Summer Series: Wilderness Maxims for Learning; Part 9

green trees

Maxim 9: –There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing for the conditions.

I love the tongue-in-cheek nature of this week’s Wilderness Maxims for Learning. In education, this comes up against a tough reality. I taught in middle schools, and I am sure I delivered plenty of lessons that some of my students experienced as, “bad weather.” Still, the more I taught, the more I realized learners could be prepped to take on any challenge so long as they built up the kind of self-reflection, grit, and earnest curiosity that any meaningful task requires. 

Hiking in a snow squall, a rainstorm, or in gusty winds can be a joy with the right tools and gear, or a torment without them. This sentiment is also true of learning. Like any hike, the goal of education must include enjoyment, even if lessons occasionally turn out to be Type 2 fun.

Connection to Learning:

Earlier in this series, I spoke about being assigned to ‘shadow’ a student for a day during my graduate studies in teaching. I referred to this student in my notes as ‘Bart,’ whom I was also assigned to interview about their life and academic history. Through my discussions with Bart, I was struck by how vaguely sad and lonely they seemed to me. They were an active, social kid with plenty of friends. They were athletic, got decent grades, excelled in writing and math, and played the trumpet. Still, Bart felt that school was unconnected to real life. They could not name anyone outside of class that they spoke seriously with about their writing, anything they had read, academics in general, or even life, dreams, and future goals. Bart spoke without any clear agency, saying that some things just came easily to them, like math and writing, while reading was hard.

Photo Credit: Philip Canterbury

More than anything, Bart was excited to express their opinion that learning should be fun. They said class should be a balance of “fun projects, with some games, and then back to work.” Fun, in Bart’s opinion, included opportunities to compete against the work of other students. This reminded me of my own 8th-grade Science teacher who, every year, compelled all of his students to memorize every bone and muscle in the human anatomy by structuring this unit around a daily game. Every year, this teacher promised that any student who advanced through the entire game would receive an A on the final exam, so every 8th grader studied rigorously to try to win. While no student ever actually won, the teacher compelled thousands of students over the decades to learn more about human anatomy than they’d previously imagined possible. Years after, the sternocleidomastoid is still my favorite muscle and the trapezium is my favorite bone.

Tackling a steep hike, learning to read novels, or repairing a car engine are not conventionally ‘fun’ activities, but we can still take joy and meaning from these acts if we engage with them. However, some of us have a knack for rendering everything and anything as ‘boring.’ I worked with a student, once, whose default was non-participation, and when I took the class outside to try slack-lining in a nearby park, this student still groaned about being bored, even while I suspected it may not have been entirely true. Through my work as a classroom teacher, I found that many students had alreadt academically checked out by the time they reached my classroom in the 6th grade. Too many students have become convinced that learning is just not fun, even though we often know as adults that being a lifelong student is about fully embracing the quest for knowledge

A challenging learning opportunity presented through personalized and enjoyable activities could engage more students where they might otherwise fail to even attempt a boring or uninspired lesson. No one is going to learn to love hiking if there is a lot of pressure around the process. For example, teaching timelines is a somewhat technical challenge that many of my former students often struggled with or even failed to learn. When I assigned students to create a personal timeline of their lives, where the design could be anything they wanted, however, our class research and preparation yielded more impressive final results. Students had created beautiful pieces that held significance to them while also mastering a particularly boring content standard. 

unrecognizable person with umbrella on beach
Photo by Dziana Hasanbekava on

Learners are capable of weathering any storm as long as they feel comfortable making mistakes, are relatively prepared, and have encouraging guidance that adds to the situation. At the same time, it is up to students to constantly challenge their perspective to find excitement and interest in learning, hopefully with inspiration from a teacher skilled at making lessons more engaging.

Discussion/Journaling Prompt:

Think of something you participated in that should have been ‘a sunny walk in the park,’ only it turned out to be a complete disaster, and describe all of the ways it went wrong, trying to not wallow in any negative or hurtful details, if possible. You can either “free write” about anything that comes to mind when you think of this misadventure, or you can consider any of the following guided questions and prompts to explore this more closely:

  • In what ways was your readiness to engage in this activity overestimated or misjudged?
  • Were you able to roll with the events as they happened, or did you find you struggled to adjust as things fell apart or shifted?
  • What would “better weather” have looked like in your failed attempt at this activity?
  • In what ways were you able to enjoy yourself despite the challenges, even if it is only in hindsight?
  • What choices or reactions would you have changed or done differently, and why would that be important or helpful?
  • What character traits might have been more helpful at the moment?
  • How would you choose to react differently if faced with a similar experience again?

Come back for Part 10 and the finale of this Summer Series on Wilderness Maxims for Learning. Like, share, subscribe, or comment if these ideas resonate.

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