Formative Experience

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Formative Experience

Educational Thought


Formative Experience

I'll always remember.png

"I'll always remember that battle."
Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall.

Thinking About

Formative Experience
Classic Queries
Persons and Polities
On The Shoulders of Giants
Concept Formation
Perception and Action
Qualities and Character
Callings and Vocations
Habit and Usage
Generative Events

In Construction

All agents, whether persons or polities, acquire formative experience as a consequence of their actions. Formative experience, as distinct from instructional outcomes, is the crucial component of education. Attention to it has waned as the global ethos has become ever more instrumental. Let us push back. Through EdThought, we can revive the understanding of formative experience in education.

Here, educational thinking has to do with formative activity cultivated by and for persons and polities -- historical subjects living purposefully in a world of actual circumstances. As acting agents, we recognize our actions as complex, multidimensional. One dimension of our action is instrumental, for in acting we have one or another end in view, but as we act instrumentally another dimension is evident in the formative influences taking place, which may be quite distinct from instrumental consequences. Many instructional actions, which people undertake for specific instrumental reasons, often have weak or negative formative effects. Many other actions that have nothing to do with schools or instruction, may have powerful formative effects, some good, some bad. On EdThought, our educational thinking aims to take all those formative processes at work in human actions into account, in addition to any specific pedagogical instrumentalities in question.

In the activities of formal education, a significant disjunction often holds between the instrumental ends-in-view controlling what teachers and students are doing, and the formative purposes and influences associated with those activities. The instructional ends in view are importantly part of the means to the broader formative purpose, but too often in thinking about education people loose sight of the prize and myopically concentrate only on the instrumentalities, as if those were synonymous with education in its fullest sense. Consider as an instance, the massive efforts to validate instructional methods and programs through testing. Almost all of it measures amounts of specific knowledge and skill students appear to possess immediately or soon after receiving instruction. There is virtually no effort to state what formative effects the instruction will have in the fullness of a person's life or to figure out whether the instructional activities and the actions taken to validate them will dependably have fulfilling formative value for the persons experiencing them.[1]

Those who would reduce educational thought to matters of instructional policy and practice assert that those proximate matters are the only ones people can control; hence they are the ones to which people should attend. This reasoning, deficient intellectually and destructive collectively, has nevertheless come to dominate intentional educational effort the world around. Intellectually, it is nothing but a drunkard's pedagogy. Collectively, the reduction of education to instructional policy and practice implicitly asserts an unsound, anti-democratic conception of control, which is increasingly unmanageable and wasteful of human potential.

Many people intuit that the fixation on instruction is deficient and destructive, but to break the hegemony of the instructional system, we need to develop an alternative vision of common educational effort. As an online portal for study, EdThought should work to lay the intellectual groundwork for a pedagogical commons in which persons, each and all, can better understand and control their formative experience in the pursuit of their humane possibilities.

Forming Humanity

When formative experience takes place prominently in a compact event or single decision, distinguishing formative from instrumental experience becomes easier. For instance, leading into the 2012 pro football playoffs, Mike Shanahan, the Washington coach with his team in contention for postseason games, let Robert Griffin III, an outstanding rookie quarterback, play in an important game despite an injured knee. Griffin seriously aggravated the knee injury and his level of performance since (when he has been able to perform) has been much diminished. Instrumentally, Washington had to win to make the playoffs against a very strong team and Griffin was its star. Formatively, the one question commonly raised about Griffin's potential was his durability, which was already compromised, raising the formative possibility that his playing at this juncture could seriously harm his long-term potential. In this case, the immediate instrumental considerations predominated over the formative and the risk of lasting harm came to pass.[2]

A person often decides to do something or not to do it, torn between an immediate instrumental payoff and the long-term, formative benefit or harm that might eventuate. Serious thinking about these tension began in earnest with Plato and Aristotle, with it somewhat obscure whether the considerations were normative or formative. Over many centuries, the drift of reflection moved more and more decisively towards casting ideas about the virtues and the vices as moral standards. This tendency has continued and a renewal of normative thinking about virtues, namely virtue ethics, has come to constitute, with deontology, the ethics of duties and rights, and consequentialism, ethical attention to consequences like utilitarianism, not rule, one of the three branches of normative philosophizing.

To try to reconstitute virtue ethics as a formative, not normative, system would be futile and unnecessary. It is important and possible, however, to observe that many of the concepts in Stoic and Epicurean ethics, in medieval doctrines about the virtues and the vices, and in contemporary virtue ethics significantly concern formative, not only normative, experience. Quite apart from its its ethical probity, managing to act virtuously and not viciously shapes a person's capacities to perceive and affect the world and to regulate the self. Thus, for instance, in studying formative experience, the educator might without any moralizing, reflect on how the formative power of concupiscence could deflect the careers of highly gifted public figures such as Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, David Petraeus, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Robert Packwood, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, to to name a few.

With respectto actual, lived experience, the instrumental and the formative are conceptual poles defining a spectrum that has many subtleties and trade-offs along it. For the educator, whether as the student, the scholar, or the public person, formative experience is complicated and highly consequential, but less frequently concentrated in a dramatic choice or situation as the examples alluded to above might suggest. Hence understanding formative experience requires a complicated, many-sided inquiry. It is deeply important for our humanity, however.

Humans constitute a cultural species; other forms of life are biological species, for their capacities to perceive, process, and act in the world are inborn through the reproduction of their members. The capacities to perceive, process, and act in the world that human persons use in living their lives are not fully determined in the course of biological reproduction, as they are for other forms of life. Humans have developed the capacity to shape and extend their powers of perception, regulation, and action, enabling them to shape and reshape their lifeworld in ways that other forms of life cannot. As humans, we shape our powers of perception, regulation, and action through our formative experience, the experience through which we construct the human lifeworld, and the unique instances of it in which each person lives, saying I am I and my circumstances. The educator studies this formative process through which a person shapes herself and her lifeworld, partaking in and contributing to the self-construction of humanity.

  1. In the United States (and probably elsewhere as well), putative educational reformers seem mystified why teachers, parents, and students are strenuously opposing high-stakes testing. The reformers often reflect mentalities of corporate managers, fixated on the bottom line and the markers of its attainment. Such reformers forget, or cannot perceive, that of which teachers, parents, and students are more fully aware: meaning and value in life is more complicated than meeting the quarterly expectations for the bottom-line.
  2. See Judy Battista, "Robert Griffin III's injury has Redskins facing uncertain future,", September 15, 2014, for a recap of Griffin's plight written a couple years after the key events. Another football story, which puts the instrumental and the formative in clear juxtaposition, concerns the decision by Chris Borland, a rising star at linebacker who retired after his first-year of play for San Francisco because of the risk of lasting brain damage. See, for instance, Ken Belson, "Chris Borland, Fearing for Health, Retires From the 49ers. At 24." New York Times.