On Being Lost: What a cafe in Brazil taught me about learning

“…the little insight at the end might have had something to do with letting go and with opening oneself up to new possibilities, of seeing the world not as one thing, or one place, that has primary value, but as something of many possibilities, many places, all potentially as illuminating as the next, so that there is in going out into the world not a loss…but a creative transformation of one’s relationship with it.” –From Excursions by Dr. Michael D. Jackson


As I approached the counter to order breakfast I was at a loss for words. I knew exactly what I wanted, but I could not express it. The problem was not some mysterious condition, it was merely that I had just landed in Sao Paulo and I had forgotten the few basic phrases of Portuguese I had tried to learn on the plane. As I resorted to pointing, smiling and attempting to turn my Spanish miraculously into Portuguese I had one of those “aha” moments. I was suddenly lost, very lost, and it felt uncomfortable. Without a working cell phone to pull up Google Translate I felt like a child must feel as it first begins to communicate. It was that feeling of knowing what you want, but having no way of expressing it through language. This “lostness” hit me hard and made me reflect on what it means to be a “learner.”

The reason that this feeling hit me so hard was that travel had become comfortable to me after learning a fair amount of Spanish and traveling mostly in Spanish speaking countries.This ease of communication and understanding became my default and it was difficult for me to understand what it was like to feel lost in a foreign country. This was highlighted to me just a few weeks ago when my parents were visiting me in Peru. As I helped them translate menus, communicate with cab drivers, or respond to questions I thought it all seemed so easy.  That was until I was the one standing at the coffee shop in Brazil wondering what in the world I should say. Suddenly, I had a full understanding of what my parents had felt just a short time ago. The point being that when something becomes so second nature to us, we forget that others may struggle with what we consider to be easy. I guess you could call it a lack of empathy for feeling lost.

Feeling lost is not something that we as teachers are supposed to feel (or at least admit to feeling) very often.  Teachers are looked upon as experts, and they should be, but how can being lost help us understand learning from a student perspective? For me, it made me realize how helpless you are when you feel like you do not understand anything. Often times the lessons we lead as teachers are things that we have taught and modified through the years. In our minds, the message is so clear that we fail to see how a student might feel totally confused by a lesson which to us seems second nature. By getting lost in our comfort zone of understanding, we lose both the ability to empathize and deconstruct the ways in which a learner new to the subject might struggle.

So what is the solution? To me, there are two lessons to be had from this. First, get lost. We as teachers need to get lost more often. Whether this means traveling to a new place and having to learn a language or simply reading an article or study that is outside our normal area of expertise. We need to be confused and puzzled more often. Getting lost in new material provides the metacognitive framework to understand how knowledge is constructed and what it feels like to struggle with new information. By watching and observing how we learn, we can then apply this to how we help students learn. Also, when we are forced to struggle, it humbles us and revives the empathy that we should all have towards students. If we could share with our students all of the times we have struggled in a new situation or didn’t know something, it would take us down from the pedestal where students often hold their teachers.  Then we could all relish, rather than avoid, the feeling of being lost.

Second, we need to remember that “lostness” (I just learned that this is, in fact, a word) is just temporary. Just as soon as we think that there is no way we will “get it,” something happens where it all clicks. And sometimes it doesn’t click, but this is alright too. As we explore our way around to “find” ourselves again, we see things in a whole new light. Although I may not be able to have a full on conversation in Portuguese by the end of this week, I am also no longer afraid of what will happen if I don’t know how to say something. This morning, as the cashier and I both smiled at the humor in our exchange, I realized it’s alright to not know. No one is going to judge you because we have all been there. Whether it is taking a plane to a whole new place or studying a new idea for the first time, knowing that you will come out “alive” is a great feeling. When we are comfortable with feeling lost, we are finally free to explore, and that’s when we begin to live.


IMG_0205 IMG_0214 Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset  IMG_0185

One thought on “On Being Lost: What a cafe in Brazil taught me about learning

  1. I agree, Bill, we as educators, as humans, need to get lost more often. In that “lostness” there is this heightened awareness of what is around us, what people’s expressions mean- it is this tiny spark that potentially could be fanned into a roaring fire, a desire to learn, that sweet spot where learning can take place. Too often in our old familiar world we become automatic and forget to live- it is the learning that keeps us alive. Can’t wait to hear more about your trip to Brazil!

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