Summer Series: Wilderness Maxims for Learning; Part 8

man standing on top of rock at daytime

Maxim 8: –Coming down is always more dangerous than going up

In the outdoors, one often finds opportunities to ask, “Can I climb that?” Perhaps a natural spirit of adventure, daring, or enthusiasm for vistas compels certain hikers to pursue the answer, whereas others might be inclined to leave the question unasked. Many explorers have asked it, climbed the thing, and then found that they couldn’t get back down safely by the same route. 

Inertia and gravity act differently when our body weight is moving down instead of up. When hiking out (after hiking in), one is considerably more tired, has already spent a significant amount of energy, and may be prone to making avoidable mistakes. A twisted ankle is much more likely to happen during the second half of a hike than the first half. 

In the classroom, insufficient attention is paid to the celebration after an assignment, reflecting on the process after the struggles of achievement, or to the descent down from the learning peaks throughout the year. Students sink or swim with each assignment, the class moves ahead, and the process of completing unit assignments repeats itself. While ‘the return’ portion of the event is inescapable during a hike, classrooms seem to gloss right over this integral part of the learning journey. Where is the expeditionary camaraderie? What does “coming down” after learning look like in a classroom, and how can this be dangerous to learners if ignored?

Photo Credit: Philip Canterbury

Connection to Learning:

I taught a student who, although they excelled in their coursework, often voiced concerns like, “If I don’t _____, then I won’t _____, which means I can’t _____, and then I won’t get into college and get a good job and afford a house or a family…” Often, what triggered this was some trivial mid-year diagnostic test, a short writing assignment, or a low-stakes quiz. While I was able to work with this student over time to manage and lessen their anxiety, I found this kind of mindset pervasive in classrooms. Historian Arnold Toynbee notably summed up this notion, which is that learning can sometimes feel like “…one [expletive removed] thing after another.” 

Whether teachers acknowledge it or not, students are aware of the arbitrary nature of content standards and don’t care so much about bureaucratic box-checking. Indeed, the emperor has no clothes when it comes to why students are assigned what they are assigned. The answer is almost always, ‘Because this material is given preference on the end-of-the-year test, and our school needs to raise those scores, or else.’

Test-oriented teaching can suck the life out of any subject, whether in a science, maths, social studies, or language class. ‘It’s important to do well on this so you don’t struggle with that,’ isn’t inspiring to a learner who doesn’t naturally engage with the material and has not been invited to. By focusing on cherry-picked content standards—instead of the development of employable life skills like grit, adaptability, zest, self-awareness, and problem-solving—students are invited to check out at any time. A relay of hoops to jump through (for their own sake) is not enticing if it is all that learners are given to do year in and year out for over a decade. It’s the learning equivalent of an employee clearing their Inbox of data-entry forms only to have their supervisor replace it with an even larger stack and a quick, “Great work. Keep it up.” Ad nauseam.

Photo Credit: Philip Canterbury

Pointing at administrators, school boards, and education policymakers, we need to do a better job of building ‘coming down’ into our pursuit of ‘raising achievement.’ Can you imagine hiking with someone who afterward refused to talk about the experience you’d just shared or any of the details of the hike—good or bad? My guess is you’d decline an offer to go on another hike with them the following day. Humans enjoy discussing shared experiences. We build bonds and trust that way, and we explore our thoughts about the world by discussing them with others. You likely wouldn’t want to see a movie with someone who refused to discuss it afterward, let alone continue to learn with someone like this. Yet, this is what teachers are asked to do with students every day of the year. “Grab your pencils. We are continuing with the next thing that comes after the last thing which followed that other thing so we’ll be ready for the final thing someday sooner than you’d like.” This is an obvious trap, and I believe we can do better.

Discussion/Journaling Prompt:

Think about the past week or two and reflect on all that you planned, attempted, accomplished, or floundered at in daily life. Be sure to highlight what worked, what didn’t, and what it was like to adjust along the way. You can either “free write” about anything that comes to mind as you reflect, or you can consider any of the following guided questions and prompts to explore this more closely:

  • At the start of the week, what were your hopes and goals for that week, and how are those similar or different from how the week turned out?
  • What unexpected events, conditions, or realities emerged throughout the week, and how did you have to change course and adjust?
  • In the future, where can you give yourself more praise for all that you’ve attempted, even if it doesn’t go as planned, or more grace for things that are beyond your control, like not having enough energy, facing bad weather, being delayed by events, etc.
  • What lessons do you think you’d like to remember for next week? 

Come back for Part 9 of this Summer Series on Wilderness Maxims for Learning. Like, share, subscribe, or comment if these ideas resonate.

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