The Pursuit of Audacious Exploration


“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” - Andre Gide


I was never a student who was overly curious.  I worked hard in school, and I got good grades.  It wasn't until I read the book, Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck that I realized I had boundless potential to learn anything if I put in the time and effort.  This epiphany ultimately changed my entire outlook on life, and I became infatuated with the process of learning.

In an earlier post, I decided to use a stereotype to make a point about the relationship between one’s fear and their ability to learn and use technology. Just like the example of using technology, fear often gets in the way of learning any topic or skill.  I’m sure you can think of a time when you might have been scared, apprehensive, or intimidated to learn something new.  I previously shared a story of a time when I was afraid to use hand tools when working on a carpentry project with my dad.  I know these experiences can be challenging, but they make us resilient as learners.

In the 15 years I have spent in the field of education, I have found that curiosity is the biggest driver when it comes to learning.  This is probably why inquiry-based learning is such an effective teaching strategy to use with students.  In her book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown tells us that "curiosity is an act of vulnerability and courage." In fact, "Researchers are finding evidence that curiosity is correlated with creativity, intelligence, improved learning and memory, and problem solving" (Brown, 2019).  Brown also reveals that "A study published in the October 22, 2014, issue of the journal Neuron suggests that the brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us better learn and retain information. But curiosity is uncomfortable because it involves uncertainty and vulnerability” (Brown, 2019)

In contrast, I have also found that fear can be the biggest obstacle or deterrent to learning.  I agree with Notter and Grant when they shared in their book, Humanize that "Nothing is more limiting to human beings than fear." What's more, it requires a significant amount of courage on one's part in order to overcome fear. Notter and Grant define courage as figuring out how to move forward in the presence of fear, which they claim is a hallmark of the human development process (Notter and Grant, 2016).  In other words, human beings have only been able to evolve and innovate due to our ability to rise above adversity, and conquer fear. 

It is only when we create a coordinate plane with the x-axis representing courage, and the y-axis representing curiosity, can we clearly see the relationship between these two variables. 

Figure 1: Curiosity vs. Courage


If we examine the coordinates of the intersection of curiosity and courage, we begin to find interesting correlations between the two variables in each of the four quadrants, which I call "zones." (See Figure 1).

In Quadrant I we have Audacious Exploration where curiosity is high, and courage is high.  In Quadrant II we have Vigilant Inquiry where curiosity is high, but courage is low.  In Quadrant III we have Apathetic Trepidation where curiosity is low, and courage is low. And in Quadrant IV we have Reckless Indifference where curiosity is low, but courage is high.

Figure 2: "Flow" Chart


I would argue that the greatest potential for learning occurs in Audacious Exploration.  This is what happens when curiosity and courage come together.
When curiosity and courage are both high, students are able to take creative risks in their learning, and they often find themselves in a state of flow (See Figure 2).  The most effective learning happens when students are in the state of flowwhere the challenge is just slightly above their ability level.  When students experience a state of flow, they tend to be so captivated by the learning activity that they lose their sense of time and space.  And Audacious Exploration is the perfect opportunity to experience this sensation. 

In order to unpack these different learning zones, I'll use the analogy of climbing a mountain (See Figure 3).  If you were to transpose Figure 2 directly on top of Figure 3, you would notice that slope of the mountain, and the state of flow are roughly the same angle.  This is because Audacious Exploration is the ideal balance between curiosity and courage to maximize learning, which can often lead to a state of flow. 



Figure 3: Audacious Exploration

Audacious Exploration

When curiosity is high, students become interested, engaged, and have intrinsic motivation for learning.  When courage is high, students are empowered, courageous, and feel emotionally, intellectually, and physically safe. In this zone, students aren’t afraid of making mistakes along their learning journey, and their innate inquiry will sustain their effort. Students in this zone ask meaningful questions, utilize applicable resources, and are excited to showcase their learning and understanding. To support these students, simply get out of their way and provide structure, feedback, and encouragement as needed.

If students in Audacious Exploration were tasked with climbing the metaphorical learning mountain, they would be super curious about what the view from the top looked like.  They would also have the confidence and courage to begin climbing the mountain with a backpack filled with just the necessary gear and resources.  They understand the interdisciplinary relevance of physical fitness, elevation, geography, culture, and weather.  Their drive and determination would carry them to the top of the mountain where they would get to enjoy the breathtaking views that they so eagerly anticipated.


Vigilant Inquiry

The second most effective zone for learning occurs in Vigilant Inquiry.  This is where curiosity is high, but courage is low.  This can be a particularly effective learning zone, as students have an elevated degree of wonder, but they are more cautious with taking creative risks. In this zone, students might not feel safe enough to apply themselves as much as they could.  Some reasons for this might be that they don’t feel physically safe, they lack self-confidence in their ability, or they might be afraid to make mistakes.  Students are still able to learn, but they don’t put forth their best effort, and do just enough to get a good grade. To support these students, I recommend building strong relationships, reassuring them that your classroom is a safe learning environment, differentiating the learning task, and providing appropriate scaffolding as needed. 

If students in Vigilant Inquiry were tasked with climbing the mountain, they would also be really excited to reach the top, but might be nervous due to the dangerous nature of the activity.  They might be brave enough to begin the climb, but they probably wouldn't make it to the summit.  These students would also overpack so they would be prepared for every possible situation. This would ultimately weigh them down, and their exhaustion would prevent them from reaching the summit.  These students would learn a lot on their climbing journey, but they wouldn't reach their full potential, and they wouldn't get the intrinsic reward of being able to enjoy the view from the peak. 


Apathetic Trepidation

The least effective zone for learning lies in Apathetic Trepidation. In this zone, students have little to no interest in the lesson topic, and they are apprehensive about the learning task. This can cause them to become a passive learner, and put minimal effort into the lesson. One possibility could be that the learning task is too challenging, which can cause anxiety; or the learning task is not challenging enough which can cause boredom. Another possibility could be that students do not find the lesson topic meaningful or relevant to them. Students in this zone are arguably the most challenging, because they will likely display off-task behavior, or shut down entirely.  To spark curiosity in these students, I suggest presenting the lesson topic in a way that is culturally responsive and applicable to the real world.  To raise courage in these students, I recommend establishing rapport and earning their trust.  Building these types of positive connections in the classroom can pay dividends by creating a safe learning space where your students will feel more comfortable taking risks. 

If students in Apathetic Trepidation were tasked with climbing the mountain, they would have little to no desire to reach the summit. They might also think that the climb is way too dangerous, or believe that they lack the physical and mental capacity to climb the mountain.  These students wouldn’t even bother to bring a backpack, because they don’t have any intention of making the climb. Because these students would just stay at the base of the mountain, they would only learn about the experience from watching their classmates, and hearing their stories. 


Reckless Indifference

The second least effective zone for learning is Reckless Indifference.  In this zone, students are generally uninterested in the lesson topic, and they are extremely daring with the learning task. When students are in this zone, they can become thoughtless and impulsive, which can easily disrupt their learning or the learning of their classmates. In my experience, I have encountered students who exhibit off-task behaviors such as going on learning tangents, acting inappropriately, or purposefully trying to derail the lesson.  Sometimes students enter this zone when they have difficulty making a connection to the lesson topic, or they don’t see a purpose in learning the task.  If you have ever heard a student ask, “Why do we have to learn this?” or "Is this going to be on the test?" then there is a good chance they were in this zone. To support these students, I suggest trying to explain how they can directly benefit from the lesson, in addition to the strategies previously suggested to spark curiosity in the Apathetic Trepidation zone.

If students in Reckless Indifference were tasked with climbing the mountain, they wouldn’t understand the vision and mission of the expedition, but they would be ecstatic that they are on a field trip.  They would fully believe in their physical ability to climb the mountain, but lack the purpose and navigation to get to the top. These students also wouldn't bring a backpack with them, because they either don’t know what to bring, or they don’t think they need any gear or supplies. Because these students would try to carelessly climb the mountain with minimal preparation, they could end up physically hurting themselves, or their classmates.  The only thing they would learn from this experience is that it was pointless, and they could have just Googled images of the view from the summit.


The Pursuit of Audacious Exploration

At this point we have clearly established that curiosity and fear are two major factors when it comes to learning.  Curiosity fosters learning, whereas, fear discourages learning.  I feel like the following quote perfectly captures the impact that these different learning zones have on students regarding their curiosity and courage.


"If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you." - Zig Ziglar


As teachers, we try our absolute best to motivate, inspire, and influence students.  However, we cannot make them learnwe can only try to provide the conditions in which they can learn.  My hope is that we as educators help guide our students into Audacious Exploration as they engage in the learning process.  If we are able to provide students with the conditions in which they can learn best, then we will always set them up for success.


Reference

  1. Brown Brené. Dare to Lead Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Ebury Digital, 2019.
  2. Notter, Jamie, and Maddie Grant. Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World. Que, 2016.
  3. van der Linden, Dimitri, et al. “The Neuroscience of the Flow State: Involvement of the Locus Coeruleus Norepinephrine System.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 1 Jan. 1AD, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.645498/full

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