Restorative Schools and the Experiential Education Connection

My career began two days after I was released from almost a year of incarceration at Los Prietos Boys Camp. Having nothing better to do, I accepted an invitation to participate in a 21-day wilderness experience, along with a bunch of other “youth at risk.”  It was a powerful, life-changing experience. There were moments of sheer terror (the first rappel, down a cliff perched atop the edge Kings Canyon) and moments of elated self-discovery.  When I was the first in our group to reach the top of the highest pass, and the first on the summit of the 13,000+ foot peak we climbed, for the first time I started to believe that I could be a competent person.

Experiential Education works by immersing people in difficult experiences, then providing a framework for them to master those experiences and to extract their own meaning from them. This is much more profound than telling people what they should know, or warning them away from difficulties. The learning is both specific—how to tie a knot securely so you will survive a fall—and general—the importance of paying attention, critical communication skills, and so on.

As I progressed from student to assistant staff to climbing instructor, I learned a great deal about the pedagogy of experiential education. It works best when the circumstances are truly demanding; the more real the challenge, the more potent the lessons derived. Thus, the learning potential from a high-risk activity, such as climbing a rock face, is particularly high precisely because the risk is real. Wilderness adventure curricula progress through a series of high-risk activities, with skillful staff who work around the clock to ensure that students are prepared so they can survive each new challenge.

But surviving the challenge is not enough. What is key is to provide a framework for learning from it. Every activity is followed by a debriefing period, usually held with the group sitting in a circle. The instructor asks high-quality questions that support inner exploration and the emergence of insight. Skillful instructors avoid stating what the students are supposed to have learned; instead they help students recognize and celebrate the lessons they have extracted.

We know when we go into the wilderness that there will be difficult moments. We know, and expect, that there will be interpersonal conflicts, often quite serious ones. We know that students will become discouraged and some will want to give up when they come up against some imaginary limit—be it their fear, anger, doubt, arrogance, impulsivity, or whatever. And knowing this, we view these events as opportunities to learn. These moments, which can occur any time, are the opportunistic curriculum that is embedded within and arises from the curriculum of sequenced activities.

Here’s the connection to restorative schools. Schools are by their nature a very rich, complex social environment. They are a natural incubator of all kinds of challenging moments. Members of a school community get in conflicts with one another on a regular basis. Misdeeds are done and harms occur.

With a restorative approach we view this soup of ongoing challenges as a natural phenomenon that provides a rich array of learning opportunities. Our way is not to try to suppress these events from occurring, but to work with them skillfully so that members of the school community extract from them the critical learning that each event offers. Paradoxically, this strategy of non-suppression is much more effective at reducing unskillful behavior than are efforts to directly suppress the behaviors. (see Theory of Trouble)

This is why I describe what we do in schools as a “restorative process” rather than a program. I don’t believe we can ever reduce it to a curriculum and have it retain its full effectiveness. Instead, we have to constantly observe how the inner curriculum of the community emerges—how it announces itself through conflicts and patterns of conflicts—and then work skillfully to address what is truly up at the moment.

We’ve developed over the past year a very promising strategy that does just this. We’ve found that by having a pair of restorative process workers visit classrooms once a week, we can introduce students and teachers to the skills and concepts they need to skillfully engage in the issues that are affecting them. We’ve found that chaotic classrooms can, in a matter of a few weeks, be transformed into learning communities when their members are given a structure and the opportunity to use it.

I have personally been very moved by some of the transformations we’ve been seeing. The teachers tell me they are also. “I had no idea of how the students were experiencing this class,” one teacher told me, “and how motivated and capable they are of making things better.”

We’re looking forward to developing this strategy—which we call the “restorative classrooms process”—further next school year.  I anticipate publishing our findings and guidelines for replication in summer of 2011. But don’t expect a curriculum and lesson plans—I think that trying to neatly package in that standard format will be a mistake. Instead, look for reflections and suggestions on how to approach, and rationales to guide a flexible, responsive strategy. Part of the rationale will be based on the principles of experiential education. Part will come from restorative justice. Together they are a potent and promising mix.

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