Solving Problems – Life on the Crag as Natural Learning

When someone says “learning in school does not match real-life learning,” what do you think they mean? Isn’t a student’s experience in school part of their real life? Of course it is, but I think this is what the proverbial someone means – the structures of learning in school don’t closely enough match the structures of learning outside the parameters of typical school.

To explore this idea in more detail, I often think of something specific that my older son Phillip and I have been learning for the past two years. We have been learning to rock climb, and I have been reflecting on three things in particular that make learning to rock climb different than the way that learning is traditionally constructed in school.


Learning Should Be Highly Experiential

When Phillip and I first decided to learn to rock climb, we started in a “funny” way. We rock climbed. Well, it’s only funny relative to the way that traditional schooling is set up. Or maybe it’s better to say that the way traditional school is set up is the funny thing.

On our first day rock climbing, we actually got on a rock-climbing wall in a gym, and we experienced the fullness (for a beginner) of rock climbing. And we realized quickly that we were not that good (yet!).

It was the full experience that motivated us to become students of our sport. We wanted to understand better how certain movements and techniques could improve our climbing. But we did NOT start with someone sitting us in rows and columns of desks and deconstructing the act of rock climbing for us. We did not learn the decontextualized parts for weeks before we were allowed to actually get on the wall and climb.

The experience of understanding the whole provided motivation and encouragement for us to study and improve the parts that would lead to better climbing. Most educators who teach in the project approach relate this methodology to something called an “entry event,” which is a powerful way to help create sustained inquiry. How often in school do we start with the decontextualized parts instead of starting with the situational experience of the whole?

Learning Should Be Iterative and Full of Feedback-rich Failure

In rock climbing, the only grades that I am aware of are the degree of difficulty grades. For rope climbing, the Yosemite Scale is used, and for bouldering, the Vermin Scale is used. These scales are incredibly helpful for leveling our current skill abilities relative to the degree of difficulty. But, in the past two years no one has told Phillip or me that we are earning a 78 for the day for the routes or problems that we attempted to climb. Rather, we know how we did because of immediate feedback – we either struggle significantly and fall, or we get to the top. Or what is most often the case, we make it up a certain number of holds and then we fall on another hold in the sequence.

In climbing, when we have to keep experimenting with a series of holds until we can do it without falling, it’s called a project. Hmmm. The project is something that we do as the core of learning. And it’s got failure built into inherently. It’s how we know we aren’t there yet. The project is not something that comes at the end of the learning. The project IS the learning. Full of content, full of skill development, and full of iterative attempts to get better episodically as we go.

Let me repeat, it’s the routes and problems that are graded. Not the climbers! I inherently want to improve and enhance my abilities to climb harder and harder problems. It’s human nature. But not once has someone slapped a number on my performance. I think that would demotivate Phillip and me, not motivate us. We prefer the iterative method of trying over and over again to increase our knowledge and skill level.

Learning Should Be Risky and Exhilarating, and Safe

When Phillip and I boulder, we know that the sport is inherently risky. That’s part of what makes it exciting. But we also have thick pads on the ground to protect us from falls. And we have a spotter to help us land safely when we fall. In rope climbing, we wear harnesses and we connect to a person on belay who keeps us from falling to the ground unsafely. The learning makes our blood pump and our nerve endings come alive. We can feel the adrenaline pumping, and it’s exciting.

Learning in school should be equally blood pumping. Maybe not all the time, but more of the time than I sense that it is. Maybe that’s why motivation and engagement curves are on the decline the older students get in school. Maybe that’s why students sometimes turn to unsafe behaviors.

Yet, all the time, the teacher should be a great spotter and belay partner. The teacher can act like a sherpa who has more experience and know-how. But the teacher – the sherpa – does not remove all of the risk so that the endeavor becomes stale and boring. There is a responsibility to establish safety parameters in school while not removing all of the eu-risk, to borrow from the work eustress…the good kind of stress and risk taking.

Final Thoughts about Real-World Learning

For some readers who may think that I’m saying we need to make all learning in school like rock climbing, that’s not at all what I mean to say. Please don’t let my current skill level of writing take away from the core of the intended message. When school structures were designed, intentionally or unintentionally, to decontextualize the fullness of experience, grade the learner rather than the activity, and remove the exhilarating nature of learning something exciting, school leaders made school less life like.

School should be a design experience. Let’s work to design learning moments that are rich in purposeful experience, iterative without no-return consequences for trying and failing, and complete with heart-pumping excitement while being safe.

When we work to make school like that, I believe we will reach new heights and elevate learning to altitudes that provide us with views of the world that are truly spectacular.

Written by Bo Adams, Executive Director of MVIFI

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