Seeking Mountains; Will Travel

My goal as an educator has always been to help people discover and express themselves—and I have found the best way to do that is by supporting them in their growth as vertical learners.

A vertical learner is more than a lifelong learner. Over time, vertical learners become curiouser and curiouser, develop more advanced learning skills, and gain insight and perspective. Vertical learners don’t just learn stuff; they also learn how to learn.

I have identified five stages in the growth of a vertical learner. Each stage is characterized by its own mindset. The mindsets for the first three stages are illustrated in the panels below.

The mindset of a reluctant learner
Stage 1: The mindset of an active learner
Stage 2: The mindset of an active, sense-making learner
Stage 3: The mindset of an active, sense-making, independent learner

In these panels, traveling to a destination is a metaphor for learning while mountain climbing is a metaphor for vertical learning. If lifelong learners constantly travel to new destinations, vertical learners constantly scale new and taller mountains.

I use these metaphors because they work on several levels. First, mountain climbing is a form of travel—the mountain top might be the destination or simply one stop on a longer journey—but not all travel involves mountain climbing. Second, we develop more advanced mountain-climbing skills as we climb taller mountains, and the development of those skills encourages us to try climbing even taller mountains. Third, by climbing to the top of a mountain, we can see farther and see the world from a new perspective, and if we see interesting new mountains and destinations in the distance, we are inspired to travel farther and climb higher.

My role as travel guide and sherpa

The outcome of a learner-centric education should be vertical learners, not merely lifelong learners. Helping students travel to and explore destinations is enriching, but not nearly as empowering as developing learning skills by climbing mountains and gaining insight and having one’s horizon expanded by seeing from the tops of mountains.

Whether I’m working with students in a classroom or facilitating a group of teachers during a professional day, I see my role as travel guide and sherpa. After surveying the terrain, I guide learners into the mountains. But not just any mountains—I’m looking for mountains and routes up mountains easy enough to be accessible, yet challenging enough so learners can develop the skills and confidence they need to take on the next mountain or ascent. The mountain should also have a view of other nearby mountains for the learner to climb. The idea is to prepare and inspire.

We need travel guides and sherpas because we live in landscapes where mountains are scarce and easy to avoid, and our culture teaches us that only the smartest among us are capable of scaling them. Even when directing our own learning, most of us direct ourselves away from or around mountains, not up them. To learn vertically, we need to actively seek out the mountains in our landscape—knowing that the view from the top will be amazing and we have the skill to get there.

Guiding students up increasingly taller mountains in a traditional classroom may seem improbable, but it’s not. In my decade as a middle school math and science teacher, I could always map out a series of mountains in the curriculum students were willing, even eager, to climb. But even though the journey itself was rewarding, the real reward was discovering their own capacity to climb mountains. In my experience, most students will transition from reluctant to active learner in less than a year—and many students will transition to active, sense-making learner in three.

Once learners reach the active, sense-making, independent stage, vertical learning becomes self-sustaining. Learners will continue to evolve naturally, eventually reaching stages 4 and 5. In stage 4, vertical learners turn their learning skills inward. Who am I? They begin identifying core values—and aligning themselves and the way they live to those values. Then, in stage 5, vertical learners recognize that they have the agency and capacity to shape the world, aligning the world around them to those same values.

Seeking new mountains to climb

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to clarify my own understanding of vertical learning. My first article on Medium, published a year ago, was an initial attempt to pull a bunch of random thoughts together into a coherent framework. It’s a 27-minute read.

At the end of January, I heard a talk given by Alan Kay on powerful ideas, which crystallized a whole new round of thinking.

Now I’m back again—and the fact that I can sum up a lot of my thoughts in a series of stickman drawings feels highly significant to me. On top of that, I had reason to consider abandoning my work on vertical learning and getting a real job last month, and I’ve just decided this work is too important for me.

What does this all mean? I think I’m done exploring the mountains in this particular region and I’m ready to pull up stakes. I’m searching for new mountains to climb so I can take vertical learning to the next level. I’m not exactly sure what that looks like yet, but I think it will involve cultivating a community of fellow vertical learners.

If there are mountains near you worth climbing, or if you’re interested in joining up with me wherever I might land, leave me a comment. I’m seeking mountains and will travel.

To learn how vertical learners grow, read my article on triple-loop learning: