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Getting Lost: 4 Educational Lessons

Amazing Grace, I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.

We don’t get lost anymore.  I heard sports and popular culture commentator Bill Simmons saying the same last week in reference to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.  Obviously, the tragedy of the missing flight is beyond reckoning, but it also has captured the world’s attention.  Perhaps that is part of this story that makes comprehending it so hard.  Since the widespread introduction of GPS on phones, people do not get lost anymore.

This was not always the case.  I remember fondly that my mother would love the thrill of getting lost on the back roads of the counties west of Philadelphia toward Lancaster.  During the late 1970’s and 1980’s, unless you were in the military, you either knew the roads, learned how to read a map, or got lost and worked your way out of it.  Gas was cheap.  Getting lost was an acceptable adventure.  One never knew what fantastic tasting pie one could come across by getting lost and stumbling upon a rural roadside diner.  My mother relished these opportunities.  My father was panic stricken.  As I said, I can look back fondly, but I imagine in the moment, I was somewhere in the middle: excited to see new sections of the state, fearful as a youngster that we may never make it back (or more specifically, that we would not make it back in time to watch the Phillies’ game on TV on a Sunday afternoon).

For my mom, perhaps getting lost was one of the few forms of liberation that a late 1970’s-1980’s housewife could “enjoy.” I imagine there was a mundane routine to life in her shoes waiting on the kids and waiting for my father to return home from work.  Taking the wheel and exploring back roads energized her.  She had some semblance of an idea where she was going, but did not have it all mapped out.  She made some wrong turns.  She circled back.  Sometimes a recent wrong turn on on a previous trip offered clues on the next adventure.  She made mental notes.  Sometimes she just reveled in the freedom that came from being paradoxically lost and in control, the steering wheel in her hands.  All the while with my father (either at home or in the passenger seat) without any control.

My father needed the security of knowing where we were going.  He valued intuitive street signs and roads that merged in an orderly fashion. Normally mild-mannered, Joe was probably due for a confession at St. Rose of Lima Church upon a return from a drive to an urban era where those aforementioned factors did not exist.  The verbiage in the car during those moments would have only been appropriate on HBO or Showtime.  Dad needed GPS.  When it came, he was an early adopter.  He needed a plan and he wanted to follow it to a “T.”

In recognizing the traits of my two parents, I see very different learning styles.  I think most of our students today are more like my father.  They prefer the teacher or the lesson or the interactive game to clearly map out the road ahead.  A colleague of mine teaches 8th grade U.S. History.  He has a prominent sign in his classroom that posts the question “Is this O.K.?” circled and crossed out in red Ghostbusters’ style.  The implication is that he will not spoon feed them the way they want to be spoon fed.

An era of  students have been acclimated to Siri or her unnamed cousin who does the GPS voice-over with a hint of mid-western twang constantly saying “Recalibrate! Turn around! That’s not right!”  It has engendered them to fear not having such a safety-harness.  They loathe being lost and exerting the energy of trial and error to find a way out.   For me, forcing them to do so is wise educational practice.  Here are 4 reasons why:

1.  Just like my mother in the midst of changes in gender roles of the 70’s-80’s, today there is no roadmap for the kinds of jobs our students need to be prepared for in future decades.  Probably the most commonly quoted phrase of the 21st Century Learning Movement has been “we are preparing our kids for jobs that don’t exist yet.”  If this is true as many talented educational philosophers suggest, then essentially all of our students are lost and need to develop the skill my mother so cherished.  They need to recognize where they are, use trial and error, find a way out, and execute.

2.  Approaches like Design Thinking (DT), while uncomfortable for some because there are few standards and no particular roadmap, develop skills in students they certainly will use in their yet to be defined work roles.  I will have the great fortune next week to visit Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta.  They have constructed a visionary and innovative educational philosophy that uses DT based on a model developed by Stanford University’s Institute of Design.  According to their website, MVP defines DT as “human-centered problem solving with an emphasis on collaboration, creativity, and empathy.  They use they acronym DEEP: Discover, Empathize, Experiment, Produce as their educational process.  When one thinks about my scenario of being lost, one notes that those who are lost practice these skills.  Lost? Collaborate with those in the car to try to figure out where you might be.  Where were we last?  In what direction are we heading?  Can you navigate using the map while I drive?  Creativity says “what if we go this way?”  “What if we turned left?”  Empathy also plays a crucial role.  As the navigator, I must recognize what the driver is seeing: traffic, road signs, options, stress (like my father driving) and paint a picture of how we could go.  The empathy might be simply stopping at a gas station and asking for directions (Men, the sole purpose of developing GPS was to make doing such a humiliating act obsolete 🙂 and getting someone courteous enough to sympathize with the plight of being lost.

3.  Deeper learning usually occurs when we lose ourselves in something.  Another side effect of the smart phone era is that we have little excuse to get lost from others.  Don’t know what time it is? Check your phone.  Don’t know when your next appointment is? Check the calendar on your phone (oh, thats right it just popped up 15 minutes prior reminding me).  Mom and Dad don’t know where you are? not for long; there’s Mom’s text “when will you be home?”  She may even be have you “pinged” with an app like Life360 that can constantly track your whereabouts. While all of these practical technologies are critical to the safety and efficiency of our daily lives, we are a lot less free to get lost in a great novel.  I had to carve out 90 minutes of my day between appointments and the cell phone texting to write this piece.  The jury is still out if is any good.   However, I am certain it would be better if I was able to lose myself in it.  If I could write reams and reams Kerouac style, lost in a stream of consciousness, then come back and revise, revise, revise it probably would be better.  I don’t think there is any question we perform better when we are lost in the activity.  Sports psychologists talk about this all the time.  The other day I had the opportunity to play golf with a friend on a whim with no set ending time.  On spring break, I really had nowhere else to be.  I lost myself.  The results were exceedingly good.  I have only broken 80 once in my life.  It was three years ago before my third child and right after taking a mental toughness course from a sports psychologist (I was a little over the top trying to break 80; picture Ahab with the big whale).  On Monday, though, I shot 83.  I was right there despite having played but a handful of times in the past year.  Being lost in time, lost for time, I could let go.  I didn’t let myself get in the way.  We need to let our students experience this from time to time.  Courses heavily driven by impossible to get to content and overzealous on testing prevent the opportunity to get lost deeply in something.  As educators, we need to be mindful of this.


My favorite place to get lost

My favorite place to get lost


4.  For the faithful of you out there, getting lost is an important part of our communion with God.  The entire premise of the Christian Faith is that we are all lost without Christ’s death and resurrection.  I also get a chuckle about the story in Luke chapter 2 about Jesus when He was twelve.  You might recall that His family went to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival.  Since there was a lot of family there and as the caravan was on its way back home, Jesus’ parents assumed that he was on his way back with his cousins.  They didn’t realize that Jesus was back at the temple starting his career as a teacher.  When they could not find their son, Mary and Jesus panicked, “searching anxiously for him for three days” (Luke 2:46-48).  In Mary and Joseph’s mind, Jesus was lost (or more dramatically, they had lost the Son of God and the Savior of the World).  In my mind, I’m saying “it was a good thing Jesus was ‘lost.'”  After all, when was He going to start his ministry?  It would have been an incredible waste if he spent is teenage years solely as an apprentice to a carpenter.  Christ’s reaction to His parents consternation in verse 49 is priceless and reminds me of my son Zeke when he is off deeply involved in his own little world.  Christ, puzzled, says “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  When Zeke is off mixing something, breaking something, exploring something outside, he asks the same when we go to look for him.  “Didn’t you know I had to do this and I didn’t answer your 400 calls because I was busy doing what a 5 year old boy was supposed to be doing and got lost in it?”  Think if Mary and Joseph had a cell phone connection to Jesus.  They may have never let him “get lost” and start his ministry at the temple.  Makes me wonder what our school’s seventh graders would be like if they had a little more time to get lost.

Until next time, I hope you have a wonderful chance to get lost and enjoy the moment on a back road, in a classic novel, or in a project that has no conclusive ending.    

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