Summer Series: Wilderness Maxims for Learning; Part 7

boys in green and brown uniform standing beside brown trees

Maxim 7: –Hike with a buddy whenever possible.

Solitude, self-sufficiency, and solo adventures in the wilderness can be immensely powerful, as we hinted at in the first post of this Summer Series on Wilderness Maxims for Learning. As a single explorer, you alone set the pace. You can break as you like for as little or as much time as you please. Plans can be changed without discussion, disagreement, or delay. The lone explorer is free to focus on tackling challenging terrain with speed or to meander and enjoy the trail in no particular rush as they see fit. Solo treks can sometimes feel like spending quality time with the entire planet Earth. Indeed, one is never truly even alone; the landscape is always your constant companion. 

Independent studying can be equally intimate and enthralling, even if we don’t often use such charged language to talk about our learning. Anyone who has ever been fully engaged in a book, a research topic, or building a presentation knows the thrills and joys of the high-focus flow zone. Even when we may be deeply enjoying our independent studies, though, there will always be facets and perspectives we miss, forget, or have not considered unless we study and debrief with others. Even the act of taking a break with a study team has enormous benefits that are missed by the solo learner, not to mention the mostly isolated and, likely, overworked teacher. 

Connection to Learning:

In my second year of teaching, I worked under an instructional coach who encouraged my progress throughout the school year. She always provided me with feedback, guidance, and a supportive ear. That may sound ordinary, but this was exceptional in my experience working under instructional coaches, who tend to be either burnt out without much feedback to offer or too overbearing to be helpful. 

Photo Credit: Philip Canterbury

I was already focused on building cooperative learning into my lessons when the instructional coach used a simple yet powerful observation technique in one of my classes. She sat in the back and took ‘minutes’ of a class, which she shared with me afterward. She’d split her notepaper vertically as a kind of ‘double-entry journal’, then recorded everything I said or did on the left as well as everything that the students said or did on the right. I was stunned to see that most of the notes were on the left side of the sheets. It had been my goal to foster student-driven learning, yet most of the work and class time was being used up by me, with few student interactions for learning. Using this simple visual technique, her observation notes convinced me to make massive changes in how students engaged with the material and one another during lessons. I count myself lucky to have had a supportive coach willing to let me figure that out with such a powerful and unmistakable visual tool.

It’s worth pointing out that, while I was trying to foster more opportunities for students to learn with their class buddies, the instructional coach was able to act as my learning buddy during such a critical time in my growth as a teacher. Rather than dictate to me, this coach was able to set her ego aside and play along as a new teacher just learning to foster authentic student learning. She likely had more answers than she let on as I reflected on the lesson, yet she asked earnest questions along with me. This was perhaps the best example in my lifetime of a mentor using ‘a beginner’s mind’ to help me grow, and I’ve tried to replicate this mindset and approach with my students as often as possible.

Advocating for student-driven, cooperative learning is not controversial. These strategies are backed by research data and are mirrored in the long-established, team-oriented structures of business. But what about advocating for teachers to have more time with other buddy teachers? Why is teacher isolation still such a widespread problem in learning? While this blog tends to be learner-oriented, it’s worth pointing out that teachers should still be learners, as well. Yet, we isolate teachers and treat them as if grinding forward under their own wits is the only option. How can we increase co-teaching opportunities and help teachers to stop braving the wilderness alone? 

Photo Credit: Philip Canterbury

Discussion/Journaling Prompt:

Think of something you attempted that would have been much easier, successful, or fun with the help of a buddy. You can either “free write” about anything that comes to mind when you think of this experience, or you can consider any of the following guided questions and prompts to explore this more closely:

  • What was it like to struggle and persist alone, and how would that have changed with a buddy helping?
  • Was it easy to laugh off challenges, or was each hurdle taller than the last? 
  • What character traits are required on a team that are not required when working alone?
  • Consider something you loved doing with family or friends, and imagine you’d done it alone instead. How would that experience have changed?

Come back for Part 8 of this Summer Series on Wilderness Maxims for Learning. Like, share, subscribe, or comment if these ideas resonate.

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