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Experiential Learning


As featured in Issue 9 of HPM, written by Peter Bergson.

Calls for “school reform” and other critiques of traditional forms of education invariably refer to a future state in which “creativity”, “innovation”, “critical thinking” and similar buzzwords are used to identify what employers will be seeking in their applicants, as opposed to the “compliance”, “standardized learning” and “mastery of the basics” sought for factory jobs both past and present.

Perhaps they may even refer to John Holt’s statement in his seminal book, How Children Fail, in which he wrote:

The true test of intelligence is not how much you know how to do

but how you behave when you don’t know what to do.

Regardless, the message is clear: out with the old (memorization of facts and drill-and-kill exercises) and in with the new (ability to speculate and imagine new solutions to real world problems).

I should like expand upon this theme and, at the same time, introduce a word of caution. The goal should not be either/or but rather both, albeit with a major difference.

First, a bit of theory to serve as background and context. Immediately out of college, I joined a Peace Corps training program that was basically intended to help us volunteers learn how to help Old Math Filipino teachers convert to becoming teachers of New Math, which was all the rage in the late 1960s. New Math was about understanding the concepts behind the various mathematical procedures, whereas Old Math was about memorizing those procedures in order to consistently produce correct answers. The conventional approach had said, “never mind why you invert-and-multiply when you divide fractions—just do it! And while you’re at it, memorize how to do long division, the multiplication tables, the process of adding exponents when multiplying their bases, etc. etc.” (There was a similar list of factoids to be memorized in every other subject area as well—grammar and history especially, although those were not of concern to us nascent math teachers.)

New Math wanted students to understand what they were doing when they were performing each operation, if for no other reason than so would they would recognize a ridiculously wrong answer if one were to make a simple mistake, such as misaligning columns of numerals when adding them up, thereby resulting in an answer in the thousands that should have been in the hundreds.

As it turned out, my exposure to this form of New Math instruction was short-lived due to a bad back that got me medically disqualified from the Peace Corps. However, the seeds of belief in the value of understanding vs. memorization had been planted and soon began to sprout. They were nourished by words of many of the other reformers of the time, ones who emphasized Dewey-type progressive education and its basis in what was called experiential learning.

I was able to witness the birth (or re-birth) of Open Education, open classrooms, invented spelling, self-directed learning, interest-based curricula and many other deviations from the traditional schooling approach of direct instruction followed by practice, practice practice until performance was virtually automatic.

It was clear that the time had come to stop crushing the creative instincts of our young in the name of “education”, especially given the rise of computational devices that could crunch numbers and spit out data faster than even the smartest Phi Beta Kappan times ten.

If that weren’t enough to convince me of the long-term value of what I have since come to call natural learning, I found employment right after my Peace Corps stint with a consulting firm that specialized in creative group problem solving for adults. Called Synectics (now, Synecticsworld), this group of corporate misfits had developed powerful insights into the factors that distinguished successful invention sessions from the unsuccesful ones. Meetings where the development of innovative products, or new uses for old technologies, was the primary goal, were scrutinized as meticulously as the plays in a professional football game (where, in fact, a coach named Vince Lombardi perfected the use of game films to help prepare his players for future contests).

I soon came to realize that the work this firm did was remedial, in the sense that we were helping adults retrieve and enhance the kinds of thinking that are natural to young people but which then get schooled out of them—by the very same process that caused the kind of memorization-without-comprehension that John Holt had blown the whistle on in his groundbreaking work.

One of the co-founders of Synectics—a former advertising executive named George Prince—developed a theory of how the mind works when it is solving problems creatively. Called Mindspring Theory, it described two distinct thinking modes, which George called Approximate Thinking and Precision Thinking. Both, he pointed out, are necessary for innovation to occur. He offered as examples of Approximate Thinking such activities as dreaming, fantasizing, visualizing, wishing and even feeling—the tools for which exist in the hard-wiring of newborns. Precision Thinking, on the other hand, has capacity but very little content when we come into the world. We aren’t born knowing facts, or understanding concepts such as volume or weight or any kind of amount; nor do we understand what is meant by right and wrong, same or different, equal or not, or the names of things like tables, cities, people, subject matter…the list is infinite. For all practical purposes, the Precision cupboard is as bare at birth as the body that encapsulates it.

In general, when discussing education in the context of schooling, people are referring primarily only to the development of Precision Thinking.

When they have said (and largely still do say) that “one goes to school to learn”, they mean learning content—subject matter—not process, and certainly not the processes of Approximate Thinking. This is in large part because these processes are already evident by the time one is a toddler. (I happen to think it is also because Precision Thinking is more easily measured and standardized, thus making it feasible to rank order people according to levels of achievement. It would be a lot harder to say, “His dream is an 81, yours is a 65.”) In fact, it seems that one of the purposes of traditional schooling has been to suppress these skills, or at least diminish their appearance during school hours. Looking out the window and day-dreaming is not considered a proper use of school time. One is rewarded more for sitting still, paying attention, and regurgitating the lesson when so ordered.

The message of Prince’s theory is directly contrary to this definition and approach to education. He and his colleagues demonstrated over and over that creative thinking was successful only when Approximate Thinking and Precision Thinking work in concert with one another. Both are required when what is needed is a new approach that actually works. Mere imagining does not do the trick any more than mastery of a set of known facts. The product of Approximate Thinking must be coupled with reality in the form of specific procedures in order to produce desirable results. This is why toddlers don’t invent anything that is new and useful to the world: they don’t know enough to translate their dreams (or wishes) into concrete plans that obey the laws of nature or other non-negotiables.

And adults are similarly uncreative for the opposite reason: their imaginations have been anesthetized by the drug of drudgery, by having been rewarded over and over only for playing it safe by pursuing what is known to be right and not what is thought to be impossible, to the point that they have stopped speculating altogether. (“What? You want to fly in the air like a bird? That’s crazy!”)

“Wouldn’t it be great”, I said to my future wife back in 1972, “if there were a form of school where young people could build up their Precision Thinking without sacrificing their Approximate Thinking skills in the process?” I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was not an original wish. Nevertheless, soon afterwards Open Connections, Inc. was born—not as a school but eventually as a center where youth could, in partnership with other youths and adults, direct their own learning in the context of pursuing what interests them and learning how the world works at the same time.

Approximate Thinking is not only protected at Open Connections but expanded, through the conscious development of new techniques that draw on our natural ability to speculate, while at the same time recognizing the importance of continuously expanding one’s Precision Thinking warehouse of knowledge.

This is my area of caution to those who are desperately seeking to escape the soul-crushing processes of traditional schooling. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Facts matter, although there is little predictability as to which facts will matter in the future. Similarly, certain basic processes matter, although, again, the application of certain processes will vary over time. The important thing is to support the mastery of such precise skills as logical thinking and sensible experimentation and evaluation at the same time that we support the building of knowledge of people, places and things. There is little set curricula here—certainly no Core Curriculum in the sense of “What Every Fourth Grader Should Know”—and youth can dig a mile deep and an inch wide in any area that interests them as far as I am concerned. That process will likely serve them well as the content of their interests change (or not) over the course of their life. (Hence, no need to worry if they become “obsessessed” with their comic book collection, or butterflies or guitar mastery.) What they develop by following such interests will show up as highly valuable skills later, for certain.

Most important of all is that our young people have the opportunity to pursue in depth what interests them. In this way they will build both their Approximate and Precision Thinking abilities. They will learn facts, figures and processes that go far beyond anything they are likely to come up against in a compulsory situation, and will truly be suited to demonstrate the kind of “creative thinking” that is all the rage this year in the discussions about school reform.

The beauty of natural, self-directed learning, of course, is that when this year’s fad has been replaced by another version of Back To Basics, your youth will be well entrenched in the kind of education that really counts in the long run. But that is another story for another time.

For now, I want to emphasize the value of the balance of Approximate and Precision Thinking in the development of useful creative thinking, and stress how both will develop naturally in an environment filled with inviting opportunities to explore, experiment and pursue in accordance with the interests of each precious young mind.


Peter Bergson co-founded Open Connections with Susan Shilcock in 1975 and served as its Executive Director until he retired in September 2008. Peter now serves as a part-time consultant to Open Connections, focusing on writing and other special projects for OC while exploring ways to advance OC’s broader mission: to extend the choice of Open Education to all young people. Peter graduated from Harvard College. His background includes work as Director of Training for Synectics, Inc.—a creative group problem-solving firm located in Cambridge, MA—for several years in the early 1970s and work in a liberated Montessori school before that. Peter and Susan were married until her death in 2005; their four progeny all attended OC and continued as self-directed, life-long learners as adults. Peter’s current focus is on ensuring the sustainability of Open Connections, Inc. and its mission of shifting America’s balance from the school paradigm to one of self-organized education for all. He loves construction projects like the new Tire Swing Environment at OC, and spending time with his six grandchildren.  He is also a key member of a group of educators who developed the website:
Author: Debbie Simms
Debbie Simms is Owner, Editor, and Publisher of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Debbie Simms is married to her soulmate and together they parent six delightfully vibrant children in the Colorado Rockies. She has a background in sociology and philosophy, and has enjoyed working as a birth doula and breastfeeding counselor for over a decade. She has founded and led several women’s groups, on a spectrum of communities and interests. Debbie Simms is an advocate for authentic, intuitive parenting. She considers herself a cheerleader of her six life learners. She is passionate about holistic parenting, and loves sharing inspiration with like minded people across the globe.