Social Emotional Learning and Hiking
A little over a year ago I went on a day hike outside of St. George, UT in the Red Cliffs Recreation Area. The hike was beautiful and invigorating, but more importantly, for this writing piece, it helped me clarify the role of the social-emotional component of learning. We know that all learning has a social-emotional component, but sometimes that component is talked about tangentially to disciplinary learning targets. That is how it can appear in many of the content standards out there. What I experienced on this hike illustrates the centrality of SEL to deep learning and why it must be a key part of innovation in schools. The story is not your typical academic learning example. I am talking about climbing up some rocks. But I think you will appreciate how closely this example connects to many types of learning.
The Red Cliffs Recreation Area contains a beautiful campground off of highway 15 that sits at the base of, not surprisingly, a collection of red rock formations. The published trail takes you along a river between the cliffs. I started up the trail, but my eyes kept wandering to the steep peaks on either side, which I really wanted to explore. After a few minutes, I could hold back no longer. I wandered off the marked trail and made my way uphill. Isn’t that how it always starts. You come across something captivating and before you know it you have embarked on a serious learning journey.
My rate of breathing increased as I made my way up, and before long I needed to shed a few layers to keep from sweating. As I got higher up, the difficulty of the ascent increased. There were many rock walls that were unsafe to ascend without a rope. I had to choose my route carefully to scramble uphill. Bouldering up a slanted rock for a few feet can be a lot of fun. I don’t consider it fun when a poor foot placement would result in my dropping off a cliff. When hiking alone even in a well-traveled area, I think carefully about risk. So, after a fair amount of problem-solving and rerouting I made it to the top of the peak which had lured me onto this journey in the first place. And the experience was certainly one about learning. I was learning the nuances of shoe traction, what rocks I could climb easily, and the finer points of route finding. More satisfyingly I was applying knowledge from previous hikes to each situation allowing me to overcome obstacles that would have once thwarted my way. It always amazes me how physical challenges parallel the mental challenges of learning. I could probably similarly describe reading a challenging text, or applying a complex mathematical equation.
At the top of the cliff, it was much cooler with a fierce wind evaporating the sweat on my body. The view across the landscape was rewarding allowing me to see the plateau of Zion National Park in the distance as well as many other geological formations. I felt a sense of accomplishment as I looked out knowing that overcoming this peak involved endurance, physical strength and an abundance of knowledge.
After a well-deserved rest, I started to head down the slope carving out a new route for myself. This route proved a little trickier than the way up and I spend more time searching for safe descents. I came to a long sloped grassy hill that I walked down losing half of the elevation from the peak. As I continued I felt proud of my route-finding abilities. I was even able to lower myself from challenging boulders by locating tiny foot and hand holds. After about 30 minutes of descending, I came to a clearing that was bounded by a steep descent. I circumnavigated the perimeter to find a gulley where I could lower myself. After making my way all the way around I realized there were no safe routes. In all directions, there was a 40-foot vertical drop. If only I could get down there below where the terrain looked easy to continue the descent to the base of the mountain. But you can’t jump forty feet safely. As I explored more in each direction I realized that I would have to climb back up most of the way to the top to find a new route.
I suddenly felt angry at the mountain and at myself. How could I have been so stupid just assuming this route would work out. I worried that I was not going to find my way back down again. I could not remember how I had gotten up and I forgot to set my GPS app to trace my route. I even yelled obscenities at the rocks around me. Then I decided to sit down and take a break.
Why was I feeling so upset? I had chosen to spend this day in the red cliffs and I specifically decided not to have a set route to follow. Sure going back up a steep mountain is extra work and a significant effort, but I often seek out activities that involve a lot of effort. In fact, why was I climbing the red cliffs in the first place if I did not want to climb? Also one of the things I love the most about outdoor exploration is problem-solving. Well when you solve problems, sometimes a solution does not work out the first time. That is all part of the risk-taking involved in solving interesting problems. So I started to wonder why I was cursing the mountain and myself. Why was I taking an enjoyable experience and making it stressful? I decided to start climbing back up the mountain, but with a different attitude.
It was pretty incredible that a simple shift in my thinking led to an entirely different experience. The nice thing about hiking is that there is plenty of time to think. So I thought about how I often get into less than healthy mindsets in the course of the uncertainties and challenges of learning and life. And here was this hike to show me that sometimes all it takes is a recalibration of my mindset to have a whole new perspective on things. The painful failure of climbing back up that mountain became a celebration of problem-solving and spending time in a place that I love. It ended up being much harder to retrace my route back down the mountain than I had imagined. But in the end, I made it and I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that was greater than what I had first felt at the top. I had not only solved the puzzle of the mountain, but I had overcome the puzzle that is my brain.
SEL is an important part of all learning because all situations have social and emotional components. Learning how to manage your learning process in every discipline involves becoming aware of your own emotional state and how it interacts with the world around you. Now, whenever I find myself getting upset or frustrated when I am learning or if I see a student feeling frustrated, I think about the lesson I learned that day in Red Cliffs Recreation Area.