The Foremost Task of Education

The Foremost Task of Education
by Dan Miller, Chief Learning Officer, AEE

“I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an indefatigable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.” – Kurt Hahn

This quote sums up why I chose a career in experiential education (EE)…but I didn’t always know that.

When I began my internship with Outward Bound back in 2002, my reasons were a bit more selfish.  My elevator pitch for why I wanted to take at-risk and adjudicated youth on 30-day canoe trips in the alligator infested swamps and rivers of Florida: I valued freedom more than anything and I wanted to make sure these kids didn’t get their freedom taken away.  It sounded good and was mostly true, but I can’t deny that I was looking to maximize my own freedom as well. 

The lifestyle suited me well and I quickly developed a deep appreciation for the work I was doing.  While on course, I felt free to be creative and silly; to have fun and explore.  But most importantly, I felt free to engage in constructive dialogue about everything that mattered in life.  These discussions often took place around the fire after a hard day and it was here that I discovered the real value of EE.

My reasons for engaging in this work evolved from a self-centered focus on freedom to a heightened appreciation for the role of character education in creating a better world for everyone. Today, Kurt Hahn’s quote speaks to me about how we can all contribute to the building of character and good citizenship through meaningful education.

An Enterprising Curiosity

In his discussion of the Six Declines of Modern Youth, Hahn observes the ‘decline in initiative due to the widespread disease of spectatoritis.’  If he could only see how this disease has increased with the advent of smart phones and tablets.  So what does EE do to contribute to building an enterprising curiosity?  Simple…we encourage active experimentation as a core part of the paradigm.  Students must take their learning into their own hands.  They must accept that outcomes are often unknown and the only way to move forward is to try.  This approach helps to nurture the next quality, an indefatigable spirit.

An Indefatigable Spirit

adjective: indefatigable: (of a person or their efforts) persisting tirelessly.
"an indefatigable defender of human rights" Click here for pronunciation.

Picture an average teenager in 2017.  Now picture them engaging in a challenging task…and failing.  What do they do next?  In my dream world, they try again.  EE is a cyclical process.  Experimentation, failure, feedback, and revision are necessary parts of learning (and life)! 


Tenacity in Pursuit

While on the surface, this seems similar to an indefatigable spirit, tenacity refers to how we try, rather than if we try.  First, we lessen one’s fear of failure with the expectation that they will go through multiple revisions before arriving at success.  Next, we empower the student to get creative and use every resource available to them in order to solve a problem or accomplish a task.  The result of such training is an individual with drive, determination, and grit. EE builds competence while also building confidence.


Readiness for Sensible Self-Denial

An old advertisement for Outward Bound reads something like:

It’s hot outside, so you turn on the air conditioning
You’re bored, so you turn on the TV
You’re hungry, so you turn on the microwave
You’re dying man!  You're only 20 years old and you’re dying!

When students are trained to passively receive information and then simply repeat it in order to demonstrate comprehension, what does that teach them about life?  If we want to create contributing members of society, let’s teach them how to contribute in the first place.  Sensible self-denial doesn’t just refer to a solo wilderness experience.  It means we should know how to do math before we get introduced to a calculator.  It means denying yourself the luxury of simply asking a question and getting an answer.  Instead, our students are given the chance to explore.  

As educators, we also must deny ourselves the simplicity of a predictable outcome and be adaptable as we guide students to reflect and draw their own conclusions.  It is admittedly quicker and easier to just lecture and test.


And Above All, Compassion

If we, as educators, nurture the above qualities in our students; if we role-model the kind of behaviors that we expect to see from them; if we admit that our job includes teaching both curriculum and character, then we can increase both their intelligence and compassion.  This is why I chose experiential education…I want to live in a world full of kind and thoughtful people.  Let’s get to work.

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