Wisdom and the “soul” of experience

January 1, 2017 at 10:39 PM

Wisdom and the “soul” of experience


Marina Vazura QC’17 and Jim Stellar

We believe MV’s personal experience as a first year graduate student at Queens College in the field of speech-language pathology reveals a fundamental principle of experiential education, vital for the development of the “whole-student.”  In the speech-language field, we often speak about looking at the client as a “whole,” when treating and making clinical decisions. By doing this, we are tailoring intervention and treatment to fit each client’s interests, perspectives, ideas, and individual wants and needs. So why are we not always applying this fundamental concept to college students in higher education?

Many agree that of great importance in higher education, in addition to the basic transfer of knowledge, is to create an environment that nurtures wisdom.  In addition, higher education is called on today to generate students who display critical thinking and creativity. We believe that higher education can do a better job of helping its students achieve wisdom and these other related attributes in an environment that–like speech language graduate education–complements the academic learning with deep and enriching hands–on experiences that impact the student at an unconscious level through the execution of direct practice in a field in which they think they are interested. We should aim to research and better understand the unconscious decisions of the mammalian brain in higher education, and then connect them to the conscious decisions through academic reflection on the hands-on experience. Together, these two experiences, particularly if connected in the student’s mind, enable the development of critical thinking skills: a cherished goal of higher education. This is what an academically integrated experiential education is all about.

For example, MV writes about her experience as follows:

Graduate school was an intense and fast paced experience that challenged me to think in an entirely novel way. My undergraduate studies consisted of listening to lectures and memorizing powerpoint slides in order to perform well on tests for the purpose of getting into an accredited graduate program. Graduate school was not going to be like anything I was used to as on the first day of classes we were told that grades did not matter in the program. All of us were admitted into a program that only accepted sixteen students and we no longer had to prove that we were “smart”. This experience was going to be about learning to enjoy the journey on becoming competent and self-assured clinicians. I looked around at my classmates to see if they appeared as shocked and perplexed as I was – it was incredibly mind-altering and I did not fully understand what that meant until the end of the first year.

The first semester of my graduate studies was grounded on collaboration and reflection. Through collaboration with my classmates, I learned how to effectively work with group members who challenged my thinking, were just as passionate and engrossed in this experience as I was, and had different viewpoints than my own. My viewpoints had never been challenged in this way in my undergraduate career, therefore, I was not prepared for this big shift in thinking. Supervision meetings held every week were an opportunity for me to reflect on my performance in the clinic, discuss with my supervisor any challenges that I encountered in the sessions and to propose new ideas and plans for the following sessions. Each supervisor had a different area of expertise and varying expectations, which meant that we were not only learning to collaborate with different students for each client, but with all the supervisors as well.  Different pairs of students were also assigned to work with a client, which further promoted teamwork and diversified our experience. Sharing the same client with a classmate already gave us so much to talk about. Our daily reflections fired the gut instinct and emotional brain circuits of the nonverbal mammalian brain as we naturally and effortlessly exchanged ideas, reflected on our experiences and worked together to produce the best outcome for our client.

Reflection became a big part of my journey to self-actualization. As a graduate program with only sixteen students, we were all expected to tie the assigned readings to our experiences in the clinic. Through classroom discussions and in the form of journal entries, we reflected on moments of success with our clients as well as moments that made us scratch our head. This reflection was done in a non-judgemental way in the classroom with the guidance of the instructor who also served as a clinical supervisor. In fact, all of our classroom instructors were supervisors which made our classroom discussions that much more fruitful. While I did not understand this at the time, collaborative reflection became an important and necessary refuge for me to process and fully rationalize what was happening in this vigorous experience.

Reflecting became a second nature for me. When I reflected back on each session with my clinical supervisors, classmates and even within my own head, I became accustomed to analyzing not only each client’s behaviors, but also my own. Although it did not come easily in the beginning, it began to feel more organic as I developed a sense of security in the environment I was in. I made it my mission to fully immerse myself in the process and began to feel comfortable making suggestions to my supervisors about the direction of therapy. As I was given greater independence in the therapy sessions, I had no choice but to follow my intuition also referred to as my gut instinct in moments of uncertainty. I started to become so engrossed in the client in front of me that I had no moment to feel fear or discomfort in the sessions. I am positive that such mental growth would not have been innately possible if reflection had not been integrated into the curriculum.

This notion refers to the spindle neurons also known as von Economo neurons that make us aware of our unconscious decision-making brain circuits by processing our experiences through the 200 million-year-old emotional circuits. We get a subconscious feeling when making a decision but are unaware of the calculations behind those inputs. Reflection allows one to integrate experience into thinking and to better understand where those decisions came from. That is exactly what reflection did for me; it allowed me to ultimately understand my subconscious choices on a conscious level.

By the end of the first year of graduate school, experience became the sole motivator, not grades. In the book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about the habit loop and explains that the process within our brains is a three-step loop. First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

We believe that as students and as people, often times, we make decisions unconsciously without consciously knowing what triggered the decision. As a beginning student clinician, MV often had to rely in moments of uncertainty on her inner gut level reasoning as discussed in JS’ new book or in her previous blog on knowledge fluency. Reflection coupled with an environment that fostered wisdom and creativity allowed MV to understand the mental and emotional processes that triggered that action. She notes that the “reward” no longer was receiving a good grade in clinical work, as academic grades did not exist for the clinical practicum or for the journal reflections. Afterall, how could one place an academic letter grade on experience? For MV and other students in this situation, the direct “reward” became witnessing of a smile on the client in front of the student and that was that signal that MV says she remembered at a gut level. The slight non-verbal signals processed unconsciously between patient and clinician left a lasting impression on MV and became the sole driving force: the “reward.”  Here, we have the lesson for higher education today.

Co-curricular involvement and Experiential Education

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