Technique vs Experience

If you’ve read my latest blog post, this has been a rough week for my husband and me. In response, my awesome brother, Mick, impulsively drove eight hours from Indiana on Saturday to lift our spirits for the week. That night, we were sitting on our balcony talking about life, philosophy, and perspective. Mick, an accomplished drummer and bassist (among a hundred other things—he’s like a funky King Midas), posed the question of how important technique is to achieving musical proficiency.

“For example,” Mick says, “I never learned to use a pick to strum multiple strings at once on my bass guitar. I have always used my fingernails. Any formally trained bassist or teacher would chastise me for this, but it was easier for me. I came to enjoy the cleaner, natural sound and appreciate this abnormality in my style. After I had been using my fingernails for years, I read an interview with Les Claypool, probably one of the most unconventional and talented bass players of all time. He, too, has always used his fingernails instead of a pick. When I read this, I felt vindicated. It gave me new perspective on musicality.”

This idea made me ponder how we educate our students in the classroom. Many English teachers feel the best way to assess students’ comprehension of a literary work is to focus on technique–evaluating students’ understanding of the author’s use of symbolism and other literary concepts. This is almost always done through tests and worksheets.

What about the unconventional students like Mick who don’t fit in our predetermined learning molds? How do we keep them from slipping through the cracks of learning while still teaching them the fundamentals of literacy?

Answer: We value experience.

Ponder these two questions:

What if our formative assessments focused less on technique and more on personal meaning?

Secondly, what if our summative assessments were less rigid and and more versatile so that students of all styles and preferences could express their knowledge in creative, meaningful ways?

I’m not saying things like symbolism, theme or motif aren’t important; rather, I’m saying they’re not the only things that make text meaningful. Experiencing literature is a vitally significant aspect of learning that we often overlook when evaluating our students’ learning.

Here are 3 suggestions on how we can we foster student learning through experience:

  1. Make formative assessments personal.
    1. Give students options to discuss their initial experiences with the text. Find out how they made text-to-self and text-to-connection.
    2. Give students variety and autonomy to express these connections.
  2. Create opportunities for students to have meaningful interactions with their summative assignments.
    1. Incorporate projects that encourage students to create and produce in active, significant ways in place of tests and quizzes, which discourage the importance of meaningful connection. These interactions force students to create and produce content, thereby generating a cycle of experiencing and learning in ways that provide value and relevance both inside and outside the classroom.
  3. Use assessments to motivate and engage your students, not just to measure them.
    1. Summative assessments are chances for students to articulate their learning in creative, meaningful ways. Give them opportunities to do this in various ways that interest them and motivate them to want to continue learning, reading, and experiencing.

Be ok with a classroom full of Micks. They might not always use the technique you think they should to deconstruct text, but this doesn’t mean they’re not capable of understanding or producing extraordinary, meaningful content. Choose to see the value in personalized experience with literature. This is a vital part of learning that should be embraced and encouraged in our classrooms.

What are some ways you have encouraged your students to experience literature? What are ways you have made assessments meaningful?

Just for fun:

Here’s a photo of Mick, my sister-in-law Shauna, me, and my husband Josh at Waimea Canyon in Kauai.