In Need of Professional Learning Worthy of an Explorer? Create Your Own.

This post was written by educator Anne Lewis.

We teach from who we are. Teaching young people to embrace an Explorer Mindset is more critical than ever before, but if we want to teach and develop the Explorer Mindset in our students, the place to begin is not with curriculum or lesson plans. It is with ourselves. 

Building our capacity to embed the Explorer’s Mindset in our classroom requires authentic professional development (PD). But to deepen the experience of exploration, we can also think of PD not just as professional development but as personal development as well. Usually personal development in education deals with topics like health and wellness, self care, or stress relief but I suggest we go beyond these concepts. If we think of developing ourselves as explorers and as educators, we benefit personally as human beings and we are more capable of evoking the Explorer Mindset within our students. This is why we need to seek out PD opportunities that provide us opportunities to be curious and observant, to understand our responsibilities, feel empowered, communicate and collaborate effectively, or become problem solvers and solution seekers.

When we think of these types of PD opportunities, we generally tend to think of opportunities like the National Geographic Lindblad Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship – high profile, once in a lifetime opportunities that have relatively few spots given the number of educators that apply. But where do we find PD that will develop our educator Explorer Mindset if an intensive PD like these is not available?

Simple: Create your own. 

Below, I’ll share a basic template of an enriching PD I put together for myself to get any educator started on a self-created Explorer expedition unlike any other.

Anne Lewis in Badlands National Park. Photo by Jane Amiotte

Take the online Explorer Mindset course for educators.

I suggest you begin by taking the one hour Explorer Mindset introduction course – Developing a National Geographic Explorer Mindset with Your Learners. This will help you to be more reflective about the PD you are designing for yourself. Even after having completed the course, I regularly check in with Explorer Mindset, just to keep it front and center.

Start your journey with what you teach.

Start by thinking about your curriculum and what you teach. What do you want to know more about, personally? What excites you and makes you curious? What do you need to learn? Start there. I needed PD to teach a class about soil health so I had to create my own opportunity of content knowledge, field experience and reflection. (I get into more specifics at the end).

My process was not neatly linear and agendized occurring in 2 days as most PDs do but rather it meandered over the course of several months. This was life long learning in action.

Integrate geographic thinking.

Think about the geography lens. Consider scales (local to global) and the lenses of geology, history, economics, culture, politics, and mapping relate. Another National Geographic course – Applying Geographic Skills with Your Learners – is a great way to introduce yourself to these ideas. In my case, I was able to relate soil health to the economy, history, and culture. South Dakota’s main economic activity is agriculture so soil health is economic health. Soil health in agriculture also touches upon the history of the Dust Bowl years and how the land is used and managed now compared to how it was used and managed pre European settlement. Which brings us to our next point.

Be equitable and inclusive. 

How can you make your content more inclusive and relevant to all learners? Think about how your  content relates to the dominant cultural narrative. Whose voices and perspectives are missing or marginalized? I live in a community within an hour’s drive of three reservations of the Oceti Sakowin, the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota speaking people of the Plains so it is critical that I include the Indigenous perspective. The bison or buffalo is culturally significant to this community so my lessons include the connections between the bison and soil (more about that in a bit).

Consider environmental challenges.

When designing the opportunity, think about how your learning relates to the environment, particularly environmental challenges we face today. Everything is connected so even if your topic does not have an obvious connection to climate change, oceans, biodiversity, etc, you may find connections surfacing as you learn and explore. Be prepared to understand them for yourself regardless of whether your standards require you to teach them. In my own exploration, I discovered that healthy undisturbed soil sequesters carbon which relates to climate change.

Integrate citizen science.

Citizen science is a way to help your students see themselves as scientists. I already use GLOBE for my water quality and weather studies so I am on the lookout to integrate other protocols. Another personal citizen science project favorite is iNaturalist which is supported, in part, by National Geographic. There are other projects which have connections to other content disciplines. You can search for them using SciStarter. In the soil health example, I know that soil health depends on soil biology which is impacted by soil temperature. To better understand soil biology, I am integrating the GLOBE soil temperature protocol into the unit. As part of my PD, I reviewed the protocol and completed the online training with assessment.

Craft a story.

Teachers are storytellers! What kinds of experiences can you have that will yield an artifact—a photo or video, a data set, memorabilia, a map, or even a compelling yarn—to help connect your learners to the content? Yes,there is probably an artifact already developed but it won’t be made by you. And that is the hook that will engage students. Along my own journey, I went to the Badlands National Park specifically to get video of (this is going to sound odd) bison pooping. Animal waste is how nutrients are cycled through the Earth systems and returned to the soil.  Capturing the video meant hanging out in my car for a good chunk of the morning at a safe distance near a herd of bison. I almost missed it but I did manage to catch the moment. I also caught a bison wallowing and on a different trip got a great video of a dung beetle

Bison. Photo by Anne Lewis

Reflect on the Explorers Mindset 

At the end of your self directed PD, you should set aside time to reflect on your learning and experiences. Reflection is essential for learning. We know this is true for our students. It’s also true for ourselves. 

I like to start my reflections with a review. Learning begins with recall so I find it useful to recall: what did I do as part of this PD?

During this PD, I expanded my content knowledge. I reviewed reputable websites about soil health from the USDA, read recommended books, and watched the video produced by Kiss the Ground. I also consulted with a soil scientist from the local USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service office.

I also created my own field trips. I mentioned the trip to the Badlands but I also went out on my campus and dug holes to look at what was there. I found worms! And snails! In my backyard at home there were isopods and millipedes. I also spent time looking at roots and marveling at mushrooms that randomly pop up in a lawn.

As with every good professional development I spent time thinking about how to bring this all into my teaching. I created a bullet list of learning objectives and associated activities that utilized my newly robust knowledge, experiences and artifacts.

The next step in my reflection process is to relate some aspect of the PD to my work or personal life.. To keep things manageable I don’t try to relate everything to everything. I allow those elements that I found especially relevant, energizing or useful to float to the top and start there. This also is a good place to check  and relate your PD to the development of your own Explorers Mindset.

When I think about how this PD contributed to my Explorers Mindset I go first to the field trips. There my curiosity was sparked. An actual snail in the soil in my campus soil? What? Observing the snails, the  buffalo, the dung beetle and the mushrooms personalized and connected my learning, taking the content from the conceptual to the concrete. These interactions gave me a deeper sense of responsibility not just for but to these amazing creatures. Creating videos and taking pictures of my observations allow me to communicate this personalized learning with students and others.

I also feel more empowered as a result of doing a deep dive into the content about healthy soil to seek out and support solutions to some big, thorny problems like climate change. Since I better understand the issue I better understand solutions. 

I recently taught this class for the first time and I dipped deeply into the well of my Explorer Mindset as I taught. I showed my videos and got authentically excited when the students shared their discoveries of what they found in the campus soil because we now had a shared experience. I was able to weave in the extra lenses, giving the experience a depth and breadth. All the work on my part helped me give a boost to my students’ Explorer Mindset as they became curious and made observations and developed a sense of responsibility to the soil.

This is professional learning truly worthy of any Educator Explorer!


Anne Lewis is the special projects director at the South Dakota Discovery Center in Pierre. She leads a statewide earth and environmental science education outreach to students, teachers, and community members. She was a 2017 National Geographic–Lindblad Expeditions Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and is a champion of the National Geographic Educator Certification program, serving as a trainer and both official and unofficial mentor. Lewis advocates for everyone developing the explorer’s mindset as described in the National Geographic Learning Framework. She talked about how everyone can explore their world in her October 2017 TEDx talk at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, South Dakota. This belief underpins the TALES Project, an initiative she started to empower educators to bring their lived experiences into the classroom as teaching artifacts. Stories are powerful and should be used for teaching. Lewis serves on the South Dakota advisory board for the National Geographic Educator Network. She was recently chair of the GLOBE U.S. Partner Forum, an international science and education project sponsored by NASA, and was a 2016 Sustainability in Science Museums Fellow with Arizona State University. Lewis has a master’s degree in natural science and environmental education from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Lead photo by Michael Alain.

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