It’s the first day of class. Casual chatter pings around the classroom as students remove spiral notebooks and paperback textbooks from backpacks that spent the previous four weeks happily stowed in closets or bedroom corners. The light atmosphere betrays what the evening (for it is an evening class at a university) has in store. Smiling salutations give way to class business. Rather than delivering information in the lecture format that typifies first class meeting procedure, the professor suggests that the students peruse the required assignments and discuss them with a partner in order to better grasp the tasks at hand.
Not brimming, but with a certain degree of confidence after having made it through the rigors of a summer session, I, like all the others, sit at a computer and dive into the “assignments” portion of the syllabus.
Suddenly, my pulse quickens; breathing becomes slightly irregular. An almost imperceptible layer of frost-sweat gathers on my brow. I feel feverish: simultaneously hot and cold. “A semester plan,” I mumble to myself, trailing off as I scroll through pages of dues dates, requirements, and expectations.
Heeding the professor’s admonition, I take a few deep breaths and try to relax.
The preceding is an honest depiction of my emotional state at the beginning of the semester. “Overwhelmed” and “in over my head” are just a couple of ways to sum up what I was going through. Without being able to connect and anchor the semester plan assignment to much outside of the classroom, I felt lost and afraid. Much of the terminology was familiar but lacked meaning because I did not yet have the experience to supply substantial “meat” to the work.
That disconnect between experience and classwork, however, ended up solidifying the concept of transfer in an educational context. Already comfortable with the notion that true understanding hinges on a student’s ability to transfer skills and knowledge from the classroom to the world at large, I thought I had a good grasp on the concept. What is obvious to me now, though, is the multi directional nature of transfer. I had been so focused on the perspective of students applying their learning elsewhere that I failed to think about how experiences outside of the classroom inform and strengthen lessons. It is that notion of “experiential, inductive, hands-on learning” that Harvey and Bizar address as a critical component of Best Practice in teaching (3). In the first chapter of their book, Methods That Matter, Harvey offers a brief account of a day that he and his daughter spent on Lake Michigan. He discusses the merits of firsthand experience in the context of an ecology and biology lesson aboard a boat. The environment allowed for tangible application of learning and immediate transfer of knowledge, resulting in a lasting and moving experience.
Experience, then, is integral to anchor learning and imbue it with meaning. It was that anchor that I lacked on the first day of class and caused me so much apprehension. Now, after being in a middle school and gaining the experience of real-world lesson planning, I feel less terrified about the assignment. My coursework will undoubtedly gain meaning and purchase as I apply my learning to the field, but the reverse is also true: My experience (though limited) is already impacting my coursework and thought processes.