If asked to capture some of my firm beliefs as an educator in as few words as possible, two statements immediately come to mind. The first being, we are all learners. We are born learners and do it naturally. Regardless of age, circumstance, or ability, our intelligence is dynamic, and each and everyone one of has the potential to learn. Of course people differ greatly – in aptitude, talents, interests, strengths and challenges– but everyone can learn, change and grow through application and experience, because we are all learners.
Secondly, learning happens everywhere. Learning is not an entity reserved for the school day and building. Learning happens in parks, on streets, in living rooms, at dinner tables, online and in a multitude of other places outside of the confines of brick and mortar each and every day. In fact, learning sometimes happens despite our formal education system which at times works against all that we value and intuitively know about learning and learners as outlined above. Learning happens alone, or in groups and in the presence of mentors, friends, family, colleagues, elders and perfect strangers. Learning is ubiquitous, abundant and infinite.
Children learn most deeply when involved in engaging, first-hand, relevant experiences. They learn by thinking. They learn by asking questions and exploring answers. They learn when doing. They learn when active and involved in experiences they see as meaningful.
I marvelled at an amazing example of this earlier this summer as our family embarked on a road trip across Western Canada. As we drove through four provinces, all the way to the West Coast of Vancouver Island, we were in awe of the stunning and varied Canadian landscapes and I was in awe of my own children’s bountiful learning.
For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of our journey was seeing how my twelve and ten-year-olds were sponges and interested in knowing more about so much they encountered. Sarah and Nate learned about mountain formation, tides, erosion, landslides, mirages, rock classification, inlets and rainforests. When there was service in the mountains or in our hotel at night they Googled questions that came up…. the definition of a city, interesting facts about sand dollars and bull kelp, the sleeping habits of cows, and how the Capilano Suspension Bridge was made. Learning is driven by interest and curiosity.
Yes, technology does make travel easier. Having information about schedules, hours of operation, hotel bookings and endless tidbits at our fingertips can be a blessing, at times. On top of that, GPS is most definitely an innovation that simplifies travel, makes things safer, and reduces frustration. Millie (our name for our GPS voice) did get annoying on occasion but she was a huge help in our travels J. However, when the opportunity arose on the ferry to the Island I made sure to go old school on my two after I spotted a map of BC for us to trace our travels and mark our stops along the way. We used the grid to locate places, symbols along with the legend to explore things of interest, and the scale to estimate the distances between our stops. The kids were so into this map work and I was glad that I made the point of doing this with them. When relevant, learning is natural and spontaneous.
On day 1 of travel Nate invented a game that never did seem to get old. We all had to predict the population of each town or city we went through. We would then have to research the actual population and the closest predictor without going over would get the point. This often led to finding out other interesting facts about the place such as, what it is known for, where its name originated and further conversations about each location. Learning is motivating and fun.
My kids experienced many things for the first time on our trip including; touching a stingray, feeding seals, surfing (and getting up repeatedly J), eating fish tacos, swimming in the Pacific, and walking in a breathtaking rainforest. They saw the tallest tree in BC, heard a lighthouse foghorn, and pushed limits and comfort zones on water slides, zip lines and ropes courses. Learning is about risk taking. It is about the exhilaration of opening our mind to new possibilities and opportunities.
Sarah and Nate met many interesting people, both Canadians and from around the world. They encountered and were inspired by artists of many kinds, magicians, street performers and numerous others passionate about where they live and about the work they do. They learned that there really is such a thing as too much take- out or fast food and nothing beats a home cooked meal. They learned what “white knuckle driving” means and the fluctuating price of gas. My daughter also learned never, ever carry a cell phone onto a floating dock. They skipped rocks in the ocean, watched a sunset on a ferry, made a wish on a shooting star, built an Inuksuk along every trail we hiked and felt the true pride of being a Canadian. There is something so powerful and inspirational about traveling in your own country, particularly one as diverse and incredible as Canada. Learning is organic and contextual.
My two are collectors. Whenever, we travel they are keen on gathering mementos or keepsakes. And although they did manage to come home with a Tofino t-shirt and a couple of other trinkets, what mattered to them most were the stones they collected in each of the places we visited, as well as their bags full of sea shells. These are their treasures. It is these items along with our hundreds of pictures, numerous anecdotes and the abundance of wonderful memories we made along our travels that matter most. Learning is personal, passionate, extraordinary and meaningful.
Next week, as our students return to school from their summer adventures whether this involved travel, camping, weekends at the lake, day camps, hanging with friends or hanging at home, many teachers will be asking this age old question through Ice Breaker/Get to Know You Activities, “What did you do this summer?”.
Perhaps, more fittingly the question we should be asking is…” What did you learn this summer?”
Much of the learning my own children experienced this past summer will stay with them for a lifetime. Alfred Mercier once said, “What we learn with pleasure, we will never forget”. As educators we need to take what we know about the type of authentic, real learning that motivates our students and build on that. We need to harness the passion, and enthusiasm our students have for their own areas of interest, and bring it into the school setting. We must ensure that the individuals in our classrooms are engaged, curious, and motivated, while facilitating learning that is relevant for them and to their futures.
As educators, by creating learning opportunities that are more experiential, student centered and driven by learner interests, questions and passions we will see an increase in engagement and commitment. By constructing learning environments and activities that are more inquiry and project based, design focused and personalized, we will help develop capable, motivated, life-long learners. As educators, it is our job to help our students “create a roadmap” ….