There’s a lot of conversation going on out there about internship learning, experiential learning, real world learning, deeper learning…. each appears to be a slight variation on a theme: Learning that happens out there, in the real world, with real purpose or meaning, is learning that sticks.
I can’t argue with the premise. I have done more “seat time” than most anyone I know in pursuit of my own educational edification, given that I’ve pursued formal education up through its highest levels. All of my formal education has been in the area of… well… education and educational leadership. And don’t get me wrong, I have learned a lot and I’m glad to have had the professional learning journey that I’ve had. My theoretical basis of understanding is vast and fairly deep. I am able to conduct and interpret research in ways I couldn’t have done before. My eyes were opened to thoughts and ideas that wouldn’t have crossed my path without my experiences at the various schools I attended.
But when I think about the learning that has most profoundly impacted my professional practice, ironically enough, none of my formal learning has prepared me nearly as well as informal learning that I pursued, of my own accord and on my own time (and at my own expense) for something that was completely NOT educationally related. Surprised? I know that when I first stumbled upon that realization, I was first surprised… but then it all made sense.
So then, the obvious question is: where did I have the most profound professional learning experience resulting in an impact to my practice? Well, it happened in a cenote (sinkhole) in Mexico. A cenote is a pond created by a collapse, and is fed freshwater by underwater aquifers, usually found deep within the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. These cenotes are linked to one another in many instances… connected by underground, underwater passages.
In 2003 I was a pretty active diver, enjoying regular dives in the cold waters of Puget Sound. A friend shared their experiences doing a wild and dangerous thing called “cave diving”… I was immediately interested… and researched the topic a bit… and before I knew it, I had signed up for a cave diving course in Mexico. The next January found me floating in a cenote, about to do my first ever cave dive. I was scared, nervous, my brain was firing messages like crazy. I think all of these physical reactions combined to deliver a powerful and impactful punch to my system. I survived the first dive, even when my instructor switched off my powerful HID dive light and made me exit the cave in complete, blinding darkness.
The rest of the course focused heavily on safety related measures, and featured hour upon hour of in-water practice of safety drills and procedures inside and outside of the cave systems. By the close of the experience, I was proficient and deemed safe enough to go off on my own. Since that time I’ve logged over 300 cave dives and regularly navigate complicated maze-like systems in a confident and capable manner. But back to the topic at hand… what about my cave diving course and experiences made it the most impactful learning for me as an educational leader? The simple answer is: everything. The more detailed answer includes these elements…
1. I learned that hands-on learning leads to “muscle memory”. And muscle memory is good. When I had to do drills repeatedly, I built what we refer to in diving as muscle memory, meaning that you begin to anticipate where you need to put your hand to look at your gas gauge or find your regulator if it falls away from you. In my work, muscle memory is the thing that allows me to navigate creating a new document in GoogleDrive or easily move through the steps of balancing staffing budgets. If you repeat an action enough times, it just becomes part of learned information. Learning by doing has merit.
2. I learned that “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. There will be instances when the world around you becomes frenetic and overwhelming. There will be a time when crisis hits. Rather than be reactionary, be careful and thoughtful. In cave diving, a crisis can kill you, so we train to remain cool, calm, and collected when things go south. Our mantra is “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”, meaning it is better to move slower but more precisely to fix the problem rather than hurry up and likely miss something important. In times of crisis or frenetic work days, pause, observe, and move slow but sure through the things that must be done. This approach will get more done than being gut-shot reactionary.
3. I learned that guidelines are better than rules. Rules are restrictive and make people stop thinking. Guidelines are interpretive and invite dialogue and discussion that usually lead to better solutions. In diving, we have guidelines, because diving situations are different for different environments, and there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to necessary equipment or team configurations. Schools are much the same. Unapologetic purpose, good structures, strong and regular communication and room for interpretation lead to a more dynamic educational program, stronger sense of team, and a greater sense of purpose for the whole organization.
4. Stop. Breathe. Think. Act. This is the mantra for solving problems on a cave dive. Because of the environment, a diver can’t just bolt for the surface when things go wrong. Oftentimes there are thousands of meters of passage between you and air. You have to cultivate a strong sense of mind over matter, and be cool under pressure. Given the numerous tough situations that go down in schools day in and day out, this has been the most impactful on my professional practice. Prior to learning how to cave dive, I sometimes lived by “ready, fire, aim!” with disastrous results. These days I stop, I take a deep breath, I think, and then I act. And that is a recipe for success, at least for me.
There are several other things that I learned as a result of cave diving beyond these four items listed above. But the powerful thing to me is that this experience I pursued for totally separate reasons from my career has come back to really change how I work in my schools now. And it has me wondering why we don’t more avidly pursue hands on, internship styled learning for our kids. Powerful life long lessons may result that help guide them. I had to wait until I was almost 30 to have that kind of experience; what if I’d had that when I was in high school? Interesting to think about that. Being a pragmatist I get that there are a lot of logistical things and hiccups that can interfere with creating experiences like this. But if you knew the experience could change a kid’s life… forever… wouldn’t that be worth it?
What experiences away from work have impacted you and your work life? Impacted the way you go about doing what you do? What are your thoughts about internship experiences for kids?