Arts & Life

The Language of Experience: The role of the parent in learning

I would like to offer my most sincere apology in advance to the teachers of my children. My daughter begins her journey through public education this fall, as she will bravely cross the threshold into Kindergarten at our local French immersion school. I apology for my future pokiness, my second guessing, and my general over interest in her education. Perhaps this is a sick joke that karma is playing on me for all the frustration I have caused parents as a classroom teacher.

But what is my role as a parent when it comes to learning in schools? How do I best support my children and their teachers so that we are all facilitating learning throughout the entire day – not just within the confines of the walls of school? Over the past few weeks, as our family is gearing up for the inevitable foray into public education, I have given these questions a great deal of thought and have attempted to answer them based on my role as a teacher. What support do I need from parents? What has worked best when teachers, parents, and learners get together and form a partnership?

The answers, fundamentally, come down to the concept of experience. Often a nebulous term and one co-opted to serve a variety of needs and political outcomes, learning from experience is simply what we do all day. Through many experiences, we learn really important lessons, new skills, and new knowledge. Through other experiences, we learn some pretty negative stuff. When we write multiple choice tests, for example, many of us learn how to write multiple choice tests – perhaps not the intended outcome. Or sometimes we learn that cigarettes make us look pretty cool amongst peers.

So when we look at experience in schools and in learning, we want to focus on educative experiences – experiences that will lead to new experiences and intended and positive learning outcomes. As John Dewey suggested in the mid 20th century, “if an experience arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative,and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future, continuity works in a very different way.”  As such, educative experiences move us forward, transform us, and ultimately help cultivate and inspire curiosity.

Where do the parents fit into this understanding? From my experience as a humanities teacher of high school students, this often comes down to language in the form of authentic conversations between the learner and the parent, not necessarily as place-based education or phenomenology, but rather as language itself. Derrida suggested that experience is greatly dependant on language, even going so far as to suggest that “there is nothing outside of the text.” How this translates into the relationship between the learner and the parent can be powerful. Whether at the dinner table, in a vehicle, or in a waiting room, having parents and children discuss major, complex, and global issues in an authentic manner can greatly increase the understanding of the concept for the learner, and propel them to create new understandings.

For example, I often ask parents on Fridays to contemplate a key question or understanding we are discussing in the classroom with their kids. What I find is that the students come back with new perspectives that they have synthesized or more questions. Recently, I asked parents and learners to discuss various events and buildings that were related to the Winnipeg General Strike. Students were asked to create photo-mashups of buildings from 1919 and then take contemporary pictures and blend them together. They were then asked to explain the significance of that place. What seemed like a simple and possibly mundane acquiring activity, turned into, in one case, an amazing conversation between a student, a father, and a grandfather.

Here is a comment a father of a student sent me:

“He (the student) frequently asks for my opinion on topics you are covering, such as the Great Depression or the Winnipeg General Strike. Of the latter I knew very little so together we did some research online. Paul (the learner, whose name has been changed), found that the Volunteer Monument, now standing by the planetarium, stood in front of old City Hall and was there at the time of the Strike. In fact, it can be seen in the iconic photo of the mob trying to derail the street car…. The Volunteer Monument commemorated the Battle of Batoche….”

Paul subsequently came into class with not only more questions about the Strike, but about how people in Manitoba, the home of Louis Riel, valued the contributions of Canadian soldiers in the Métis resistance of 1885. This line of inquiry kept our learning community chugging for weeks – simply because of an authentic conversation beyond the classroom. He was also able to connect with his grandfather, who also became intrigued by the monument. Connecting with our elders and their wisdom seems to be a lost practice in the 21st century.

There is also brain research which suggests that language and experience are critical to transformation and positive learning. Dr. James Zull equates learning to the physical development of neurons and their connections to experience. As such, he suggests that learning has four stages:  “We have a Con­crete expe­ri­ence, we develop Reflec­tive Obser­va­tion and Con­nec­tions, we gen­er­ate Abstract hypoth­e­sis, and we then do Active test­ing of those hypothe­ses, and there­fore have a new Con­crete expe­ri­ence, and a new Learn­ing Cycle ensues.”

With this in mind, it is the conversation between parents and the learner that help students with the last two stages of the cycle. Learners, in a meaningful conversation with learned adults, can create their own interpretations of the world and then test these theories out. This is ultimately we have been making sense of the world for thousands of years – bouncing ideas off our elders. This, unto itself, is an experience that can move us and transform us. Educators need to provide parents and learners with the deep questions and the classroom experience that will launch this higher-order thinking at home. Educative experiences at school lead to educative experiences at home with the right language.

Upon reflection, this is how I can support my daughter’s learning and her teachers. I can facilitate and nurture the curiosity that will hopefully be generated at school and allow her to test her ideas on me. I can ask the teachers what driving questions they are posing and make the effort to have these conversations with my kids. My only hope is that I can keep up.


Matt Henderson is a Social Studies teacher at St. John’s-Ravenscourt in Winnipeg. He can be reached at @henderson204.