How I Learn Best: Experiential Education

In considering the question of how I learn best, I struggled to put to words the specific structures and settings that worked best to evoke the desire for learning and understanding in me. Immediately, this frustrated me. I have spent almost my whole life in some type of traditional education institution, and enjoy the process of learning immensely; I should know what about the process is most helpful and enjoyable to me. But I have not often asked myself how I learn best, and I believe that is partly because it hasn’t seemed to matter all that much. I haven’t taken control of my own education in the past, allowing educational institutions to determine for me (in most cases) how I go about the process of learning. Now, as I consider the question, I find myself having to mull over entire periods of my life and analyzing how and why I learned well in certain settings.

For the time being, I have come to the understanding that my moments of greatest learning are not connected to specific styles, structures, or settings. They are connected to emotions. I learn best when a particular feeling is created within me. When I feel personally invested in the topic, feel that my knowledge/understanding of the topic will matter, and feel that I am in a safe space for questioning and diving into the subject matter, that is when I learn best.

A particular moment I remember the need for investment “clicking” in my mind had to do with a history class I took where the teacher emphasized that we were learning about the big events of the past and what led up to them so that we would be better able to see the symptoms of similar future events. He was particularly focusing on concentration camps during the Holocaust and internment camps in the US during WW11, but he reiterated this purpose frequently. To this day, I engage with history in a completely different way than I did before he was my teacher. Because I see the current value of understanding history, and my own personal role in being aware of how things have happened in the past, I am better able to engage in meaningful conversation and decision making around politics and education in particular.

Feeling that the knowledge matters is closely related, and also significant to my learning. When I lived in Iowa, in an area with a high Hispanic population, learning immigration law seemed significant. I had friends who were directly affected (this goes back to that personal investment) and many of the students I worked with were also affected. So a friend and I spent hours pouring over immigration regulations and trying to understand the finer points of the law. Before I moved to Iowa, I did not see a clear reason to understand the particulars of immigration law, but while I was there I was constantly pushed into conversations that required me to speak out about the problems and inefficiencies in the system. It felt like an ethical imperative to understand, so I did.

It also helped that a friend was willing to join me in this endeavor. Relationships are important to me, and stepping away from interactions to learn and study is hard for me to do. When I am forced to choose between an educational opportunity on my own or anything with a group of people, I almost always choose the latter. When I have the opportunity to combine education with building friendships, I am much more eager to learn. In the immigration example, my friend and I would go and grab margaritas and pour over the text, intermixing reading and storytelling and relationship-building in many ways.

In my current role as an Outdoor Educator, knowing more about the environment matters for my work. The more I know about the plants and animals and environmental cycles around me, the better I am able to teach and engage the children with whom I work. Understanding the importance of this knowledge, I am eager and able to learn on my own with internal motivation rather than needing to be forced to do so. My job has no requirements for me to spend time outside the work day learning more about the topics I am teaching, but I know it matters and so I do. My coworkers often feel the same, so we are able to learn together and build those relationships that are so significant to me as we educate ourselves more completely.

Being in a safer space (a truly, 100%  safe space is not a reality, in my mind) in which I feel the safety to question the norms, analyze the situation, and be wrong, is a third aspect of what I need in order to learn at my best. I have been in several great classrooms in which the material originally did not seem relevant or interesting, but the professors encouraged questioning and disagreement as healthy and positive to the learning process. In these classes, I was able to better engage with the material and felt a strong desire to learn more and “keep up” with the dialogue.

In keeping with my need for a space of safety, I learn best when I am in a semi-familiar environment. Whenever I need to accomplish a great deal, or study difficult information, I find myself gravitating towards very specific locations. One coffee shop in particular is conducive to good learning for me, as it is familiar, but not actually a cozy place. The level of familiarity makes me comfortable, and the lack of “coziness” keeps me on task. I go to a different coffee shop to hang out with friends, but this coffee shop is perfect for my studying habits. I also tend to work from the library in my area, which has a lot of great light and is familiar to me, but is historic and just “sterile” enough to force me to maintain my attention on the task at hand. Occasionally I will attempt to study from a completely new coffee shop, library, or work space, and find myself struggling to focus and engage deeply with what I am learning. The setting is just too new for me.

Additionally, I have discovered that I have a very small “learning zone” in comparison to many individuals I know. Looking at Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, I feel like my “zone” is a very thin ring. An example of that would be with camping; I am completely comfortable with an overnight hike. But where many people would then be in the learning zone with a weeklong hike, that is way outside the learning zone for me. I would need a trip of two or maybe three days before going longer. The same is true with leading groups at camp. Many of my coworkers can leap from being completely outside their element teaching to leading groups solo with just a couple of days of training. I, on the other hand, learn best and feel most confident when I have several weeks of slowly moving from an observer to someone who occasionally co-teaches to someone who teaches a few classes solo to teaching solo. I have to take many small steps before I reach the same places as others. I can go through these steps at a pace that allows me to learn at the same overall pace as others, but I do need to have those increments to learn my best.

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