Blog Series

Learning Like a Traveler

by Michelle George on Sep 28, 2017

  • General Education

The nights are finally beginning to cool and the trees are coloring from greens and yellows to the rusty hues of autumn. The freedom of summer vacation seems behind us as we settle back into the classroom recharged and ready for a new school year. Hopefully, you were able to slip away from your familiar places and adventure out for a bit. My husband and I were blessed to check an item off our bucket lists and visit Ireland this summer. As I transition back into the routine of the school, I have been revisiting my travels and reflecting on what I learned. Aside from the excitement of new places and the great food, I realized the clear parallel between successful traveling and successful learning. I propose both feats require three main steps.

1) Do some planning

To start off right, it’s important to do some planning. What is it you want to learn? Where do you want to go? What piques your personal passions? Every locale and every avenue of knowledge is deep and wide; it’s impossible to glean it all in a single trip. If you really want to delve in deep, you need to do some homework first. My husband and I began our preparations with reading. We started with nonfiction travel guides like Rick Steves and Lonely Planet, and then moved to Leon Uris’s Ireland: A Terrible Beauty. I’m fascinated by literature, so I reread books by James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and several contemporary novels like those by Maeve Binchy. My husband checked out books about the flora and fauna of Ireland, since that is where his passions lie. We then checked out several films. We searched through YouTube as well. We watched videos that taught us what to pack and how to navigate Ireland’s perilous roadways. We watched the “Top 10 Sites” posted by several different travelers. I also downloaded several songs from Ireland, traditional folk music along with U2 rock classics. Armed with this background knowledge, we were better prepared to really appreciate the country when we arrived.
I think learning requires a similar approach. You have to first get a broad overview, and then dig into the elements that intrigue you. I tell my students Wikipedia is not innately evil, as many teachers imply. In fact, the site provides a broad overview of thousands of complex subjects, so even a novice can get the big picture. Only then is a learner prepared to dig in and truly learn with any depth of understanding.

2) Set goals and prioritize

The next step for a successful traveler is to set some goals. Ireland measures approximately 32,599 square miles; it is nearly the size of Indiana. Yet, even though Ireland is relatively small, as far as countries go, it is impossible to truly explore the length and breadth of it in a single vacation. We had to prioritize. We got a map of the country, and divided it into fourths. We then booked an AirBnB central to each quadrant. Next, we identified the top attractions in each area and prioritized which we most wanted to visit. Even though Ireland is smallish, the opportunities abound. To help us narrow our choices, we talked to friends who had already visited Ireland. The personal interview is a powerful research tool for all sorts of learning goals. In the end, we had to eliminate some interesting destinations to provide enough time for others. For example, we crossed off swapping spit with thousands of tourists at the Blarney Stone to visit St. Anne’s Church in Cork. The bells were well worth the tradeoff.

Learners also are more successful when they identify and prioritize their goals. Every competent teacher knows it is essential to identify objectives before choosing activities. Backward planning requires knowing the end goal first. Students also benefit when they not only know the objectives, but have a voice in choosing the content. For example, a student is much more engaged when she can choose her favorite country when exploring different governing systems.

3) Record and reflect

learn-like-a-traveler-3The third crucial component for both traveling and learning is taking time to record and reflect. While we are enjoying an experience, we are usually confident we will hold that memory forever. The ocean along the Copper Coast of Ireland was such a stunning emerald blue, and St. Brigid’s Well so poignant, I was confident I would never forget. (St. Brigid of Kildare is the patron saint of Ireland’s women—particularly fallen women.) Yet, as I was writing this, I had to flip back through my travel journal to be sure of the saint’s name. Memory fails, but journaling leaves a record. Photographs, sketches, and doodles not only provide a visual reminder, but research is suggesting that doodling and “sketchnotes” actually improve learning. An article in Edweek.org cites a 2009 study that found students who doodled while listening to a recorded phone call remembered 29 percent more than those who did not (Gammill). 

Reflection can move learning from the knowledge and comprehension level to critical thinking levels of synthesis, analysis, and evaluation. An Internet article posted by the Harvard Business School reported intentional reflection on learning and/or experiences elevates understanding and strengthens retention.

Just like traveling, deep learning takes time. In Ireland, we repeatedly saw the road sign “Go Mall” as we traveled. At first, we were on the lookout for large shopping centers and, frankly, relieved when we didn’t find them. Eventually, we realized “Go Mall” means “Go Slowly” in Gaelic. I’m sure the intention was to protect pedestrians and children, but the imperative is applicable for travelers and learners alike. Taking time to make connections, discover patterns, and process what you have learned and experienced makes the difference between a surface tourist and a true explorer.

Perhaps the strongest connection in the analogy between traveling and learning is encapsulated by a quote from Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Transformation is a gift of both travel and learning. Now that summer is over, we can return to the classroom and continue the journey with our students. Enjoy!

Works Cited

Gammill, Deidra. "The Benefits of Using Doodling and Sketchnotes in the Classroom." Education Week Teacher. 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 09 Sept. 2017.
Gino, Francesca. "Learning By Thinking: How Reflection Improves Performance." HBS Working Knowledge. 11 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 Sept. 2017.

Action-Packed Expeditions Motivate Adolescent Readers: Each level of Passport Reading Journeys® includes a two-week, expedition that utilizes high-interest science, math, fine art, literature, and social studies topics to teach literacy.


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