How Travel Is The Classroom

Dan in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia
Travel: the ultimate experiential learning environment?

I recently came across an article about experiential learning that featured a list entitled 12 Things You Might Not Have Learned in the Classroom. The principles were adapted from a book entitled Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto. The list was preceded by the phrase “Really educated people…

“Wow, that’s a pretty presumptuous lead,” I thought. Then I continued reading and found myself nodding in agreement through much of the list.

The beauty of the lessons and notions is that they are timeless and age-independent. They apply — from Millenials to Baby Boomers — to those, who whether they know it or not, are committed to lifelong learning. And they underscore an observation I have made in my own wanderings around the world: that travel can not only make us better, but it can also help us improve the world, too.

I felt compelled to add my own interpretation of how immersive travel offers the perfect experiential learning context.

Note: I’ve included Gatto’s original 12 entries in bold below, followed by my own thoughts.

1. Establish an individual set of values but recognize those of the surrounding community and of the various cultures of the world.

The phrase “finding our place in the world” suggests that we must first be grounded in who we are and the values we embrace in order to make room for the world and our position within it.

Audrey with Women Pilgrims - Paraw Bibi, Turkmenistan
Audrey is adopted by a group of women at Turkmenistan’s Paraw Bibi pilgrimage site.

The idea is not to be immovable or inflexible. Instead, understand that self-awareness better positions us to acknowledge and respect similarities and differences. This also suggests that you shouldn’t simply accept whatever opinions come your way. Instead, think critically, question heartily and consciously adopt new perspectives and practices as you test the ones you currently hold.

I’m reminded of what could have been a confrontation in Istanbul, Turkey.

2. Explore their own ancestry, culture, and place.

As we seek to better understand ourselves, it seems a natural progression that we will be better equipped to make room for others and their stories.

As for place and where we’ve come from, travel often helps us develop a deeper appreciation of all the things back home that we are tempted to take for granted. A change of place and context can often surface useful questions, stir productive (yet often uncomfortable) doubt, and help us carve out greater creativity and curiosity.

As for people and who we’ve come from, our stories are often more complicated than we imagine. Exploration of our own background can build empathy and also conspire to crowd out fear. In the absence of fear, we make room for more understanding.

I’m reminded of Audrey’s search for her grandfather’s childhood home in Qingdao, China.

3. Are comfortable being alone, yet understand dynamics between people and form healthy relationships.

Although some of our greatest achievements are those that we accomplish together, the place to gather the strength and perseverance to achieve these goals resides inside each of us.

Paradoxically, I find that being alone — do not confuse or conflate this with loneliness — is tremendously important to building confidence, clarity and security. With that foundation, we can better extend ourselves to others and appreciate our interdependent relationships with them.

I’m reminded of reaching out to build relationship bridges across cultures where traditional diplomacy doesn’t always work.

4. Accept mortality, knowing that every choice affects the generations to come.

The great irony of travel is that we often admire the cathedral, the bridges, the great works, the kingdoms and the vast networks and spans that took generations to build. But can our travels teach us what we, as individuals and as a society, need to do to build metaphorical cathedrals of our own?

What actions do we take today whose results will survive us, yet not be seen by us? This means taking action — and maybe even sacrificing — not because you will reap immediate benefit, but instead because you know the importance of your actions to future generations.

I’m reminded of our journey to Antarctica where we discussed the shrinking glaciers with an Antarctic scientist and veteran, and learned that our actions at home were doing more harm to the environment than the ships coursing through the region. John Oliver may take exception to that today.

5. Create new things and find new experiences.

Travel, particularly the sort that emphasizes engagement and participation in favor of consumption, can develop our creative and adaptive instincts. Even after all the places on earth are discovered, the possibility of authentic, meaningful experience is infinite — if we’re smart enough to recognize that it’s up to us to search ever more deeply for it.

To create more, to participate, to consume less. To engage fully, so that the mark of a place and its people are also left on us. This is the new travel.

This is not only the future of travel, but if we work for it, it will also be the future of our society.

I’m reminded of how travel helps us let go.

6. Think for themselves; observe, analyze, and discover truth without relying on the opinions of others.

If travel does nothing else, it provides endless opportunities to observe and experience for ourselves. That a place and its people can be so vastly different in person than we have been told by others — through news reports, opinions, travel articles — is the ultimate discovery.

Kurdish Truck Drivers at Road Side - Kermanshah, Iran
Meeting Kurdish truck drivers at a kebab truck stop in western Iran.

I travel so I can discover the world for what it is, not as it has been told to me. I do this for my own sake and vitality.

Opinions of others are often important, but forming and re-forming one’s own opinions through actual experience is where the greatest personal growth and progress is hidden — a transformation that displaces prejudice and preconceived notions. Travel continually reaffirms this.

I’m reminded of the main reason why we travel and how we find places so vastly different than the prevailing narrative on the news.

7. Favor love, curiosity, reverence, and empathy rather than material wealth.

Before studies told us that buying experiences provide more sustained happiness than buying products, our bodies and minds had been telling us the same thing. Material accumulation makes us feel heavy, it’s a quick hit; experiences on the other hand are light and have proven longevity.

But as we pursue experiences, maybe we can ask ourselves: “Why we do it? To what end?” I’d like to think that if we aim to draw the most from the world and our travel experiences in it, maybe we’ll do so in the pursuit of mutual understanding and respect. Not only will that make the world a better place, but it will make each of feel better and more connected, too.

I’m reminded of our realization of the value of experiences over stuff.

8. Choose a vocation that contributes to the common good.

The greatest art of all is the ability to enrich oneself while simultaneously enriching the lives of others. When one’s riches arrive entirely at the expense of others, I begin to wonder how bright that person is after all.

Travel the world, see the rich and the poor, and this will be laid bare. Then ask: “What is my purpose? Where can I contribute?”

I’m reminded of using our storytelling and photography skills to help microfinance organizations tell their story through images and vignettes to help raise awareness and funds.

9. Enjoy a variety of new places and experiences, but identify and cherish a place to call home.

Some of us have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel and float almost ad infinitum, like lifetime nomads. Social networks have grown into our sense of what we call home. But we’re still human, of the flesh. And we need connection and touch. This means places — and more importantly, people — that are ours, that we can return to after our journey. They are “home” to us.

Open spaces, long horizon. A gaze, a beer, a sunset. A space 100 acres larger than New York's Central Park. Old Tempelhof Airport. A Berlin silhouette.
Tempelhof Park in Berlin, one of our favorite places in the city we now call home.

Home is also an important place for reflection, to take pause to absorb all that you have experienced and digest all that you have learned on your journey.

I’m reminded of a discussion about what “home” really means by way of a visit back to a former home of ours: Prague, Czech Republic.

10. Express their own voice with confidence.

Confidence is about finding our voice and allowing it to co-exist with the voice — disagreement included — of others.

When we’ve done that, I suspect we’ve really found ourselves.

I’m reminded of a twist on voice and purpose.

11. Add value to every encounter and every group of which they are a part.

Every person and place, every handshake and interaction can make a difference, however small. Travel teaches us this continuously, that we are all connected to and inherently invested in something much bigger than ourselves. Maybe that lends to us a sense that we should give back to the world around us and view that motivation less as a burden and more as an opportunity.

I’m reminded of a story that demonstrates we are all more connected than we think and the power of citizen diplomacy.

12. Always ask: “Who am I? Where are my limits? What are my possibilities?”

Travel can be the mirror to aid us in understanding ourselves and our potential. It helps us reframe who we are and what we are capable of doing. Travel experiences, by placing us in contexts that are unfamiliar and unknown, regularly press our boundaries and limits. They often force us to face our fears and appreciate the permanence of uncertainty.

This exercise at once helps us find our feet, and stretch our sense of possibility.

Step by Step to Thorong La Pass - Annapurna Circuit, Nepal
Facing up to the physical and emotional challenges to cross Thorong La Pass, Nepal.

I’m not suggesting the next time you have an identity crisis (I’ve had a few), that you hop a plane. Use your traveler’s eyes to explore your city in a new way. You can also reflect on your previous travel impressions and use them as creative fuel to define what is possible and which steps you will take to get there.

I’m reminded of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, just as much a mental challenge as a physical one.


This is not only about travel. This is about life. Seek it. Find it. Experience it. And most importantly, go beyond the cliche to figure out what’s really underneath all that inspiration. And don’t be afraid to have your ideas and perceptions challenged along the way.

This is how we become “really educated people.”

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Comments

  1. says

    yes yes yes! to all 12 items. This is perhaps one of my FAVE of your posts as it brings Everything together that is so enriching and life altering about travel. You both continue to inspire me to keep on going. Learning. Sharing Stories of the people I meet. Here’s to doing what we can to make this world a better place; one person, one conversation, one encounter and one Hug at a time! HUG!

    • says

      Belated thanks, Kristin. Glad you liked it. That was the aim: try and bring it together. The experiential learning article and principles I found within it simply provided motivation and a foundation to layer the travel lens on top.

      “One at a time” — a solid principle. Something that you are of course aware of through your work.

  2. says

    So true. Travel is a teacher. Every adventure that you take, every mountain that you climb and every meal that you taste has something meaningful in store for the curious traveler. A very well thought out post!

  3. says

    All of these are valuable questions to consider and reflect on while journeying through the world. I definitely lack the materialistic impulses I had before my first trip in 2010…

    • says

      Thanks, Elaine. I would be interested to hear what you replaced those materialistic impulses with — and also, which travel experiences in particular prompted you to do so.

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