Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Coming to Understand Experience: Dewey's Theory of Experience and Narrative Inquiry

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Coming to Understand Experience: Dewey's Theory of Experience and Narrative Inquiry

Article excerpt


For me, it seems strange to begin a discussion of a Deweyan theory of experience devoid of ... well, experience. Consequently, I begin this discussion of my understanding of Dewey's theory of experience as it has emerged from my own narrative as a teacher and scholar. In this discussion, I will address Dewey's theory of experience directly, and then turn to the Deweyan ontological and epistemological assumptions about experience which undergird and manifest within my own story and in narrative inquiry, the research approach I employ, conceptualized as both phenomenon and methodology (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; etc.).

Beginning with Experience

Having just returned from lunch, I instructed my students to work on their innovation day proposals. Innovation day was a school-wide project which allowed each student the opportunity to develop a research plan to explore any subject of their choosing for an entire day of school. With only one month left of the school year, I felt like I had come to know Lee (1) fairly well. I was surprised and excited to see Lee eagerly working on his project.

Lee had struggled with his schoolwork throughout the year. This seemed consistent with his previous teachers' reports. Rather than focus on his work, much of his time at school had been spent teasing, being teased, or arguing with his peers. It seemed to me that Lee had very little self-confidence in his learning and thinking abilities. Rather than focus on school academics, Lee often chose to distract himself with social concerns, but that strategy didn't seem to work well for him. Lee did not generally relate well with his peers. He would often antagonize other students by making disparaging remarks or distracting them during work time. When his classmates would respond negatively, Lee tended to escalate his efforts.

There were other tensions that emerged for Lee that school year. At the time, I just viewed them as distractions from learning. Only a month prior, I noticed that Lee looked a bit different than how he had normally presented himself. There were protrusions from his chest area and he continually seemed to be adjusting straps on his shoulders. I was unsure, but I suspected that Lee was wearing a bra. I did not address the issue with him for many reasons. Primarily, I did not want to make assumptions about the situation. Secondly, if this were the case, I did not want to embarrass Lee. Finally, I was not sure that it was any of my concern. However, later that day, my suspicions were confirmed when another student announced to me during recess that Lee had indeed worn his mother's bra to school. For me, at this time, Lee's life had become a distraction from the carefully planned lessons I had prepared. I hadn't yet come to understand or value the ways Lee was making meaning for himself, learning about the world and who he might be in it.

This event had begun to fade in my mind as I tried to re-focus Lee's and my attention on the learning I had planned. I was pleased to see Lee's interest in his innovation day proposal, perhaps because I felt like he was finally getting down to the business of school. I believed that if Lee could find something that interested him, he would be motivated to put forth the effort needed for him to engage in the required school work. I failed to see the ways my beliefs and actions made Lee irrelevant in the learning process. Lee, like every other student in my mind, needed to learn what I considered to be important. I based my instruction, in this case, on what those who created standards considered important. These were people, I was sure, who were well learned. I realized, though, that they knew nothing of Lee, his life, or his needs.

As I sat at the worktable in the front of the classroom, I invited students to share the ideas they were developing in their proposals. I could tell that Lee was working intently. …

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