When our ancestors trekked out of Africa in the Pleistocene they weren’t just seeking out untapped natural resources to harvest—herds of antelopes and wild fruit trees. They weren’t simply being harried across the Earth by droughts, population pressures and famines. They were embarked on a journey of cognition. Homo sapiens’ ability to observe, experiment, adapt and problem-solve our way through diverse and utterly novel environments was a primal requirement for becoming a global species. Today learning remains an essence of humanity.
In a small way, my 21,000-mile-long foot journey from Africa to South America typifies this restless impulse for discovery. Education is a core and growing mission of the “Out of Eden Walk” project. And since hiking out of the Great Rift Valley in early 2013, I have enjoyed many wonderful opportunities to share the experience with fellow learners along my route.
At a secondary school in an oasis in Ethiopia, I used my laptop to conduct a Skype chat with students in faraway Chicago. (About 80 kids lined up to exchange a few words with their frozen counterparts in the wintry American Midwest.) In Saudi Arabia I paused the walk at a humid Red Sea town to speak with a class of white-robed schoolboys about the vagaries of ancient human migrations. (Saudi schools are segregated by sex.) The Columbia Global Center located in Amman, Jordan, hosted a walk lecture for people of all ages. A Friends school in Ramallah, in the West Bank, filled a gymnasium with hundreds of elementary students for a slideshow. There have been many such school stops.
But until this summer’s long rest stop in the Republic of Georgia, I had never actually taken an organized stroll with students.
In April, about 25 Georgian secondary students joined me on a 5-mile (8-kilometer) hike from the downtown of Tbilisi, this nation’s capital, to a nearby open-air ethnographic museum. We plotted the walking route for scenic views. We incorporated urban and semi-natural environments. (The artificial forests surrounding the city.) And we devised several of the “slow looking” and “active learning” exercises recommended by the Out of Eden Learn platform.
Each student carried a camera (often in their phones), a notepad, pencils or pens, lunch and a bottle of drinking water. They broke up into groups of three or four. Five times along our path, we paused for about 20 minutes to conduct a specific learning task.
Students were asked to notice ten things about an everyday object and generate four good questions.
Students interviewed people along the route.
Students looked up at the sky and down at the earth and recorded what they saw.
Students sketched something they found interesting—either alone or as a group effort.
Students closed their eyes and were asked to engage and record all their other senses.
This particular jaunt lasted about five hours, including a short break for lunch.
At the end of the walk, each group reported their findings to the other students. The teachers and museum educators encouraged a general discussion about everyone’s observations.
This sample “learning walk” and the basic principles of slow looking deployed by Out of Eden Learn often duplicate what I do every day as a storyteller on the global walking trail.
The mere act of walking forces me to slow down and use my body as the main tool for collecting information. I try to observe the world carefully, not just with my eyes, but by describing sound, touch, smell. Moving at a human pace, I interview sources en route, ranging from Ethiopian nomads to Saudi princes. (Like the students, I walk with a notepad in my pocket.) I analyze and assemble these impressions into what is hopefully a coherent story. I even share and compare my observations before publishing—in my case with an editor.
Schools and classes, including those participating in Out of Eden Learn, can replicate such hikes easily. So take a look at our video below. Try it out yourselves. Improvise your own local walk. And let us know the results.