We Are All Educators

Originally published on hillel.org on 1/2/13.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the term “experiential education.” Dr. Gabe Goldman explained the concept as part of a program at the Western Hillel Organization conference. Goldman taught that all experiences have the potential to be educative. The educator can make the experience engaging and interactive by creating the right setting, and asking questions that encourage and empower students to construct their own ideas based on the experience. As Goldman, who is the Director of Experiential Education at American Jewish University, began to explain this concept, my first thought was, “My work has a name!” My second thought was, “I want to learn everything I can from this guy before the conference is over.” Imagine my thrill when I discovered that “Principles of Experiential Education” was on the course list for my HUC-JIR program. This was my chance to discover the language and theories that support the work we do at Hillel every day.

When I say “we,” I am not only referring to rabbis or Senior Jewish Educators. One of the most powerful concepts I have come to understand throughout this course is that program and engagement professionals truly are educators. When we staff an alternative break or a Taglit-Birthright Israel: Hillel trip and facilitate follow-through programs, when we hang out with students at a social barbecue, or when we take a freshman out for coffee, we are – or can be – doing the work of educators. Seeing programming and engagement in the context of some of the theories we learned in class has inspired me to seek teachable moments in each of those settings. You don’t have to have “educator” in your title to organize programming and leadership opportunities that inspire learners to grow, to ask questions, or to change their perspectives.

Each of the experiential education theories had plenty to offer, and in this post, I’m going to focus on two in particular. The first is a set of learning steps for an experiential model, developed by Stephan Carlson and Sue Maxa, in their article, “Pedagogy Applied to Nonformal Education.” Although this article was published in a journal dedicated to the 4H program, the concepts apply to experiential education in a much broader sense. According to Carlson and Maxa, “Experiential learning requires both active cooperation of the learner and guidance from the leader…Experiences lead to learning if the individual understands what happened, sees the patterns of observation emerge, draws generalizations from these observations, and understands how to use the generalizations again in a new situation.”

Through the experiential model, learners:

  1. Do the activity (before being told or shown how)
  2. Share results and observations
  3. Process – analyze and reflect on the experience
  4. Generalize – relate the experience to a real-world example
  5. Apply – use what was learned in a similar of different situation.

Carlson and Maxa emphasize the importance of questioning in the process and generalizing steps. This is where a Hillel professional can facilitate meaningful discussion by asking questions that make the experience educational.

I also found Joseph Reimer and David Bryfman’s chapter in What We Now Know About Jewish Education to be particularly helpful in a Hillel context. Reimer and Bryfman state that, “experiential Jewish learning involves three distinct initiatives, each with its own set of goals: recreation, socialization, and challenge.” In recreation, they explain, “experiential Jewish education aims to provide its participants with social comfort, fun and belonging in a Jewish context.” Socialization “aims to provide the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to be an active member of the Jewish community.” Jewish educators also “aim to encourage participants to undertake the challenge of stretching themselves and growing towards a more complex participation in one’s Jewish life.” In short, experiential Jewish education programs should be fun and enjoyable, should encourage connection to Judaism and Jewish identity, and should challenge learners to get outside their comfort zones, “so they feel they are on a Jewish journey and not simply a member of a Jewish club.”

I can imagine that for some Hillel professionals, these theories may feel superfluous: “I already program this way intuitively; why should I name the process?” I propose that shared educational language provides us with a better way to communicate and learn from each other, and to learn from educators outside of Hillel.

At Hillel at Stanford, I enjoy using these and other theories to evaluate and to set educational goals for programs and engagement. I have Carlson and Maxa’s chart and Reimer and Bryfman’s initiatives tacked to my bulletin board so I remember to ask myself the right questions:

  • Does this reflection activity involve opportunities for generalization, so students connect the experience to the rest of their lives?
  • Does this experience offer enough balance between recreation, socialization, and challenge?
  • Do my questions invite students to construct their own learning?

Drawing on these resources, Hillel professionals can learn to seek and employ the teachable moments in each experience, whether it’s an alternative break orientation, a barbecue, or a coffee date. We are all educators; we just have to recognize the opportunities to educate.


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