Teaching to Experiences

Teachers today, for understandable reasons, look for ways of building off the experiences and interests that students bring to class. In the cave allegory, Plato seems to take a negative view about the ‘common sense’ experiences of students: those experiences are not real and trustworthy. Instead, they are like shadows on the cave wall, far removed from what is truly real. Plato presents it as a serious challenge for teachers that students are comfortable in this world of familiar experiences: the teacher who is ‘out of touch’ with their world of shadowsbecomes an object of ridicule rather than a beacon of truth (p. 749; or 517a). The teacher, in his view, has a duty to ‘return to the cave,’ but he would probably see it as risky for a teacher to go very far in validating the shadowy experience of students (for example, by keeping up with the cultural references or trying to fashionable or ‘with it’). Is he right? Why or why not?

I can understand the hesitation of some to tie lessons too much to the experiences of students. As Plato says, some of those experiences are not real or trustworthy. This point make me think about the variety of ways that different people experience different situations. While one person may interpret something a certain way, another person may interpret it in a vastly different manner. Thus, they may come to understand the world in different ways through their experiences. If this is the case, it can be difficult to tie lessons into student experience without ultimately excluding some. While this may not be Plato's argument exactly, I think it ties together.

In my own teaching experience, I have often been encouraged by teachers who bring current events and student interests into their teaching. The lessons always seem to be successful, and increase student engagement. I have also tried it in my own classroom, and many of my most exciting classes have been based on students tying their own experiences to the content. I think there is a place for this in teaching. Making content relatable for students can play a big role in student engagement. However, I think it can be potentially harmful if we do not consider all of our students. If we consistently teach in a way that targets some student experiences and not others, we are not reaching all of our students. As Plato argued, teachers have a duty to return to the cave. To me, this means maintaining a balance of structured, curriculum-based material with creative ways of teaching.

What do you think? Is there room for both in teaching?


Nihal Jamal May 14, 2019, 7:21 PM

Thank you for your post! I totally agree when you mention that integrating personal experiences can help student engagement. I feel that this can be done effectively in language class because you can use prompts that would apply to everybody. For instance, a task could be to "write 2 paragraphs about your weekend using at least 5 adjectives". This would allow all students to use their own personal experience and make the activity more relevant. You would have to be creative but it can be done in other subjects as well without leaving anybody's experiences out.

Sara Aref May 14, 2019, 10:45 PM

I really liked your post Bethany! I think learning becomes more meaningful when learners can tie it to their own personal experiences. In my master's program, I have noticed that in all of my courses I was asked in one way or another to link the course materiel to my own personal experience. I think by doing so, the teachers allow for the emergence of diverse ideas and opinions which eventually leads to an enriching learning environment.

Steve Hawkins teacher May 15, 2019, 12:53 AM

Hi Bethany, Your post is interesting, since you reach a conclusion that Plato would probably agree by following (as you note) a rather different path. You put the emphasis on inclusiveness, and raise the concern that personalising one's teaching does not automatically make it easier for *all* students to relate, and may even unexpectedly wind up alienating people for whom these experiences are strange or unfamiliar. I think it would be helpful here to think about an example or two of an experience that might provoke that response. (Some philosophers, like Martha Nussbaum, have argued for the value of being exposed in detail to unfamiliar narratives, seeing an opportunity for a widening of horizons. I take it from your post that you see the force of that sort of argument, but are cautioning us about a possible, unnoticed downside.)

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