Teaching Students Not to Miss Once in a Lifetime Moments is a Key to Improving Our Schools

Just after sunset, I was returning to the University campus for an evening meeting. Our campus is one of the few that is right on the shore of Lake Michigan. When you drive into the campus, the road travels right up to the edge of the bluff. There is one spot where I slow my car and glance at the lake almost every morning. If I were to take a picture of that same spot each day, it would be a completely different picture. The color and texture of the water changes. The color of the sky changes. The clouds change. The wind changes. Sometimes it is a raining, snowing, or ice is starting to build up along the shore. As such, this spot is one of my favorite places on the planet. Just a few minutes (even a few seconds) can be enough to clear my mind, clarify a decision that I need to make, or give me a fresh start to the day or a reset at the end of the day.

I love how this view changes.  I’ve learned to appreciate a given moment because it only shows itself to me once in a lifetime. More recently, I’ve started to capture pictures of what I see. I don’t always take time to do it, but I’m glad when I do.

Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture last December and it was one of the most incredible sights. That happened exactly one year ago today. The full moon filled a fifth of the sky. The rest of the horizon was filled with a massive cumulus clouds, each one lit up from behind. Gusting winds filled the lake with whitecaps that glistened in the moonlight.

Twenty mile per hour gusts combined with a temperature of seven degrees was enough to hold me back from hiking out to the edge of the bluff and capturing the moment. I had a meeting starting in twenty minutes so I reasoned that I would garner the willpower to face the elements on my way out of the building in about an hour. When my meeting ended and I walked outside, I looked to the horizon over the lake, excited to get a second view of this incredible sight. Only it wasn’t there. The deflated moon rested high in the night sky with no sign of its former dominance. The clouds were gone, but even the stars decided to take the night off. The whitecaps remained but now most of their dance was in the darkness. It was a different view and a different place.

Timing matters. There are prime times for certain opportunities such that, when they pass, we don’t know if the opportunity will arise again. I had my one chance at that photo and I missed it. Perhaps I will have a chance for something similar, but I can’t know that with confidence.

This is the sort of lesson that comes best through experience. I’m writing this almost a year later, and I still remember that night. I have this beautiful image in my mind’s eye, but I also have a vivid reminder not to pass up these moments when they present themselves. In fact, since that time, I’ve encounter other beautiful sights, and this missed opportunity was a sober reminder for me to act differently, to pause and take in the moment.

There is learning in the wild. It is how we grow and develop as people. It isn’t dominated by tests and carefully constructed lessons. It comes through living, being open to learning, and reflecting on our life experiences. You might have seen a quote of mine that seems to find its way around social media on occasion. It came from a presentation that I gave years ago about designing engaging learning experiences. I simply explained that the only two essential ingredients for a learning experience are a learner and an experience. Everything else is ultimately optional. Notice that I didn’t say a person and an experience. I said a learner. A learner is someone open to learn, seeking to learn, willing to engage and reflect. When that is present, almost any experience can be turned into a powerful opportunity for learning. In fact, as much as I value any number of conversations about promising practices of teaching and learning, I continue to believe that our best investment is in nurturing people who develop the virtue, the character of being a learner. If we have that, then despite failures in other areas, our learning organizations will be richer, more rewarding, and have a greater impact.


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