Friday, September 4, 2015

On Deep Learning: What Can Travel Teach Us?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the contours of the deepest learning experiences we have, one of which--at least for those of us who have been afforded the privilege--is travel to very unfamiliar places. I am now eight months beyond the trip I took to Ecuador with a group of students, where we lived in an invasion community outside of Guayaquil, learning about and understanding the challenges faced by a materially impoverished people.  I can recall experiences, sensations, people, and ideas more clearly from that trip than I can from almost any other experience of my life. My students, too, were profoundly affected.  One of them, a senior, decided after our trip that she wanted to do a year of service abroad after graduation, and is now teaching in Micronesia.
With students from Assumption College in downtown Guayaquil.
I tend to have a poor memory for my everyday life, probably because I spend more time than I should inside my head, but every one of my international travel experiences brings back to me a rich trove of memories, and has affected me deeply in some way or another.  I also know that many of my best book and article projects stemmed from insights I experienced while traveling, or were conceived of while I was on the road.  My cognitive faculties always seem to be in their highest gears when I am moving through unfamiliar places. This probably helps explain why I am always searching for reasons to go abroad, and jump on such opportunities whenever I can.

The question I have been mulling lately is this: what makes traveling to an unfamiliar place such a profound learning experience?  I have seen it change the lives and perspective of so many of the hundreds of students I have traveled abroad with to Ecuador and Ireland (six times and counting), and of my own children.  The reason this question matters to me is because I want to know what lessons we can take from these experiences about learning in more traditional formats.  Whatever drives the deep learning we do on travel, can we draw it back into the college classroom?

Here are some preliminary thoughts on what we experience during travel to unfamiliar places that helps create deep learning:

1) Full Sense Engagement.  No doubt part of the great pleasure of travel comes from sensual stimulation. We try new food and drinks, often more indulgently than we would while at home.  We seek out beautiful places like landscapes and cathedrals. Many of us wear our headphones while we are moving from one place to the next, listening to our favorite music.

2) Physical Movement.  Obviously travel involves movement, whether that means riding planes or trains or walking the streets of a new city.  We don't arrive at a foreign city and stay in our hotel room; we get out and about, moving our bodies. We walk, hike, ride bikes or horses, or just generally move more than we might do when we are at our desks for eight hours per day.

3) The Pleasure of Orientation. One of the main pleasure I take in arriving in a new city is trying to understand its layout, how it works, and how to get around. I look at maps, because I usually only have access to the internet when I am on wifi. No GPS to get around.  I start with the area right around my hotel, and then slowly expand my territory. I see this with my students as well; they take great pleasure in orienting themselves within new environments, getting the big picture and learning how to move around within it.  This may relate to the next point as well . . .

4) Manageable Cognitive Challenges.  We might not speak the language, or know how to put the card in the turnstile at the train station.  But we also know that these are challenges we can overcome.  We can make ourselves understood through gestures, or find someone who speaks our language.  I will figure out that turnstile if I just stand back and watch the locals do it. And we take pleasure in mastering these challenges.  Travel keeps us continually in what some theorists call desirable difficulties, or what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development. We know how the world works generally; we just need to expand our understanding a little bit to see how it works here.

5) Heightened Cognition.  I think there is a good reason why I do some of my best thinking while traveling, and have stronger memories of it. Being in an unfamiliar places pricks up your attention, and you pay closer attention to your surroundings.  On your drive to work you are on automatic pilot; on your drive through an unfamiliar city you are looking out the window, wondering at what you are seeing, and paying attention. Thrusting yourself into a strange city puts your mind on alert.

6) Socializing. Even when we travel alone, as I frequently do on my visits to other colleges and universities, we are constantly interacting with others: the person on the plane seat next to you, the wait staff in restaurants, the hotel concierge, a fellow countryperson at the bar.  But we are often traveling with friends or family or colleagues, and so all of the pleasures outlined above are shared ones.

7) Guides Are Available. When we get stuck, or lost, or need advice, we have guides available to us. Sometimes those take the form of books or web searches; sometimes they are people we encounter along the way; sometimes they are people whose jobs consist of shaping our travel experiences.  In most cases we don't have someone telling us what to do all the time; instead, we have our plans, and we seek help when we need it.  Guides are available, not omnipresent.

8) Mixed Objectives.  This strikes me as a conceptually difficult one. While we often have reasons for our pleasure travel--to see a particular thing, or have a particular experience--we also are usually curious just to see what comes up.  If I have a full day alone in an unfamiliar city, I might plan visits to two places, but then know I still have a few hours open and can detour into a shopping district if the mood strikes me, or just spend a few hours hiking around the city. So we usually have some initial or overarching goal in mind, but we also usually leave ourselves open for new goals to develop.

9) Repeated Processing. No trip seems complete anymore these days until you have posted about on your social media accounts, regaled your friends and family with stories, and fallen asleep at night with those memories dancing in your head.  Many of us write in journals while we travel, take photographs, and these days even tell our stories in real time while we are on the wifi in our hotel or a care. That frequent rehearsal and processing of the experience undoubtedly sinks it into our minds more deeply.

I will stop here, although this does not by any means represent a comprehensive list. If you have additions you think belong on here, please make them in the comments below.

But now the question becomes: what can we learn from a list like this one?  We'll never be able to take every student to Ecuador or its equivalent even once, much less in every course they take. And perhaps we don't want to.  Every learning experience does not have to be the same, or be quite so comprehensive.  With that acknowledged, can we identify items on this list that don't currently feature in the typical college course experience, and that belong there?  Can we make a typical college course more like a trip abroad in its potential to create deep learning for students?



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