Of all of the educative experiences I have been lucky enough to help shape, expeditionary trips have been the ones where I have witnessed the most significant learning take place. With that said, there are some scaffolds I have learned about that guides can use to allow students to create the most meaning from trips; thus, I began to write a manual composed of the best practices I have found. Eventually, I hope some other educator somewhere will make use of it! As I am working on it I will post completed excerpts here. This is the first of those.
For Educators and Mentors
“In considering how to conduct the schooling of our young, adults have two problems to solve.” wrote Neil Postman, the prescient educator and linguist. “One is an engineering problem; the other, a metaphysical one.” Engineering problems, as anyone who took such a course in their own education will know, can be rather complex, but at the end of the day are technical – they deal with the means by which a problem will be solved (in this case, how learning will occur). “But to become a different person because of something you have learned – to appropriate an insight, a concept, a vision, so that your world is altered – that is a different matter.”
This manual is intended to provide value to students on expeditionary trips – especially those centered on learning about themselves through the guise of outdoor excursions. While there is quite a bit of discussion about how students will learn on course (the engineering problem), the purpose is to inspire solutions to the metaphysical problem. Solving that problem requires the likes of you – guides who are sensitive to the inner needs of students. There is no prescribed list of actions that will get you there. You, your life experiences and intuition, and your energy are the key.
Of course, for a trip to be transformative for a student, it must also be transformative for her guides. A guide having an authentic experience of opening her eyes to a reality or perspective of the world previously unknown transfers to our students, allowing them to open up to authentic experience as well.
In a world of unprecedented rates of change, I find no task more important than learning about ourselves; in the time we spend connected to our technology, we are disconnected from who we actually are. As if there weren’t enough opinions out there on what we should value, think, and believe from our own family, the web has made this process of self-formation even more challenging. Steven Pressfield wrote “Our job in this life is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” K-12 learners are smack-dab in the middle of this modern paradox, and what we are offering them is a path to taking the time away from SnapChat that is necessary for finding themselves and, hopefully as a result, living an inspired and contented life. What more could society, the economy, and other stakeholders in education ask for?
Thus, the value of this manual is provided through engaging students’ teachers, mentors, and guides in an exercise of ‘perspective expansion’ before and during an expedition, as well as providing tips and anecdotes intended to be internalized and expanded upon by the reader – to be made his or her own.
Now before we dive into what, exactly, is perspective expansion and why does the cooky author of this manual believe it is the heart of educative endeavors, both for students and teachers, let me provide you with some background into my own journey.
I came to Education by way of the Sciences. With a degree in Biogeochemistry and a desire to ‘save the world’ from our environmental issues, I found myself frustrated with the lack of ability to ‘make real change’ through publishing scientific papers. Thus, the switch to education. After all, Postman informed me, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”
First, I taught at a test-focused Charter from a chain of schools that consistently ranked at the top of the U.S.’s rankings for best schools. After creating a yearly river rafting trip with students and noticing the transformative nature of those trips, I decided that more learning occurred on outdoor excursions than in AP classes, and have since taught in both Montessori and Expeditionary Learning environments as well as at Outdoor Education camps.
Accordingly, this manual represents a diversity of educational, scientific, and outdoor experiences and perspectives. Consider it, therefore, ‘non-denominational’ – it is an attempt to do as is suggested in the Group Leadership section of this manual: to listen to all perspectives, step outside of our own experiences and desires, and to derive a plan made up from an amalgamation of previously composed ideas and thoughts that best serve the community (the students). All I have done is compiled the great ideas and works of many people who came before me, and added some of my personal examples and stories to them. Kurt Hahn, the founder of the line of thinking that lead to Expeditionary Learning and Outward Bound would have had it no other way: “It is in education as in medicine, you should harvest the wisdom of a thousand years,” he relayed when telling a story about why his philosophy drew upon so many different traditions.
Now, of course, this brings us back to the idea of perspective expansion. Though the following descriptions can get a bit heady and philosophical, I believe them fundamental in grounding trip facilitators in the root of our practice.
In 1996, one of the most influential theoretical physicists of the 20th century, David Bohm, published a book called On Dialogue. In essence, the book explained his belief that too many people have conversations simply to win an argument or to convince another person of their point of view. Bohm’s concept of Dialogue, as opposed to discussion, consists of conversation with the sole purpose of stepping into someone else’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. During dialogue, participants work to ‘suspend’ making any judgements or assumptions about the statements made. Can you imagine what the world would look like if the majority of conversations were dialogue? Needless to say, because of the task of taking on multiple (sometimes competing) perspectives of the world, dialogue is one example of perspective expansion.
Of course, to fully understand perspective expansion, we must extend our analysis beyond just dialogue and into education. Learning mathematics is perspective expansion as it is giving us a new lens (albeit an abstract one) through which to view the world. Now, I wouldn’t want to isolate and only critique the abstract nature of mathematics, as language is also abstract representation of perspective. Thought, itself, is an abstraction! Bohm noted that perception (through our senses) is the first presentation of material, and our thoughts are therefore a representation of reality; the language here describes this quite fittingly, a re-presentation is the second presentation of reality! When I first see the glowing mesa at the last light of day, there is no judgement passed on that reality; it is only when my thoughts re-present the material as a beautiful sight to be enjoyed (if I have already reached camp and feel safe) or as a sign of horrific danger coming (if I have yet to reach my destination for the night) that I pass judgement on the sight.
There are two important points for which I will pause here to take note. First, the activities included in this manual are intended to empower kids to recognize that our thoughts have this ability to ‘create’ reality for us by not selecting all pertinent information we sense, but by focusing our attention on just portions of it. Once they recognize that, the activities are meant to enable them to take control of their thoughts as tools for creating the reality they want to live in. Not to get too hippy on you here, but by some descriptions, the Buddhist concept of ‘enlightenment’ is simply seeing the world as it really is, without all of our hopes and fears overlaid on top of it. In this age of smartphones and time spent indoors for our children, this consideration is more important than ever because, as Richard Louv argued in Last Child in the Woods, our children are suffering from ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder,’ which “by its broadest interpretation [. . .] is an atrophied awareness.” And, at the end of the day, our awareness is one of the only things we actually own. Our bodies change and break down, memories fade, and possessions are lost, but what we choose to pay attention to is always our choice (even when we make the choice we don’t want to make).
To be healthy and contented, humans have to feel as though they are in control (of themselves) and they are using their talents and capacities effectively. To do that, they must be able to control their attention. Through these trips, we are hoping that our kids change what they attune to, broadening awareness and giving them the ability to create thoughts that positively impact their reality. Being away from smartphones and the normal ‘bubbles’ they inhabit will be greatly helpful in allowing them to practice awareness, and you will need to guide them as well. More on this in Chapter 1 – Challenging Society’s Perspective on Happiness.
The second point is that, although thought is a representation of reality, it can be an incredibly valuable predictive tool; however, there are many forms of knowledge and thought that are not taught in the classroom. Many of these are tacit, and cannot be taught through the use of language, and we, as educators, must both allow space for these modes of thought to flourish, and be alright with the fact that some of the learning that took place will never be known to us. If you have ever had a ‘gut feeling’ that led you to a correct decision, you know what I mean. To expand upon that idea, I will include this excerpt from Jurgen Ruesch’s little-known book Disturbed Communication, in which wrote:
Language … does not permit the consideration of all aspects of behavior at once. An individual who wishes to speak or write about an event must use language which by necessity refers to some selected aspect of that event. A listener is capable of understanding the event in its entirety only after having studied not one but a great many selected aspects. Because this procedure is very time-consuming and renders written reports rather bulky, shortcuts are frequently taken and consequently many details are omitted. When fewer words are used and a lesser number of aspects are treated, the listener is inclined to pay too much attention to what is mentioned and disregard that which is omitted. This peculiarity of language and the resulting difficulties in the description of behavior have brought about certain verbal classifications which are not based upon the characteristics of pathology but rather upon those of the human reporter and the language he uses.
Thus, some of the learnings on trips cannot actually be spoken, we simply have to sense that they have taken place, and there will be activities in this manual and moments on your trip where you will not ever discuss what took place or what was thought – you will simply let students sense the moment in their own way. The process of block painting on solos is an example of this. Make sure to respect these important times, as they are lacking in our everyday lives! However, this same idea alerts us to the fact that language actually structures our perception of ‘reality.’ We, as educators, can use this to our advantage. By structuring our language carefully, we can actually help to create the experience the student is having. As described below, the learner will ultimately have the final say in what they make of the experience and how they choose to learn from it and ‘own it,’ but if we can help to shape the direct experience they have, the meanings made may change for the good.
As trip facilitators there are also two important considerations on perspective that we must keep in mind: First, the dominant narrative behind the given perspective, and second, the perspective of the learners themselves, the importance of which is vastly underestimated in learning experiences everywhere.
The first consideration is much easier to describe. Reading John Muir or Aldo Leopold will provide learners with insights into a great naturalist’s perspective, but we must be aware that the perspective provided comes from the narrative of white, educated Americans in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. While these folks certainly experienced hardships, they may be very different than those of our students, and we must take this into consideration in the way we frame our discussions.
“There is a sad little joke about a fifth-grade teacher in a ghetto school who asked a grim Negro boy, during the course of a ‘science’ lesson, ‘How many legs does a grasshopper have?’,” write Postman and Weingartner in Teaching as a Subversive Activity. “ ‘Oh, man,’ he replied, “I sure wish I had your problems!’ Would you penalize the boy for having different purposes than his teacher and, therefore, for his valuing and perceiving a different reality?” This naturally leads us into our second, more complex consideration – the perspective of the learners themselves.
Just because a learner does not share our perspective on an issue does not mean that we have failed. As educators, we must be aware of the fundamental fact that we have been discussing – that there are “two worlds” in which each individual must reside. The external world that many of us enjoy labeling ‘reality,’ and the internal world of our thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Though the external world exists whether or not we were ever conceived, we can only understand it to the extent that it is filtered through our inner world. As discussed, the process of filtering selects bits of information pertinent to our purpose out of limitless possibilities of things we could pay attention to – Betsy Ross and Mr. Ed, because they have different purposes, peruse a haystack with a needle in it very differently.
Once we have attuned to the bits of information relevant to our purposes, we have created a past experience, which combined with any assumptions we make will attune us to perceive only ‘relevant’ bits of information from new experiences. Thus, nobody can discover the world for anybody else; the fact of the matter is that there are no teachers, only learners. Earl Kelley wrote in Education for What is Real:
Now it comes about that whatever we tell the learner, he will make something that is all his own out of it, and it will be different from what we held so dear and attempted to “transmit.” He will build it into his own scheme of things, and relate it uniquely to what he already uniquely holds as experience. Thus he builds a world all his own, and what is really important is what he makes of what we tell him, not what we intended.
Accordingly, many of the activities in this manual do not ask students to debate on the meaning of readings or ask the facilitator to explain them. Instead, they will ask the students ‘What does this mean to you?’ allowing students to construct their own meaning, and our task as facilitators is to do our best to listen and to take on their perspective. This does not preclude us from ever disseminating our own perspectives; it just frees us from the paradigm of ‘transmitting content’ on trips where the explicit purpose is to develop our students into themselves. After all, knowledge does not exist prior to, independent of, and altogether as a separate entity from the learner. All learners are ‘meaning-makers.’
“If a student goes through 4 years of school [or a trip] and comes out ‘seeing’ things in the way he did when he started, he will act the same. Which means he learned nothing,” wrote Postman. Carl Rogers’s definition of significant learning, from On Becoming a Person, is as follows:
The person comes to see himself differently.
He accepts himself and his feelings more fully.
He becomes more self-confident and self-directing.
He becomes more flexible, less rigid, in his perceptions.
He adopts more realistic goals for himself.
He behaves in a more mature fashion.
He becomes more open to the evidence, both of what is going on outside of himself and of what is going on inside of himself.
Return to these characteristics and their dynamism at the end of your trip to self-reflect on your own facilitation. Depending on your typical outlook (positive or negative), consider drawing forth five positive moments or learnings for every one ‘skill to improve’. Write your review somewhere, and discuss it with the other guides on your trip!
Bohm, David. (2013). On Dialogue. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Kelley, E. (1947). Education for What is Real. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Louv, Richard. (2005). Last child in the woods :saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.
Pressfield, S. (2012). The war of art: Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles. Black Irish Entertainment.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy.
Ruesch, J. (1972). Disturbed Communication: The Clinical Assessment of Normal and Pathological Communicative Behavior. New York, NY: Norton.