Let Your Experiences Teach You, Not Define You

Earlier today, Obama gave a speech to America’s schoolchildren. My kid isn’t old enough for Obama’s words to be inspirational (unless Obama happens to be driving a trash truck and happily honking at toddlers while passing out balloons, bubbles, and chocolate milk), but I am. And even though Obama’s speech is geared toward children, there is a lot about it that applies to adult learners as well. Taking responsibility for our learning, setting goals, asking questions, asking for help — these are all mantras that my colleagues and I yawp each and every day.

There is one other mantra that I am particularly known for around these parts, and Obama touches on this as well: that is, the great value of learning from our experiences. Obama cites several examples of successful learners, and then he says:

These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time.

This is, in many ways, what our PLA program is about. This is, in fact, what LEARNING is about (though not only “failures” create learning opportunities, of course). And this is what is so totally cool about Obama. He gets it! But I digress. . .

Lindeman (1961) claimed that experience is the adult learner’s “living textbook,” yet Fenwick (2001) points out the obvious: “Experience alone does not teach” (p. 11). The question then becomes HOW? How do we learn from our experiences — how do we “get them to show us” what to do differently next time? Well, let me share one of my favorite ideas:

Reflection is the process by which experience is turned into learning. ~ Boud, Keogh, & Walker (1985)

We reflect. We ask questions of our experiences, our observations, ourselves, our actions. We ask questions that have no easy answers. We think. We think critically. We become aware. A.W.A.R.E.

Obama is not only asking kids to take responsibility for their learning and education; he is not only suggesting that they not let their circumstances dictate their potential; he is not only attempting to inspire them to be good students, good learners. He is also asking them to think. To reflect. To become aware.

And really – the speech is really not just aimed at school children. He is, in fact, asking this of all of us.


Ask questions.

Become aware.



And act differently.

As Obama said to the kids this morning, “There is no excuse for not trying.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. Kogan Page: London.

Fenwick, T. (2001). Experiential learning: A theoretical critique from five perspectives. Information Series No. 385. Columbus, OH: Center on Education and Training for Employment. Eric # ED454418.

Lindeman, E. C. (1961). The meaning of adult education. Norman, OK: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education and Harvest House Ltd. (Canada). (Original work published 1926)

And for a fun look at the President’s speech, you might also enjoy reading this: The Secret Agenda — Found!


The First Eight Words

Thanks to David Reece on Flickr for making this image available.

Thanks to David Reece on Flickr for making this image available.

LEARNING: Changes a person makes in himself or herself that increase the know-why and/or the know-what and/or the know-how the person possesses with respect to a given subject. (Learning as a Way of Being, by Peter Vaill, p. 21)

Read the first eight  words again:  Changes a person makes in himself or herself…

I second that.

She’s Ready For What’s Next

Congrats to Debra Giannini!

Debra just completed her 15-credit Prior Learning Assessment Portfolio. Debra is an Interdisciplinary Studies major with concentrations in Psychology and Expressive Therapies. The topics she wrote for are:

  • BIO 165 – Alternatives in Health and Healing
  • BIO 167 – Nutritional Science
  • CHS 354 – Environment, Culture, and Food
  • CCM 342 – Rhythm-Based Communication
  • SPP 371 – Communicating the Sacred through Dance

In her final Reflective Essay, Debra wrote:

Like so many others examining the trails of our lived lives, I soon discovered how much I had undervalued some experiences and independent learning. In this year, I’ve become better able to express myself in writing and discussion and to appreciate how different points of view embellish and extend the learning process. I have gained skills in computer technology, time management, and research tools, and I have made many good friends and professional colleagues in the library and through the coursework . . . I feel ready to embrace the challenge of graduate school and am grateful to have become a more confident writer.

In the following video, Debra tells us more about her experiences with the program, including how she saved time and money (almost $2,500) by going through the PLA program.

NOW She Knows!

Sometimes you don’t know what you know. You know? Well Loretta Rowe knows!

In just two terms, Loretta earned 21 Prior Learning Assessment credits, and in the process of doing so she discovered that she knew a lot more than she thought she knew. In her final Reflective Essay, Loretta shared this:

As I prepare my Final Portfolio, I wrestle with mixed emotions, feeling a sense of great relief and immense achievement. In two quarters, I will have earned twenty-one credits through PLA, but more than earning the credits, I leave PLA with a great sense of self-triumph. Not just for the essays I have written, but in realizing my experiences in life brought me knowledge to challenge college-level classes. . . PLA has improved my self-esteem. . . Writing down the experiences and knowledge I have gained in life through the PLA process has helped me grasp the fact that I have a wealth of knowledge, and I want to share it.

Loretta’s major is Interdisciplinary Studies with concentrations in Business and Communications. The PLA topics Loretta wrote for were:

  • Effective Listening
  • Public Presentations
  • Principles of Management and Supervision
  • Psychology of Loss and Grief
  • Property Management
  • Sales

Loretta tells about her PLA experiences and offers some PLA writing tips in this video. (Her words are so powerful, in fact, that the electricity flashed on and off as she was talking; indeed, we filmed this in the midst of a summer thunderstorm.)

Congratulations Loretta!

A Gift That Keeps On Giving

Ty Wells, a Business & Leadership major, just submitted his Prior Learning Assessment Portfolio totaling 27 credits. Ty’s experience resides mostly in the food and hospitality industry, and he was able to use those learning experiences to write PLA essays for the following courses:

  • Conflict Management
  • Public Presentations
  • Team Building
  • Foodservice Organizations
  • Management Fundamentals
  • Introduction to Winemaking
  • Foodservice Production and Principles
  • Small Business Management
  • Principles of Accounting

In his Final Reflective essay, Ty wrote, “The end result is that I am far better equipped as a writer.” As Ty describes in this video, for students like him, PLA can be a gift that keeps on giving.


An Aubergine Assessment (or What I Learned In Botany Class)

EggplantSome of you who know me likely know that there is one thing in the world I do not like: EGGPLANT.  Here is how my relationship with eggplant came to be so troubled.

When I was in elementary school, my mom cut off some fingers and was in the hospital for a while. Grandma came to stay with me and my dad during this time, and Grandma liked eggplant. She thought we should like it too, and she fixed it for us — often. A bit too often for my taste, and I tried to convince her that I was sure it caused brain damage. No such luck though; dad and I kept getting eggplant for dinner. (Grandma breaded it, fried it, and served it with mayo. This is a recipe I didn’t need to inherit!) It was in that 6-week period that I came to understand — intimately — that eggplant tastes like slugs. I saw no reason to have it in my life.

Fast Forward 10 Years

When I was in college ohsomanyyearsago, I took a wonderful botany course called Plants & Civilization (the course has changed a bit since then, and this was not my professor, but nonetheless, it’s neat to see the syllabus). It was a semester-long alphabetical tour of plants that have had a significant impact on people and societies. For example, I learned about how the lovely foxglove plant (digitalis) is a) poisonous, and b) used for heart medication. I also learned that women used belladonna (a deadly nightshade) to dilate their eyes to make them look more “dark” and alluring; belladonna was then manufactured into Atropine, and optometrists use it in a different form to dilate patients’ pupils.

The week we got to the letter “E,” the professor put up a slide of an eggplant, and he said, “This is a plant that we will not discuss. I do not like eggplant, and I see no reason to go into any detail about it. In my expert opinion, it has served no purpose to society. End of story.”  He moved to the next slide (Elder), and that was that. I never felt so confirmed in my life! This professor of botany — this expert in this field — agreed with my assessment about eggplant. WOW!

So what I am saying is that I learned quite a bit in this botany class. And to substantiate the claim, here is one piece of history from The World’s Healthiest Foods that aligns with my thinking:

Although it has a long and rich history, eggplant did not always hold the revered place in food culture that it does today, especially in European cuisines. As a result of the overly bitter taste of the early varieties, it seems that people also felt that it had a bitter disposition—eggplant held the undeserved and inauspicious reputation of being able to cause insanity, leprosy and cancer.

Fast Forward 20 Years

Given that I am ok with having my assumptions challenged, I have since tried eggplant pureed in soup, baked with tomato sauce and mozzarella (two ingredients that would otherwise make anything taste yummy), roasted in salads, and countless other ways in order to attempt to reconcile our differences. And still — no matter how it is prepared or disguised — it tastes like slugs.

And then today, this recipe found its way into my email: Eggplant Cheesecake (with chocolate, no less!)

eggplant cheesecake

Seriously? I mean, why would you do that to a perfectly defenseless cheesecake, to chocolate, to walnuts, to eggs? If I could find that long-retired professor of botany — the one who CHANGED. MY. LIFE. by confirming my own expert knowledge about eggplant — I would send this recipe to him and let him know that I still remember his course, for in it he taught me one of my most memorable lessons ever:  Eggplant has served no purpose to society. End of story.

A Visit To The Candy Shop


Yet another goodie from Larry Daloz’s book Mentor:


The proper aim of education is to promote significant learning. Significant learning entails development. Development means successively asking broader and deeper questions of the relationship between oneself and the world. This is as true for first graders as graduate students, for fledgling artists as graying accountants.

A good education ought to help people become both more receptive to and more discriminating about the world: seeing, feeling, and understanding more, yet sorting the pertinent from the peripheral with ever finer touch, increasingly able to integrate what they see and to make meaning of it in ways that enhance their ability to go on growing. To imagine otherwise, to act as though learning were simply a matter of stacking facts on top of one another, makes as much sense as thinking one can learn a language by memorizing a dictionary. (p. 243)

Total candy for people like me; I have just this kind of sweet tooth!