This summer, I had two formal learning experiences that were very different from my norm. They were hands (and feet) on, they were exciting, they were visceral, and each one was because of a major, new hobby.
Experience #1: Steep Snow Climbing School
Most readers know from my shameless fundraising on this blog that I made a summit attempt on Mt. Hood early this summer. It was an amazing experience, and a big part of that was Steep Snow Climbing School – required training for climbing with Timberline Mountain Guides.
The day before our scheduled attempt, we sorted out our gear and made our way to a ravine on the side of the mountain, where there were steep enough slopes to simulate the kind of climbing we would be doing near the summit. As we approached, our instructor spread out his arms to encompass the snow, the mountain, the trees, and the rocks, and exclaimed, “This is our classroom!” And it was.
All day we practiced methods of hiking in snow. With and without crampons. With and without iceaxes. With and without ropes. We threw ourselves down the slope to practice self-arresting from falls. We learned to communicate as a team as we moved in ropes. We got to know each other and our mountain guides. We learned how to breathe better and how to rest with each step…all under the watch of the mountain we would attempt to master starting at midnight.
The result: I made it to 10,200-ish feet on Mt. Hood and I’m headed back in spring next year with the summit in my crosshairs. (If you’re interested, the full story is here.) And happily, I did finally bag my first summit later in the summer: Mount St. Helens.
Experience #2: Basic Rider Training
Early this summer, I realized that I spend far too much time commuting (almost 2 hours per day by walking, bus, and train) and decided to get a scooter.
In Oregon, driving anything over 50cc requires a motorcycle license, which requires a 2 1/2-day Basic Rider Training from TEAM Oregon. The class is 60% classroom and 40% range, with tests in both at the end. In both cases, everything is taught from a very basic level; it’s hard to feel stupid (unless you get stressed and try to make things too difficult, as I tended to do on the range).
Bit by bit, we built up our skills with constant feedback from the instructors, each exercise building on the one before. After the riding test, our instructors built a four-way intersection with cones, surrounded by a loop, and just told us to ride, make decisions, and interact with each other as roadway users. It was a powerful reminder that the real test was not over, was not predictable, and was much higher-stakes than the one we had just taken. I can’t think of a better segue into driving in real-world conditions.
The instructors were strict — no, hellastrict — about tardiness and doing anything whatsoever that would be illegal (such as using a camera or phone while on a motorcycle), so I didn’t get any pics of the class while I was in it. But the result was that I successfully obtained my motorcycle endorsement, and now I have new wheels for commuting and fun.
So…why has this post sat in my Drafts folder for months? It’s been a busy fall with my new teaching role and all, but the main reason I’ve not posted this before is that I hadn’t written much of a so what? to share with you. I may have finally cobbled one together, and here it is.
Each of these experiences was followed by some experiential learning that wasn’t formal at all. In the case of mountaineering, it was the experience of reaching Devil’s Kitchen, looking up at the remaining 1000-ish ft. of Mt. Hood, and simultaneously feeling incredible pride at what I had achieved, and full knowledge that I didn’t have enough left in me to reach the summit. In the case of riding, it was not long after the heavy Portland rain started this fall, when the brakes locked up on my scooter and my shoulder came into contact with something hard enough to fracture my humerus. Those experiences taught all new lessons.
But the formal learning experiences stand out because so little formal learning is experiential any more, at least in my life. They reinforced to me the power of real and realistic practice, the power of confidence built on that practice, the power of tactile experience, and the power of good experience design for learning — no, for performance.