As a child, I dreamed of being an adventurer. My parents traveled every year to different places and countries, and this stimulated my imagination. So, for me college was not just a time to learn a profession or for intellectual study. It was an opportunity for the possibilities of life to reveal themselves and blossom. It was a time to take chances, to discover who I am and the type of life I could lead.
I celebrated my nineteenth birthday in London. I had decided I would spend four months traveling, mostly hitch-hiking through Europe, with few things pre-planned except the time and place of arrival and departure. I had to depend on myself, alone, to a degree I never had before. And this was 1966, before such traveling was common. The first night, I panicked. What had I done? Here I was in Europe where I knew no one for thousands of miles. The only way I was able to fall asleep that night was by promising myself I would call my parents the next morning.
The next morning, I went to a café for breakfast. It was relatively sunny for London. To make a call back then, you had to wait on a line for a public phone with an overseas extension. As I was waiting, I realized—if I was desperate enough to call home my first full day in Europe, I could be courageous enough to befriend a stranger. So I left the line, walked up to a stranger who looked like someone I could talk to, and did just that. We became good friends for a few days and I didn’t call home. I sent a postcard.
I think all of us have this yearning to grow, to know we can dare to engage life, to know what calls to us and be able to respond openly to it. And this is what education can be. Each teacher can ask him or herself how learning in their particular subject can be more of an adventure and excite students to learn. This is not just about taking students on trips out of the classroom, although that can obviously be a stimulating way to learn. Nor is this simply a content question. It is not just asking what books or issues or questions might students find stimulating, although these are important. It is also a pedagogical one: what makes any study stimulating and meaningful? What forms of study support a child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn?
Having some choice and sense of control in what you study is one factor. The book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, examines the “process of achieving happiness through control over one’s inner life.” By documenting the link between achieving optimal experiences and happiness, it gives us clues to motivating and improving learning. Make learning a challenge, something demanding your full concentration, but not so challenging you can’t handle it. Have clear goals with immediate feedback. In some way, involve other people in the work. Get so immersed that you step out of time. While I was in Europe, I stepped out of thoughts of the future and my life schedule, of high school to college to job, and was immersed in now. I think optimal learning often involves working on a skill that you yearn to develop but which you doubt you have.
Another way to do this is to ask: What are the emotional and intellectual needs of my specific students? Teaching to the personal and developmental needs of children not only provides necessary cognitive tools but helps them feel recognized and valued. Educator and author Kieran Egan elucidates different kinds of cognitive tools and ways of understanding the world, from the somatic (physical), mythic, and romantic, to the philosophical and ironic. It is important that children develop the cognitive tools appropriate to their stage of development as fully as they can. Two to eight year olds might see the world in terms of mythic struggles of good versus evil. Structuring lessons in terms of such binary opposites will make learning more digestible and exciting. Children from eight to fifteen look for self-definition, detail, standing out. They want to know the limits of experience. Structuring lessons with stories of romance, wonder, and awe, rebelling from the old and breaking free from dependence makes education come alive to them.
Analyze what makes learning an adventure for you so you can make learning more exciting for your students. Or, if you’re not a teacher, consider how to conceptualize your work or anything you do as an adventure, so each moment becomes an opportunity to make life more meaningful.