Sunday, July 01, 2007

On Experiential Learning, Student Failure, and the Ever Growing Prison Industry

This weekend I received the following e-mail:

Ms Matthews,

I had written to you in September 2006 and had bookmarked your blog to give
me a connection to what other teachers were experiencing. I agree with your
opinion: " Experiential learning is, by far, the most effective method, though
under-utilized within the walls of academia". In Texas, so many of the teachers
are teaching for the state mandated tests. How can experiential learning exist
in a classroom when the state is telling the student what it expects them to
learn? Is there a way to blend the two?

I guess the prison industry is more important than education in Texas as it
is in Ohio. Does it seem to you there are more failures than successes with the
Thanks for your time,



Great questions! In fact, this will be the next post on my blog which, once again has been neglected for too long.

Experiential learning strategies are more easily adapted in some curriculum subject areas than others. Because I teach Visual Art, I have the luxury of teaching in a subject area that does not require any mandated testing in the state of Ohio, and so I am not fettered in the way my colleagues are in the core curriculum areas. The Ohio state standards for the arts were written by fine arts teachers from across the state, and I must compliment the standards committee on their wisdom and common sense in the development of standards that not only allow but encourage creative and flexible lesson planning and a variety of methodologies.

But the fine arts folk have always seemed to march to a different drummer than our teaching brethren in the academics.

That is not to say that the core subject areas are lost causes if teachers would like to implement experiential learning methods. You all just need to step outside your comfort zones and take on the challenge.
Don't try to suddenly makeover the whole course as an experiential learning class. Start with small steps. Try one pilot lesson.

First, look at the material that needs to be covered before the state test, and pull out your curriculum map. Find one unit that might adapt to an experiential learning strategy and plan it carefully. Choose a unit that you would typically take one week to cover, and develop a lesson using whatever experiential learning methods you can adapt, and see how it goes. The key is in the planning. If you can work as a team with other teachers, either in the same department or cross curricular, the odds for success are even greater. Make sure you come up with an assessment tool that honestly evaluates student learning, as well as using sample questions from the state test that apply to that unit. Ask what worked and what didn't, and above all ask why. Next semester, or next year, try it again with the same unit, making whatever changes are needed, and perhaps even plan a second unit using experiential learning strategies.

My academic colleagues and I have, over the years, often discussed the pros and cons of state standards and "teaching to the test". It is my humble opinion, based upon observation, that the teachers who have always been the most creative in their lessons were the ones LEAST likely to complain about having to "teach to the test". The tests simply affirmed their students were learning the required material.
On the other hand, the teachers who complained the most were the ones who tended to religiously supplement their basic lessons with jumbles, crossword puzzles, word searches, and current events summaries.
The state tests required that actual teaching and learning were taking place during class time, as opposed to the "busy work" that gave the students the appearance of being "on task", yet no real learning was going on.

Good teaching requires a lot of planning. Creative teaching requires even more planning, as well as a whole new set of problem solving skills.

How is this for a challenge: What if you had to teach a unit without lecturing?
I would be willing to bet more than half of my teacher colleagues at the high school level would have no idea where to even start.

Are there more failures than successes with the students?

Whoa! Now that's a tough one.
I guess it all depends on how one wants to interpret the statistics.There are some groups who will tell you that the No Child Left Behind Act has improved American schools, however, what I see in Cleveland, Ohio tells a different story. We have an unacceptable drop-out rate (more than 40%) and an equally dismal number of students who failed the Ohio Graduation Test. Yes, sadly, I see a lot of failures.
What does the future hold for those young people we fail to educate?

Looking at the statistics, and noting the recent trends reported by the Department of Justice, they may very well find a future in the corrections industry.
75% of Ohio's prison population are high school drop-outs.

Your comment regarding the Prison Industry vs Education touched on a topic that inevitably raises my blood pressure. The correlation between failing schools and the booming corrections industry is irrefutable, yet conveniently ignored by both our politicians and the mainstream media.

The following is an excerpt from an article written by Nicole Colson, titled " Incarceration Nation"

"A Justice Department report released in December revealed that a
record 7 million people--one in every 32 adults in the U.S.--was either behind
bars, on probation or on parole at the end of 2005.
Though the U.S. has just
5 percent of the world’s population, it has an incredible 25 percent of the
world’s prison population--2.2 million people. Since 1970, the U.S.
incarceration rate has increased by 700 percent, and that number is still

“After a 700 percent increase in the U.S. prison
population between 1970 and 2005, you’d think the nation would finally have run
out of lawbreakers to put behind bars,” states a February report by the Pew
Charitable Trusts. Evidently not...

...The prison industry may
be bad for people, but it’s certainly good for business.
Private prison
companies operate in about three-quarters of U.S. states. According to a recent
CorpWatch report by Deepa Fernandes, the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation
of America (CCA), America’s largest private-prison operator, announced that
revenues had increased to almost $300 million for the second quarter of

According to Wikipedia: Today, non-governmental enterprises, in the form of publicly traded companies, operate 264 correctional facilities housing almost 99,000 adult offenders. Companies operating such facilities include the Corrections Corporation of America, the GEO Group, Inc, and Cornell Companies.
The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) website lists a capacity of 69,000 beds in 63 correctional facilities.The GEO Group operates 61 facilities with a capacity of 49,000 offender beds, while Cornell Companies has 79 facilities to service 19,226 adult and juvenile offenders in secure containment and community-based corrections.

US Department of Justice statistics show there are currently 199,356 federal inmates housed in 191 federal prisons at a cost of approximately $4,745,000,000 a year, or 13 million dollars per day.

The Ohio Dept. of Rehabilitation and Correction manages 45,854 inmates, operates 33 facilities, contracts with 2 private prisons, and has 13,938 employees. The agency's annual budget is over $1.6 billion.

By 2010, the number of American residents in prison or with prison experience is expected to jump to 7.7 million, or 3.4 percent of all adults, according to a 2003 US Department of Justice report.

The prison industry is booming. Profits are dependent upon the continuous increase in the numbers of persons who are incarcerated, and those numbers are comprised predominately of immigrants, the poor, and the uneducated.
Our educational failures are fueling prison profits and feeding corporate greed.

" You can't fix the public schools by throwing more money at them."

This is the mantra of many conservatives who are disgusted with the state of public schools in America, and have withdrawn their support. These are the same folks who promote "Zero Tolerance" policies and the lock-em-up mentality.
These philosophical mind-sets combined with the prison-building-as-economic-development strategies that are being adopted across the country, and the privatization of the corrections industry, add up to one rather frightening future.

In an era where profits consistently trump social good, can impoverished districts serving a demographic consisting mainly of minorities ever hope to get the support we need?


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