Education as Adventure

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.

Model What You Teach

One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something, how to say goodbye. You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenge. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight, and violence with calm clarity. And how to celebrate what you value and value what you celebrate.


In this way you model the most important lessons one person can give to another. You create a community. You state with your very life that a loving, caring community is possible and, thusly, create the seeds for a more loving and sustainable future. You think of teaching not as a job, not even an avocation, but just what you are doing now with your life. You think of each moment as an opportunity to learn, to expand your sense of self, to see others in you and you in others. All of us in this world that we share need this sort of gift. This is what I hope to celebrate and wish for all of us this season.


My first teaching assignment was in the Peace Corps, in a small village in the bush in Sierra Leone. One day, my classroom was invaded by a swarm of bees. They settled in my book cabinet. I imagine as I think back on it that they were “killer bees” but I don’t know if that was true or not. To get rid of the bees, I got out insect spray that I had somehow acquired and gathered my students, in a line, outside the classroom door. Each was armed with a bucket of water to throw on the bees, and me, in case they chased me from the room. I put on a raincoat, hat, pants and boots. I entered the classroom, sprayed the cabinet—and the bees flew out in a swarm from the room. A seeming miracle. The students and I celebrated.


The next day, my neighbor, the paramount chief (one of five powerful traditional tribal chiefs in the country) came to see me. The whole village was of the Mende tribe. His chief wife, one of five, was a tall, majestic woman. She seemed to like making a fool of me. She only spoke deep Mende, the language of the bush, not the more modern version I spoke, and not Krio, a hybrid language of English, Portuguese, and Sierra Leonean languages; she certainly did not speak English. Whenever I tried to speak with her in new Mende, she always corrected me in old Mende. Anyway, she was in trouble. She had heard about how I had chased the bees from my classroom. Another swarm had invaded the hut where the chief’s beer and food was stored. The maintenance of food and beer was her responsibility, so she tried to duplicate my miracle and somehow chase out the bees without using the spray or protective clothing. It didn’t work. She had twenty to thirty stings and was possibly in shock. The chief said I had to give him whatever medicines I had to cure her. There was a shaman living near the the village, but no medical doctor within hours. The Peace Corps provided all its volunteers with a large first aid and medicine kit. I gave him skin cream for bites, aspirin—I did what I could, fearing that neither my knowledge nor medicine would be of much help.


Three or four days later, while I was resting on my porch in my hammock, I heard the voices of several people. I lived in the Paramount chief’s rest house which was set back maybe a hundred feet from the road. The group stopped at the path leading to the house and one person, a woman, left the group on her own and was walking toward me. I got up to meet her. It was the chief’s first wife. Obviously, she had recovered quickly. I don’t know if what I gave the Chief cured her, or whether it was her belief in the power of the medications, or what. She walked up to me. Now remember, no one had heard her speak any language but deep Mende in years, maybe forever. Yet when she stopped and looked in my eyes, she thanked me, in English. Good English. I started crying. And laughing. Then came a celebration. After that, she no longer made fun of me. In fact, when I got extremely sick a few months later, she helped me get to a doctor.


The world is a miraculous place, if only we can make it so.



**The Good Men Project is a great site to check out. They also published a blog of mine today, on the relationship of all humans.