The Impelling Principle and Experiential Education at Woodstock SchoolBy Woodstock School Mar 05, 2013 4:58PM UTC
Every week Woodstock Principal Dr Jonathan Long shares thoughts with the staff community in the weekly bulletin publication.
Recently he focused on the theme of “The Impelling Principle in Education”, based on the work of educational visionary and philosopher Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound movement and Round Square, which Woodstock School has recently affiliated to.
The article particularly looks at this principle in the context of outdoor education as a means to help children become critical thinkers and learners on their own, through this form of experiential education.
The piece provoked some interesting feedback from alumnus TZ Chu ’52, which is included underneath Dr Long’s piece below. He focuses particularly on the differences in the hiking programme from his own time at Woodstock and now.
The Impelling Principle in Education
by Dr Jonathan Long
Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness;
but direct them to it by what amuses their minds. Plato
In 1965, Kurt Hahn, founder of Outward Bound, United World Colleges, several schools and The International Award for Young People, delivered an important address in which he introduced a critical concept in education. Hahn made the following point:
I was once interviewed by a journalist. He asked me: “How can the methods you believe in do justice to the indoor-type?” He was horrified when I said, “by chasing him outside.” Then there was another journalist who said “How can you do justice to the introvert?” I answered: “By providing circumstances which turn him inside out.” And a third one wondered how we deal with the extrovert. My answer shocked him: “By turning him outside in.” Let me define, in general terms, the conviction which is behind these answers. It is the sin of the soul to force young people into opinions – indoctrination is of the devil – but it is culpable neglect not to impel young people into experience.
One of Hahn’s most valuable insights was to recognise the distinction for education between compelling and impelling. To compel is to force – it is to exert an external pressure. To impel is to allow the motivating force to come from within – not from without. As Hahn put it, “The aim of education is to impel young people into value forming experiences.” When the motivating energy to engage in these experiences originates from within the individual, an opportunity for learning exists which is rarely found in the presence of compulsion.
The distinction between compelling and impelling may be a subtle one but it is certainly not an easy one. Hahn was writing within the context of outdoor education (one form of experiential education) where the opportunity of accepting or declining a challenge seems both natural and obvious – as does the idea of impelling young people into an experience. The way in which the Outdoor Education Long Weekend was presented by Outdoor Educator Andrew Hepworth at assembly fits perfectly within the approach described by Hahn – allowing young people to enter into value-forming experiences with what I would call “choicefulness” and self-direction.
In the classroom and elsewhere, the compelling/impelling distinction is harder to sustain – but it is not beyond our grasp. Reliable wisdom says we should always begin from where young people are at and not from where we want them to be. But it is also about awakening the deep innate curiosities of the human spirit – releasing a powerful impetus for self-motivated learning which is the birth-right of the human being. Adam Robinson, co-founder of The Princeton Review, hit the nail on the head when he wrote:
Our school system is based on the notion of passive students that must be “taught” if they are to learn. . . . Our country spends tens of billions of dollars each year not just giving students a second-rate education, but at the same time actively preventing them from getting an education on their own. And I’m angry at how school produces submissive students with battered egos. Most students have no idea of the true joys of learning, and of how much they can actually achieve on their own.
Can we apply an “impelling principle” to what happens at Woodstock – and not just in our approaches to outdoor education? The answer to this question will take us down a path well-travelled and in the company of many others besides Kurt Hahn. It will also transcend some of the divides between western and eastern approaches to education and include many sources of inspiration and guidance – Rousseau, Fröbel, Pestalozzi, Steiner and Dewey to name but a few. And Maria Montessori of course, whose belief in the reality of this impelling principle was beautifully summed up when she wrote, “The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.”
Response from TZ Chu ’52:
When I attended Woodstock from 1949 through 1952, Woodstock had not heard of Kurt Hahn but it was very much a Kurt Hahn school. No one talked about outdoor education but every bit of Woodstock revolved around the outdoor.
Long distance hiking was the most respected sport at Woodstock; one was awarded a large “W” if he or she was able to hike to Tehri and back within 48 hours. Dr Bob Fleming Sr was the High School Supervisor and our biology teacher. His Indian and Nepali fern and bird collections remain premier exhibits at Chicago Natural History Museum, and we learned to recognise and collect at least 40 species of ferns and learn to properly stuff and conserve the birds he shot and collected.
The boys all had private collections of beetles (I don’t know about the girls) and Mussoorie is or used to be one of the most important centres of butterflies in the world, as told to me by the curator (and a Kodai graduate) of Los Angles Natural History Museum. Many boys owned a 12-guage shotgun and hunted deer and pheasants for food during weekends because food was in such short supply (we were then only four to five years out of the Partition).
The dorms emptied during weekends and school breaks because almost everybody was out hiking and camping either alone, in small groups, with or without teachers or vacationing parents. Self-sufficiency was presumed and the older ones taught the younger ones (going home to the parents was out of the question given the state of the transportation). I learned more about nature in these four years than I ever had before or since, and perhaps that impelled me to major in physical science in college.