How I Learned to Love Geography

Written from Gjaid Alm, Austria

I rather hated geography in school.

Memorizing lists upon lists of countries (despite my love for lists) seemed a tedious and reward-less task. Why do I need to know where Slovakia is (no offense to any Slovakians reading this)? With no motivation to give me a swift kick in the rear, all I was left with was a map and a boring evening ahead.

Planning for this trip (read about my backpacking adventures in Europe) changed everything for me. Suddenly, I had a hunger for geography! It wasn't immediate, I'll admit. But as I began researching interesting places to go, I realized what a neat planet we live on! Hours and hours were spent devouring travel blogs, Google Maps and "Top 10 Things to do in..." lists. I was addicted to geography and I had no idea how I got there.

Pages upon pages of raw knowledge, without application, lacks the key which unlocks its intrinsic virtue. The practical use of knowledge transforms simple facts into a vehicle for living in a way in which we were previously unaware. As soon as I figured out how knowing the distance between Vienna, Italy and Brienz, Switzerland could help me plan my adventures, I came to value the seemingly random piece of knowledge (it's 507 km in case you were wondering).

So what, then? Should we reject such institutions as the traditional education system in order to fully embrace this personal pursuit of knowledge by way of application? How silly! We have a system that has been built up over centuries that is dedicated to helping us learn. To trek off on our own would be limiting in its very nature because we don't all  have a natural hunger for arithmetic or biology. Waiting around until we desperately need a piece of knowledge before learning it would be a colossal waste of time.

So I began thinking, was there a way to replicate this desire for geography that I had stumbled upon inside of a classroom setting? Perhaps...

Imagine with me:

You walk into world geography on the first day of class and take your seat on the back row behind the biggest guy you can find. Might as well try to catch a few winks if you have to be in there anyway, right? As you plunk your backpack down, you notice a stack of bills lying on your desk. Sadly, it's monopoly money, but your interest is piqued! The professor pulls one of those gigantic world maps down from the little projector screen things in front of the chalkboard and you can hear an audible groan escape from your fellow classmates.

You have $5,000 and four weeks. You must visit at least five countries, at least ten cities, at least two different forms of government, on at least two continents. You must take at least three modes of transportation, use at least three different currencies, speak at least two different languages and have at least one culturally-specific experience in each country you visit. Put together a scrap book of every detail of your trip - get as creative as you like - and at the end of the semester, whoever has the most unique and well-planned trip scrapbook will get to go on that adventure, all-expenses paid by the school. Even if your trip does not get chosen, those of you who complete your scrapbook according to the specifications I just mentioned will get an A. Throughout the semester I will be helping you discover the world, but don’t stop there; I would encourage you to do your own research as well. There are places in your world that will blow your mind. Class dismissed.

Now, if that doesn't get your blood pumping to learn geography I don't know what will! This one geography class has the potential, not only to foster a love for learning, a skill for research and an adeptness at scrapbooking but it might even spark that passion to see and experience the world. The implications of such passion reach far beyond education into the way in which we live our lives. In this way, we can teach the fundamentals of subjects while encouraging a personal expansion and sharpness of mind.

I believe that education should not be a spoon-feeding exercise but rather a facilitation of personal growth and learning. The only way that we can do this is by crafting an atmosphere that creates necessity, provides opportunity and ignites passion.

Necessity + Opportunity + Passion = Learning

Necessity, it should be noted, should not exist in the form of needing to do well so that you get an A+ on your report card. Rewards that are only realized on paper are lost on some - particularly those to whom personal excellence is not a driving factor. Necessity, then, should exist in a form of hunger. A desire - or as C.S. Lewis refers to it, a joy - to understand the fullest picture of the truth that you have tasted.

Opportunity, as with traditional educational systems, should exist within the teaching of the instructor. They should provide their students with as comprehensive of an understanding of the truth they are teaching as possible. However, we are all too keenly aware of the impossibility of teaching the entirety of a subject within a single class, no matter the caliber of instructor. Therefore, the instructor must infuse their students with drive to learn on their own outside of the classroom.

The hunger that is personal necessity and the drive that creates personal opportunity, both originate in the passion that is the final piece of the equation. This passion is difficult to fabricate or replicate and can only be realized in the students themselves. However, as I am sure we have all experienced at least once in our lifetimes, passion is contagious. Instructors must ooze with this intangible, contagious disease that forces one to consume a subject as involuntarily as a drowning man would gasp for air.

I would contend, that the best thing that we can do for education is to inspire people toward an end and then facilitate their journey.

The potential for this method of education exists - I've personally experienced it. In my own quest for knowledge, specifically in the realm of business. I have been blessed to learn under the instruction (and passion) of professors at my Alma Mater as well as instructors via online mediums. Through both mediums of education, I have been inspired to discover new knowledge on my own, use the knowledge in my own life and discuss the topics in a one-on-one setting with my instructors. Though subjects have proven difficult and tedious at times, I have latched on to a hunger for the subject which has compelled me in my learning.

Educators, this is your chance to inspire your students to a lifetime of wonder instead of a lifetime of mediocrity. Good luck!