06 Jun Inspiration, Osmosis and Empathy: What Can We Learn From Each Other?
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by Ellen Rowland
“I had many a profound, long in-depth conversation, one particular one over the cutting of beetroots as we discussed life and what we are all doing here.”
~Julia, Project World School retreat participant
Learning from each other is human nature and it begins from the moment we are born. As social creatures, we discover new things all the time, intentionally or not, through observation, demonstration, imitation, and the sharing of knowledge and direct experience. Learning also takes place in many forms on an individual level, as we seek to deepen our understanding of the world and acquire specific knowledge. But when we come together as a group, the learning potential is exponential.
According to Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction. From a behavioral standpoint, the evolution of Social Learning Theory attempts to “explain human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, and environmental influences.” In other words, we learn from each other through observation and 1 modelling—experiencing someone’s behavior, ideas, skills, or perspective and adopting them as our own. This helps to explain how babies and young children model the actions and behaviors, both negative and positive, of the adults in their lives, accounting for verbal and body language acquisition, mannerisms, social behavior and attitudes. And it also accounts for cultural intelligence and influence as well as the rapid social “tipping points” of fads and trends, from everything to fashion to technology to popular music.
A Deeper Look at Social Learning
Social Learning Theory is a generalized psychological explanation of behavioral learning. It can be applied to any situation where people have the opportunity to influence each other. But what happens when a group of teenagers come together half way across the world for a travel retreat? Getting feedback from past retreat participants gives us a peek into the Project World School experience and allows us to look at and explore the positive effects of social and cultural learning, specifically how teens and young adults inspire and influence each other in a group setting through a shared travel experience.
“I learnt in many ways. I learnt through watching people/observing, I learnt through talking to them, sometimes just being there was enough for me to learn something.”
~ Juwayria, PWS participant
Intention: Learning Local Skills
Retreat participants are encouraged to participate in planned workshops with the local community of the country they are visiting, with a focus on indigenous knowledge and customs. Community based learning projects, volunteering, and participation in everyday life provide cultural, spiritual, artistic and linguistic learning opportunities. By being in contact with, talking to, and learning from local people who may not have the same advantages or function in the same ways as we do, cultural immersion also challenges preconceived notions and fosters compassion and global thinking.
“During the two retreats I’ve been on, I’ve learned too many things to count. I’ve learned how to play the ukulele, how to make a Krathong for the Thai festival Loi Krathong. I’ve learned what goes into making a damascus style blade/knife, how to batik dye fabric. I’ve learned some very useful meditative and tai qi practices, how to de-catheterize cats. And so much more. But above all of that, the most important thing I’ve learned is to keep an open mind and to question everything.”
~ Sydney, PWS participant
Inspiration: Learning Through Sessions
In addition to planned learning opportunities, participants are also invited to share their unique talents or knowledge through “sessions”. As Lainie Liberti explains, “Sessions are the 1 hour during the retreat each participant is responsible for. They lead a session which can be anything. We’ve had teens lead sessions on self defence, writing, making bracelets, yoga, art, anything! We’ve had political debates hosted by a teen . . .one brought 20 kazoos and directed the all star kazoo band for an hour. We’ve had chess tournaments, painting, etc. The sessions are the way we invite teens to step into leadership and contribute to the group on their terms.”
“Each person comes on the trip with a prepared session of some kind, mine for the Mexico retreat was yoga! We learn to dance, make bracelets, meditate and we even had a Krav Maga class. It’s a really great way to learn from the other people on the retreat. ~Gianna, PWS participant
Taking on the responsibility to demonstrate a passion or skill is a great way for teens to cultivate leadership and impact the people around them. This type of reciprocal learning is an important way, not just to take something away from the experience, but also to leave something behind as a contribution.
The Shared Experience vs. Sharing Experiences
Project World School participants have a shared travel experience, meaning they discover a new place and people and participate in many of the same activities as a group. However, each individual has a unique experience despite moving as a unit, being in the same place, meeting the same people, tasting the same food, etc. When they come together and share what each learned, saw, heard, felt, they can then perhaps change or inform the perspective of someone else in the group. Within the group, they may also gain a better understanding of someone who is introverted or anxious or struggling outside their normal boundaries. They can then “see” new things that they may not have thought of through another’s unique experience, and vice versa.
“I got a better understanding of what it’s like to have a full conversation in a language that’s not your first language. I saw poetry and music in ways I didn’t see them before. For me it’s a lot of small stuff that I just never really considered from so many different points of view.”
The Circle: Osmosis and Empathy
When we share our experiences within a group, two things occur. We allow for the process of osmosis where others in the group have the opportunity to learn from us, to literally absorb information and ideas. We also have the opportunity to foster empathy in others by sharing our feelings and our perspective on important life issues. As participant Sydney, affirms, “Everyone brings their own perspectives, ideas, and energies to the group. It’s really an amazing thing to be a part of.”
“Circle Time,” the evening ritual of coming together to reflect on the day, is a meaningful part of the retreat experience. According to Native American culture, the circle is symbolic of equality, a configuration where no person is more prominent than any other person. Circle meetings ensure that all people are allowed to speak and the words spoken are accepted and respected on an equal basis”. In 2 this way, sharing experiences and ideas in a safe environment fosters,
“(Circle time) is a time to ask questions about your day that you didn’t even consider before. It lets you hear other peoples opinions on what you experienced that might change your point of view, and I think that’s an important aspect of travel.” ~Gianna
“You really feel like you’re giving that person your respect, as they share their wisdom and opinion with you.” ~ Julia
and flexible thinking:
“The group gives me the courage to try new things and step outside my comfort zone. When you travel with people that are supportive it really gives you a chance to make the most of your travels and learn new things.” ~ Gianna
In addition to the intentional learning that takes place, the feedback from what has been learned and shared creates an environment where young individuals can openly discuss and learn from each other about their travel experiences, common struggles, triumphs, and controversial ideas. Getting feedback on their unique experiences can also open up their outlook on both the experience and themselves.
“I learnt so much from all of the other participants. I met someone incredibly musically talented and hardworking who inspired me to follow my musical passion. I met someone with the talent and skill to make people laugh, to make people feel happy. I learnt how important it is to think freely, to be a little crazy.”
Social learning experiences like these enrich and cultivate young minds to think openly for themselves and encourage innovation and collaboration. As part of the World Schooling philosophy, these exchanges encourage free thinking, self-reflection, and a deeper understanding of the world. What struck me the most in reviewing the feedback from the participants was the sense that, through their travels with Project World School, they expected to learn about and discover a new country and its people and customs. They expected to learn from and about the other participants in the group. But they never expected to discover quite so much about themselves.
* Many thanks to the participants who took the time to participate and share their experiences. I learned a lot from you!