn the calculus that they need.”

But for some reason we decided to do this as if we are building our food storage, right? Let’s learn a bunch of things and put them in the basement, because one day we’ll need it. You got to keep that stuff rotating. That’s your spiritual lesson for today. It’s not just doing activities, so what else is it not? That’s a rhetorical question for you to think about. This is the chief justice of the supreme court who said, about pornography, he couldn’t define it, Potter Stewart, but he’d know it when he saw it. I think that's what experience learning is for a lot of us. We’ll know it when we see it, and so I just wanted to kind of leave with this. This is an educational experience. Anyone? Anyone? And so we have to be careful with kind of talk about the terms that are in play.

The very last thing I want say before we're all done here is that as you're thinking about moving forward with this initiative, you’re all teachers, you want to do cool thing with your students, but if we think about the program for children and youth, here is something important that many of us were taught. To institute that program, we’re supposed to guide and not direct, and over and over again we’ve learned that we should be leading the youth lead. That’s going be really difficult for people isn't it? To step out of the way and let them do some stuff.

So I have a term that I want to leave you with. I haven’t trademark it yet, because Tolkien came up with it really. I’m borrowing it, but rather than say “don’t do something, step back” I want say, instead, you should be “Gandalfing”. You know how Gandalf did it right?

“I’m looking for someone to join me on an adventure.”

OK! And then he tells them the adventure and get them going, then he rides with them a little bit, and then the wizard is gone! And then he shows back up again, and they're like up a tree getting chased and he's like “Look! You’ve made such a mess of this!” I think that is the pedagogical apex. To step away and to know when to return, because we got in one of my stake trainings to get ready for this youth initiative, and as we've seen over and over again, when you’re there they will look to you, and they won’t be as awesome as they could be, but if you can learn to disappear like Gandalf , at just the right moment, because remember (this is in the movie and it's not in the book) and they're like “a wizard is never late, nor early” says Gandalf “he arrives exactly when he means to.” So what you cultivate in yourself is that sense. When can you disappear, and then spy on them from a distance? And then show up when their truck is in a ditch, when they’ve screwed up, when all the proteins are destroyed, and then you're there to help them sort through it. That, my friends and colleagues, is experiential learning.

Thanks. I tried to end this so that there would be time for questions, so you can ask me anything. Anyone? Something DOO Economics?

This takes a lot of time. How can we manage it?

John Bennion: I asked this at the end of our session but …..time…how…. [too quiet to hear]

John asked: Experiential Learning takes time.

I would say correct, with one provision. Good experiential learning takes time bad experiential learning is usually fawned off to somebody else.

Come at me on the internet if you want to. So, how do you solve this problem? How do you solve this time problem? And I'm like: but that is the problem with everything. One of the things I think Gandalfing can help solve that problem. Those of you who know the story, right? Gandalf wasn’t like “Alright! Let me check my Instagram” when he was away. He had some other things he had to do. He had to transform himself into something else, he had to go check on some things, he was going across the kingdom attending other duties, and I think that there’s something to that. I mean, you’ve got to trust the metaphor for as long as it can go, but I think that that’s something to consider. If you're saying that experiential learning means “I now have to do everything” I think you have that wrong. You send the forth, and they go out and they do something, and then they return and report, which is another important principle I think we all understand. You’re free to do some of the things you could be doing, but in this world this idea of multi-tasking, you know the research on this, don’t multitask. It just hurts you and other people, but you can modulate your attention, and we have got to get better at that.

I do think, though, that hearing your president talk about needing to think about that for, what do you all call? Rank and Status! Pomp and Circumstance. But for Rank and Status, to start building that in and start talking about “what this is going to mean?” As we all try, as Nibley said, “to seek the robes of the false priesthood,” we have to build that in to the reward system or the ideals are going to be undercut by the organizational structures themselves. This happens all the time, and by getting those things aligned I think you’ll find that if people feel safe to pursue these certain kinds of things, that’s one thing, but if they feel rewarded for doing so, that’s something else. The disciplines are going be in clamor over this, because the disciplines don’t like to change. Not really, because there’s something they gain from maintaining the status quo. So in some ways it’s working with the disciplines, working with the organization to affect these kinds of change. Now, that’s formal. Informally though, this is where I think everybody's free to act and be an agent unto themselves. Start doing the right thing.

Anyway. Be people of faith. If this is the right thing to do you’ll know. If you’re supposed to be inspiring leaders, and you’re not doing things with revelation or any of those other kinds of things, well then you don’t have the right gas for your model airplane anyway. So, I think that that’s a way to do that. Now that’s a glib answer because, of course, I’m not living in this environment. I’m a full professor somewhere else and I can just sit around and thumb my nails at everything and not care (no, I’m kidding), but I think that this is a real and important thing.

Go back to the idea of “how do you modulate your attention, how can you do one small thing to begin?” Don't change everything. Find one saying that you can do in this way and let it be small, let it be one assignment, one moment, one unit, one class, one student and see how it feels, and I think that's a better way to build institutional change. A person at a time.

Woman in the audience: Your institution has been doing this for a while. We’re kind of new at it. Is there something you can see as being the next step for BYU? Where we are, where we need to be?

What can BYU do to more support this kind of learning?

This is the most fun a question of all. I think, from listening to people talk the thing for BYU to do is to come together. Right now, over me. No, I’m kidding.

And this doesn't mean all are at odds against one another. What you are, though, is serving different masters, and if you can find this one common thing that you can push forward on together, I think that will be the way to do this. The idea of celestial skills or inspiring learning, if that can be the thing, the lens that you can focus your energy through, I think that's where it's going to be, because what I've seen already today, the most amazing things happen when people from different disciplines sit down at a table and start talking, and then ideas happen. It’s just pop, pop, pop, like popcorn. It’s really cool, so if you can start figuring out ways, because everybody goes “we need to get rid of the silos” and I this is my answer, it’s glib but it's true: leave your silo. That's how you start. Leave your silo, make new friends, but keep the old, because one is silver one and one is gold. I think maybe one more, and then cut it?

Dave’s worried that I'll quote more songs.

Man from audience: Your background is in literature. My background is in music. Experiential learning doesn’t just help students learn better but help build a better world. I see experiential learning being done by people in chemistry, engineering, and think “wow” they are making the world a better place. How can I—even though I have strong feelings about music makes the world better or literature makes the world better—add to this movement of experiential learning the idea that my discipline when used in this way will make the world a better place.

Glib answer, and then a real answer. Music already makes the world better, and I wish it got more credit for doing. My grandmother studies of Fontainebleau before World War II, and so this is in the DNA of my family. Nobody in my family questions how important music is, because Nana would rise from the grave and kill us if we suggested anything other than that, but the question is starting to think about where, and ask the students, and even yourselves, where do the people that they model their lives on, what do they do in the world? With their music. And how can they emulate what those people are doing, because it’s not simply playing music, right? It’s “how are they teaching and how are they bringing music out to the world and how do they talk to people during on the talk back sections that might be in a performance?” and the conservatory have been thinking about this, how can musicians think like entrepreneurs. I would turn your attention to Chronicles of Higher Ed, an article from a few years ago where deans from a number of PVA school say: we have to figure this out, because it's insufficient to just continue teaching music for its own sake. We have to start pushing the students to think “outward, outward, outward.” That’s a great article I think if you did experience learning and music and Chronicle in a search, you’d find it pretty easily.

But the real answer is because my Nana said it's important.

Thank you.