Rekindling Wonder in Learning

Montserrat 8

 A bead of sweat collected at the tip of my nose as I stared at the ground between my hiking boots trying to allow my eyes to train their focus on something as my hands supported my collapsed torso on my knees.  I was trying to focus on something to distract me from the raging forest fire burning inside my legs and the weight of a small elephant standing on my shoulders for the last hour and a half that my thirty five pounds of camera gear in my pack had started to feel like.  In my semi-delirious state of mind, I was too lazy to even lift up my arm to wipe the dangling sweat from my nose.  I just shook my head until it fell off.  Normally, these kinds of hikes that I’ve done many times under similar circumstances don’t phase me but not today.  My friend from Seville and I were about three quarters of the way up Montserrat and had only about thirty minutes more to go.  She was actually just fine.  She kept asking me, to my chagrin, “Are you okay?”

We had come to this place a couple of hours northwest of Barcelona last year to visit the second most famous pilgrimage site in Spain after Santiago de Compostela known as Monistir de Montserrat (the Monastery of Mount Serrat).  This little cluster of mountains looks almost like some strange interloping race of alien topography defiantly set up a colony deep inside the boundaries of Spain–so strange and unexpected their appearance is when you first encounter them rising fiercely up out of the surrounding bucolic Catalonian countryside.  Rather than take the modern train ride up the steep rugged slopes to be conveniently deposited right in front of the main entrance to the monastery complex, my friend and I elected to make the two and a half hour arduous hike from the base of the mountain in the spirit of the way pilgrims had approached this place for thousands of years prior to what is only the recent advent of mechanical transportation.  

Although that hike proved to be quite the little physical ordeal, it was so worth it.  As we ascended, we’d come around a bend in the trail and through a patch of trees we’d see it; the morning rays of sun gently caressing the limestone monastery walls like a jewel resting among the jagged peaks of a mountain crown.  The beauty of the whole scene was transfixing; functioning like some kind of mystical balm assuaging the angry flames of protest coming from my exhausted legs.  When I recall that hike, what immediately leaps to mind is not my fatigue but the insatiable hunger and desire I had to enjoy the reward of arriving to this visual feast that had been courting my eyes the entire journey up the mountain.

Traditionally, a pilgrimage site was associated with a place venerated as being sacred or holy.  Often, there was a religious association.  But over time, pilgrimage sites have come to be associated with any extraordinary place that evokes a deep sense of wonder and puts people into what James Joyce would describe as “being held in a state of aesthetic arrest.”  In the contemporary best selling classic on pilgrimage, The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau, he says; “I also believe in pilgrimage as a powerful metaphor for any journey with the purpose of finding something that matters deeply to the traveler.”  I personally believe the “something” Phil refers to is a connection we long for with the experience of deep awe and wonder.  In that expanded sense of the definition, I’ve been to pilgrimage sites in a number of places that include Clonmacnoise in Ireland, Stonehenge in England, the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya in Thailand, the ruins of Knossos in Crete, Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) in Bali, the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, ancient Delphi and the Acropolis in Greece and domestically, our “cathedrals of nature” such as Joshua Tree National Park, Yellowstone National Park, The Grand Tetons National Park, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Crater Lake National Park.  All of them summoned and evoked a deep sense of wonder in me that was like the stoking of an internal flame through which vitality was profoundly nurtured and curiosity was aroused.  

In my experience of being involved with language learning and ESL for over twenty years now, I’ve increasingly come to feel that tending to the flame of wonder, both the teacher’s and the student’s, is one of the most influential factors in cultivating an engaging learning experience.  Too often times, learning is reduced to being nothing more than a delivery mechanism for information.  Instead of a vital exchange, teaching can become merely transactional and utilitarian.

I have a beguiling fascination with ancient history, old stories, architectural ruins, and origins.  For example, one of the practices I have when I travel (also one of the recommendations by Phil Cousineau in his Art of Pilgrimage book) is to find out where the oldest parts/buildings of a city are located that I’m visiting.  Likewise, the English language also lends itself quite well to gratifying my oddball fascination since English has had such a complex evolutionary history.  As someone who has spent most of his adult life involved in teaching the English language, I remember becoming curious a number of years back to investigate the origin of “teach.”  In exploring its etymology, I discovered that teach comes from the Old English “tæcen;” “to show.”  Tæcen in turn is related to the Old English “tacen;” “token or sign.”  Tacen can then be further traced to the Old German, “tekan;” “sign, wonder, miracle.”  So one might conclude “to teach” has its roots in a sense of “showing signs, wonders, or miracles.”  I can say my personal experience both as a student and a teacher confirms this conclusion.  If I think of my most memorable learning experiences in life with a teacher, they had this almost magical ability to kindle the flames of wonder within me.  There wasn’t any sense of the experience being merely a sterile indifferent dissemination of information.  Rather, I felt the arousal of an insatiable hunger and desire to attend to and feed this dormant animal of curiosity within me that had been awakened by a spellbinding wizard.  Great teachers have a kind of ringmaster ability to summon a circus of excitement within us to learn.  This is that difference between education and learning that Sir Ken Robinson so brilliantly and humorously illuminates in his virally popular TED Talk.  When my curiosity and sense of wonder are engaged, I’m engaged in the learning process, be it as a student or as a teacher.  Even though there are inevitably aspects of learning that are challenging and unpleasant, my sense of wonder fuels a deeper sense of conviction and commitment to push through those “ordeals” knowing that a great reward awaits me much like that monastery at the top of Montserrat.  In those moments of frustration when I metaphorically have my head over my knees, I’ll always have the conviction of knowing the struggle up that learning slope is worth the sacrifice. 

In a future blog post, I’ll talk more about what it is that we teachers can do to be better custodians for not only our student’s but our own sense of wonder.

All photos © Chris Franek

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