Mentoring based on Significant Experiences



Significant Experience, Abstract Modeling, Abstract Knowledge Model, knowledge, Sudbury Model, mentoring, conversation, education equality, exploratory learning, modern education system, exam-oriented education, new education paradigm, life thinking, life exploration, mentoring design


This article aims at the innovative education or Self-Directed Education (SDE) communities that have gradually gain popularity but still kept classroom-based learning and have not completely moved away from the old education or test-oriented education framework. We propose here a teaching design based on Significant Experience to help these learning communities shift from lecture-based teaching to a mentoring model that pays more attention to students’ exploration abilities.


What is “teaching”? In the communities of innovative education or SDE, we have gradually turned teaching into mentoring, and correspondingly turned teachers into mentors. Mimsy, one of Sudbury’s co-founders, has said that one of the biggest features of Sudbury Valley School (SVS) is the ubiquitous conversations between students and students, between students and staff, between faculty and staff, on a variety of topics.

The kind of conversations in SVS are a bit different from how people usually converse. In general, adults are used to expressing our judgments or conclusions directly, rather than the significant experiences behind them. People’s judgments and conclusions will generally be very different, often will become the focus point of opposition and disputes, and people argue back and forth for many rounds and still cannot resolve their differences.

We can say that these opinions, judgments or conclusions are the individual knowledge of people. When we converse, we are used to taking our knowledge directly out, rather than conversing on the sources of that knowledge, which are the significant experiences beneath. It’s often difficult to agree with each other in terms of perspectives or knowledge, but if we’re just communicating our own significant experiences, we can all respect each other’s expression of their own significant experiences. We actually share many common significant experiences together. Some experiences may be owned by the other party, not us. Or maybe the other way around, owned by us, not by the other party. But we can all respect each other’s experiences. If you don’t have some of the significant experiences, then remind yourself that your knowledge may lack some significant experiences and need to acquire them through some activities. During the conversation, although we may not have a strong personal experience in the thing being discussed, we still can have some understanding of the experiences shared by the other side, and be aware that these experiences are the foundation of the other person’s knowledge or opinions.

When everyone lays out their own significant experiences, we then look at all the significant experiences related to this topic as a whole, trying to form some overall understanding. This is the process of building knowledge from significant experiences. This process should rigorous, comprehensive, and even scientific. The process that scientists discover new knowledge is essentially the same.

The process of creating knowledge from significant experiences takes a certain amount of exercise.  In the conversation, the first thing we need is to share all our significant experiences related to the matter. Then let’s see if the process of learning (or drawing conclusion) from the significant experience is rigorous and complete. When we are obsessed with making our conclusions/views clear from the start and eager to communicate the views, the other person may not know the significant experience behind, let alone whether you have been rigorous in your steps of building up knowledge from significant experiences.

In fact, as long as the relevant significant experiences are laid out and there are no obvious omissions, it is not very difficult to build up knowledge from these significant experiences. You can even do so by just taking a glance of these experiences and then know immediately in your mind. The major mistake when creating knowledge (drawing conclusion) we often make is we didn’t recall and evaluate all out significant experiences completely and rigorously. So, first of all, putting all the relevant significant experiences out is the foundation of conversation.

This is basically the kind of conversation that SVS have, whether it’s between students and students, between students and staff, or between staff. From this perspective, “teaching” is ubiquitous. The founders of SVS always talks about SVS’ efforts to allow students to explore on their own, but it is not like adults don’t pay attention to the students. There are many subtle and complex things that the staff are carrying out in SVS, and one has to experience them directly by themselves. Such as conversations mentioned here, the experience and knowledge of both sides related to the matter are often not equal, so how to still engage in equal conversations? And how to manifest teaching and learning in their natural form? Learning and teaching are universal in life, not just in formal teaching/learning places.

SVS and many other SDE communities advocates age-mixing. So is there any teaching between the older kids and younger kids? Is it more like a relationship between an old player and a new player?

I think mentoring should be like the relationship between the old player and the new player. The old player tells the new player where there is things to play with (including various resources), guide when necessary, get the new player started, then let the new player play by himself. Old players sometimes need to offer a little help when the new player gets stuck. More often the old player only needs to give a gentle reminder so that the new player will be able to continue to explore on their own. Old players sometimes sum up what something is in the simplest language, which is the expressive power of abstract knowledge models. The relationship between the old player and the new player seems to be perfect embodiment of the relationship between the mentor and the learner, as well as the way to mentor.

What old players share with new players is a wealth of significant experiences and simple knowledge models. The old players are mainly to guide the new players to explore and form their own knowledge. Old players point out where there are things to play with, point out significant experiences for new players, and share more relevant significant experiences they have, with a brief overview of relevant knowledge models, all of which are guiding new players to explore and create their own knowledge.

Of course, there is actually a lot of things to explore here for this topic. I am only giving a general introduction here.

Design of Teaching/mentoring based on Significant Experiences

The main purpose of this paper is to discuss with you a feasible and easy-to-implement teaching design based on Significant Experiences that can go along with the curriculum of many SDE communities. I hope what I have talked about so far, can lead you to explore this topic. We shall all come together to explore this and contemplate.

Teachers in conventional schools are mostly giving lectures. Except for a few very good teachers, most teachers lack of relevant significant learning experiences. For mentors in the SDE communities, lecturing is still needed sometimes. Because younger children have very little experience, mentors need to talk about things to let them know there are so many things out there. Mentors also want to showcase playgrounds like old players. All the purpose here is to “induce learning interest” and guide students to play and explore on their own. As long as students can explore on their own, the mentor’s purpose has been achieved, and they stop lecturing.

In a way, that’s how kids converse. Watching their conversation, it is more about sharing each other’s significant experiences, or telling each other where to play. Adults develop stronger abstract minds and then stay more in the knowledge level of conversation. And in adults, we often see that the more knowledge one has, the more prejudice one has. This is mainly because the lack of insight into the source of knowledge, which is Significant Experience.

In addition, today’s children are generally more lonely, lack of adequate conversations with other children, which should be an important component of their education. And in our more formal teaching/learning places like schools, should we make more conversations happen between students, and students and teachers? Of course, conversations based on Significant Experiences are equal and friendly. Any authoritative conversations with inequality will immediately come to an end. If you have a clear understanding of the process of how knowledge comes from Significant Experiences, the conversations will be more effective.

Figure: the three Yuegu children in the picture were conversing. An adult came with her child.
The adult asked: kids, you do not go to school to study?
One Yuegu’s child replied: We are learning right now!
I noticed that the child the adult brought with her was clearly quite lonely and rarely have others to converse with.

If we look at education from the perspective of the relationship between people, we can see the deep problem of modern education. In education it is  vital to manifest equality among different people, and usually our concept of what knowledge is can have a huge influence on this equality in education. If we are well aware knowledge is something that everyone create for one’s own, then it is easy to have equality. If we think knowledge belongs to some people of certain authority, then there can hardly be equality.

It’s not just the relationship between adults and children in school, when we observe interactions between adults and their children at home, we can see there are a lot of equality issues, when compared to the interactions between children. In the face of inequality imposed by the adult, children’s response is very direct and even natural. Over time, this influence will gradually develop into certain personalities.

Therefore, design of teaching/mentoring based on significant experiences should allow students or students and mentors to have more such conversations based on significant experiences. Mentor’s role is more like an old player guiding new players to explore.

Mentors can guide students to build knowledge on a variety of topics according to their interests and goals. This may be a bit like the term paper or term project in American universities, but it will be done a lot more frequently and be of various sizes.

About the old educational paradigm

In traditional education based on lecture/homework/examination, it is natural for such a system to drive students towards the tendency of knowledge memorization, as if learning is just to remember those external knowledge.

The SVS Model is unique even among SDE communities. In SVS there is basically no lessons. Early years, some students may ask for some short-term lessons that might get terminated at any time. In recent years because of the development of the Internet, even such classes are almost not anymore. But looking at the interviews and memories of SVS graduates, they all have a strong ability to reflect on themselves and explore their own lives, to be able to think about life at a very deep level. I think that’s something that can be hard to achieve in many SDE communities that still have a lot of lessons.

I also found in my mentoring practice in the Paracraft Learning Center that children are naturally capable to feel and explore. For example, we have established a wealth of learning resources, open learning documents, there are a variety of excellent projects we recommended, there are small project list that we have divided into a couple of big difficulty levels, from beginners to intermediate to advanced, and some basic categories, such as 3D modeling and construction, animation and programming. Children themselves will choose the right learning resources or projects for themselves. When they take a break from working on their projects, they will go to the document to read content that is related to their projects, or find some related small projects to practice with. When they have chosen small projects that are a bit too difficult, they know to take a step back and choose a simpler one. Some will try to learn faster, and they will challenge themselves by picking those difficult programming projects, or taking apart other people’s rather complex programming works, see how the code is written, and study it for hours a day.

So we noticed that children are naturally capable of exploring. The younger the child, the more capable s/he is. But children who go to school for a few years lost this capability gradually. When they run into problems, such as how a block in Paracraft is used, they are used to asking the teacher directly. Some children may be a little unhappy if the teacher doesn’t give a direct answer but asks them to look for it in the document. But younger children mostly know how to try the block on their own in an experimental way. Young children hardly ask the teacher. Instead they use all kinds of methods to explore.

There is also a general view that children lack the ability to contemplate, I found that to be so untrue in my mentoring practice in the Paracraft Learning Center. In fact, children have a strong ability to contemplate, as long as we give them a chance.

So this kind of exploration and feeling is natural to everyone. By the age of 11 or 12, after the development of abstract thinking ability, these children’s ability to self-reflect and to explore life will be very strong, and they can engage in deep thinking of their life, unlike children who go to traditional schools.

But the traditional old education system, the kind of lesson/homework/examination way of education, immediately drives the students to the direction of memorization, deviated from their natural ability to explore learning and to create their own knowledge. Therefore, we say that the test-oriented education is evil, not only because the cruelty and torture of the examination, but also because the education model itself. This model quickly leads children to the wrong way, and strips away their natural innate ability of learning, makes them accustomed to think that learning is the memorization of other people’s knowledge, rather than creating their own knowledge.

The harm caused by such education can be seen in many of today’s social problems, whose roots are right in this education.

I will stop here. I hope we can explore this topic together. Such a teaching/mentoring based on Significant Experiences can be carried out in many SDE communities that still have semester long curricula. I have tried this method 10 years ago teaching in a learning community that served the young migrant workers. So I know it works. I hope we come to explore this field together!

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