But I Never Realized I Was Learning Anything

by Stacey Ebert /
Stacey Ebert's picture
Mar 07, 2017 / 0 comments

I never knew that one of the best compliments from a former student was “I never really thought I was learning anything in your class – we just had fun.” At first I was offended and thought, ‘really, with all of that work in my lesson planning and efforts, really?’ And then I realized it was a compliment. Eventually, even those same students realized that if they didn’t know something at the start of the year and by the end of the year they excelled – then there must have been something going on. Knowing that fun was paramount throughout and they rarely felt the pressure or pain of big, scary learning - well, I guess we did something right. And then I realized that was key. That was what we searched for each time we explored on adventures.

That’s what I always wanted for my students. I would love for them to have some of those experiences in all of their classrooms and in all of their learning endeavors, whether within or outside of the traditional four walls. That’s the way I find learning to be best – experiencing, doing, exploring, and finding your own curiosity amidst the journey. Think of the little kids creating magical cities out of Lego® bricks without following anything other than their imagination as a guide. Remember conjuring up games of all sorts when camping out in the backyard. Think of the first time your fourth grader went on a school field trip and got to touch rocks and learn where the rocks came from, spend time in a butterfly field while learning about the life cycles of caterpillars, or dipping their toes in open water while testing for ecological marine life below the surface. Learning by doing, finding that hook, making it relevant, finding passion, and showing purpose all plays into learning - travel might be the best lesson plan yet.

Travel pushes us beyond our borders, forcing learning to happen whether you like it or not. Whether they’re soft skills or hard – it almost doesn’t matter – it’s happening. Reflecting and finding balance plays a vital role in the workplace, even if it’s not as quantifiable as Excel® spreadsheets and grammar checks. Patience and grit, compassion and responsibility, open-mindedness and curiosity, persistence and diligence, acceptance and tolerance, creativity and kindness can’t be measured on a test, but put a child in an experience and you’ll witness them all. Some of my favorite activities in class were cooperative learning ones. What came out of the group work was always greater than the finished product itself. We colored a lot in my classes, and yes, it was high school social studies. As a final activity for a unit, students often created book covers, mini books, bumper stickers, magazine ads, and more to synthesize what they learned and show what they understood. But there was always more behind the scenes. Working together, showcasing talents, learning to be a leader, kindness, strength, being part of a team, doing your part, getting supplies, allowing others a voice, tolerance, learning from each other, listening, understanding, and creativity in mind and skill all meshed in this one activity. Of course, the activity mattered to see if they ‘got’ the lesson, but the message in the creativity of ideas and unique finished products that arose were backed by many non-quantifiable skills that would be used countlessly in their ‘after-graduation’ life. That fun translates to learning...and that’s what we want for our students.

Those learning by doing, bigger-picture experiences happen everywhere. From searching for shooting stars, collecting beach glass, recognizing plants along a trailside, or learning how to make pottery to hiking your first mountain, meeting someone different to you, asking for directions in a language other than your own, converting currency, volunteering to help someone less fortunate, and so many other awesome happenings – you learn. I notice them even more through travel. Flinging yourself in a somewhat uncomfortable situation (that doesn’t have to be bungee jumping off a New Zealand bridge) gets you out of the everyday and into the mindset of the present. The now matters. The moment, the memory, and the mind-full learning that takes place stays with you. Twenty years later, you may not remember the details of the unit for your first social studies test, but you might remember that first trip to the zoo, your first overseas or out of state adventure, or how when you made up games on the lawn with your neighborhood friends – somehow you managed the personalities and the curfews to have a fantastic evening adventure outside.

Camel rides at the Pyramids of Giza. From But I Never Realized I Was Learning Anything

For me, those ‘I never realized I was learning moments’ seem to happen more often in travel related circumstances and definitely with a travel related mindset. Exploring, being in the moment, channeling that childlike curiosity, learning by doing, and getting involved in the wherever, whatever, and however matter. When you help make food for a community in India, learn from Aborigines about their sacred land, take a cooking class in Vietnam, talk to a clergy member of a different religion in his sacred house of worship, take a yoga class in a different land, or get the opportunity to hug a penguin, you learn, you remember, and your knowledge of the world increases. Not always couched as teachable moments, these experiences change us all. Perhaps it stirs a desire in a young child to pursue a future career. Perhaps it provides the impetus for a middle aged adult to change course and follow the dreams they’ve pushed to the wayside. Perhaps it helps you volunteer, become a bit more open-minded, or encourages curiosity you didn’t know existed in you. Or perhaps it makes the giant world seem a bit smaller and a bit kinder. No matter what – those moments make a difference and all of us - both students and teachers are better for them. 

Spending an afternoon with the Sun people of Namibia. From But I Never Realized I Was Learning Anything

If you’ve been lucky to have some of those moments, you know. If you’ve been able to cultivate those experiences for your students, family, friends, or colleagues – you know. Whether young students or grown adults – we all learn differently. The kinesthetic learner may gain more from a hike through nature than reading a book in a classroom. The auditory learner benefits more from listening to a talk from a museum guide than only seeing the exhibits. The visual learner takes in the image of the Eiffel Tower along with the structure more than only reading the details on the distinguishing plaques. The verbal learner gleans most from an engaging conversation and being able to be a vocal part of the process when talking to people different from him or herself. Getting outside the traditional, making it fun, and only realizing later that ‘you learned’ elevates the process. At home or abroad, in a traditional classroom or a worldwide one, switching it up, channeling that playful spirit, and all levels of engagement are crucial. Awareness is a game-changer, understanding breeds compassion, and learning can most definitely be fun.

Here are a few ‘I didn’t even know I was learning moments’ that have taken place in my travel world.

• A day at Healesville Sanctuary (Australia) 
Meeting many of the animals on the Australian coat of arms, learning directly from animal caretakers, interacting with native wildlife

• A prayer ceremony at the Kotel (Israel)
Learning religious history, standing amidst a sacred site, discussing the struggles of land and religion in a holy city of three religions with those who live there

A tour of the Tillamook Cheese Factory (Oregon, USA) 
Witnessing an active factory, watching how food is grown - made - packaged, meeting workers/owners of the farm, tasting freshly made product, and learning through experience

• Crossing the gates on a tour at Auschwitz (Poland)
Walking through one of the most infamous concentration camps ever, standing amidst history, tracing ancestry, learning perseverance against some of the greatest of odds, witnessing horrors of humanity

• Witnessing the wonder of the Taj Mahal (India) 
Learning history while walking the grounds, discussing traditions and desires of ruling families with those of different backgrounds, respecting cultures and customs in a land different to your own

• Taking a tour of the Doka Coffee Plantation (Costa Rica)
Witnessing the bean to cup process, meeting workers, learning challenges, realizing discoveries, checking out inventory and process, experiencing diligence and difficulty
aking a tour of the Doka Coffee Plantation (Costa Rica). From But I Never Realized I Was Learning Anything

• Spending an afternoon with the Sun people of Namibia (Namibia) 
Learning the culture of a small tribe, discovering difference, learning hunting and survival skills, sharing pride in talents and skills, communicating without language, shared compassion, cultural diffusion/diversity

• Having a talk and a hug with a survivor of Cambodian genocide at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Cambodia)
Speaking with a survivor of Cambodian genocide, learning living history, sharing compassion, continuing a story, direct first-hand accounts of information delivery, listening to a voice of history, cultural diffusion/cultural diversity, shared humanity

• Parasailing (Dominican Republic)
Conquering fears, expanding boundaries, believing in dreams, learning about the environment, respecting nature, trusting others, believing in yourself, leaping amidst uncertainty

Hiking the base of Uluru (Australia) 
Living out a long-desired wish, learning from locals/natives, respecting nature, shared humanity, respecting other cultures, learning new ways of living-experiencing-learning, finding patience, understanding differences, respecting safety protocols

• Experience the world wonder of Victoria Falls (Zambia) 
Standing on the edge of a powerful waterfall, trusting locals, respecting nature, learning about the environment, witnessing a double rainbow, expanding boundaries, believing in yourself, leaping amidst uncertainty
Experience the world wonder of Victoria Falls (Zambia). From But I Never Realized I Was Learning Anything

• Learning from Buddhist monks at Tian Tian Buddha (Hong Kong)
Witnessing others cultivate balance, learning about historical symbols and their meanings, respecting other cultures, engaging curiosity, challenging long held beliefs, eating different foods, cultural diffusion/cultural diversity

• Helping to make bread at a Sikh Temple (India) 
Respect for other religions, learning by doing, participating in volunteer efforts of community, joining in, curiosity and compassion, lending a helping hand, doing your part to make the world a bit better, spreading kindness, working as a team, respecting other cultures, showing interest in new foods, learning through experience, communicating without a common language

Camel rides at the Pyramids of Giza (Egypt) 
Standing beside a natural world wonder, respecting nature and animals, leaping amidst uncertainty, expanding boundaries, trusting locals, shared humanity, getting up close to ancient cultures, experiencing difference, cultural diffusion/cultural diversity, fulfilling a long-held dream, communicating without a shared language.

• Spending time in Sovereign Hill (Australia), Old Town (San Diego, USA), Old Bethpage Restoration (NY, USA)
Learning the art of simplicity, practicing by doing, understanding origins of culture, learning through actions of churning butter-panning for gold-making candles, respecting cultures, shared understanding, learning without judgment, expanding boundaries, respecting traditions without comparisons to today, trying something new, learning through living history

In the land of wandering educators and teachable moments, there are many ‘I didn’t even know I was learning’ moments. Stretch your boundaries, experience wonder, and aim for curiosity, open-minds and engaging opportunities. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the strides made, boundaries expanded, and growth attained. Happy travels!

At the Taj Mahal. From  But I Never Realized I Was Learning Anything


Stacey Ebert, our Educational Travels Editor, is a traveler at heart who met her Australian-born husband while on a trip in New Zealand. Stacey was an extracurricular advisor and taught history in a Long Island public high school for over fifteen years, enjoying both the formal and informal educational practices. After a one year 'round the world honeymoon, travel and its many gifts changed her perspective. She has since left the educational world to focus on writing and travel. She is energetic and enthusiastic about long term travel, finding what makes you happy and making the leap. In her spare time she is an event planner, yogi, dark chocolate lover, and spends as much time as possible with her toes in the sand. Check out her website at thegiftoftravel.wordpress.com for more of her travel musings.
All photos courtesy and copyright Stacey Ebert