The Explorer Mindset: What it Means to Think Like an Explorer

Bayan Atari, a National Geographic Society Education staff member, wrote this post.

Our Explorers are what drive National Geographic forward. Every single Explorer is a curious and passionate leader who uses their creativity, innovation, and storytelling skills to find tangible solutions for the protection of our world. But what does it take to be an Explorer? It begins with a combination of attitudes, skills, and knowledge that anyone can develop: the Explorer Mindset and the Explorer Mindset Learning Framework. 

In her work as a visual storyteller and National Geographic Young explorer, Andrea Villareal Rodríguez’s curiosity and concern for the planet fuel her deep connection to the girls and women at the forefront of climate solutions, compelling her to “approach situations with empathy and a critical eye, valuing the significance of diverse perspectives,” says Rodríguez. “This mindset has steered me towards a focus on capacity building, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to share their unique stories through their own lenses. I am committed to documenting and celebrating the girls and women actively shaping a brighter future.”

In her work highlighting how women and girls in the Global South mobilize their communities in the face of the climate crisis, Rodríguez exemplifies the Explorer Mindset. This mindset is multifaceted, but it demonstrates three key attitudes:

  • Explorers are curious about the world. At its most advanced level, curiosity is transformative—Explorers are curious and engage with the world around them. They observe, document, ask questions, and explore the wonders of our world. 
  • Explorers are empathetic. Explorers care about other people, cultural resources, and the environment. They are respectful and committed to making the world a better place.
  • Explorers are empowered to make a difference. Even the smallest steps have meaning. Confidence in our ability to protect people and the environment is a powerful preventative against despair in the face of modern challenges.

These three attitudes—curiosity, empathy, and empowerment—lay the foundation for the skills that also form the Explorer Mindset. Maintaining a geographic perspective, for example, is more than reading or memorizing maps—it’s a holistic way of engaging with geographical, ecological, historical, economic, political, cultural, and spatial perspectives at different scales to understand human and natural systems. This requires the curiosity to ask questions about the world, the empathy to understand the human element of geography, and the sense of personal empowerment required to take action. Similarly, geographic practices like mapping, inquiry, and citizen science feed curiosity, inspire empathy, and inform empowered action.

No Explorer is an island, however. Collaboration is a key skill required for creating lasting change, so explorers must engage with their communities to maximize their impact and move towards a sustainable future. Communication goes hand-in-hand with collaboration. Explorers use the power of storytelling to inspire others, spreading the word about their work through a variety of methods. Together, Explorers, their teams, and their communities problem-solve, pursuing bold ideas and persisting in the face of challenges. 

The attitudes and skills at play in the Explorer Mindset are incomplete without geographic knowledge. Understanding our vast, complicated, interconnected world is a must for imagining effective solutions to nuanced problems. Thus, the skills and attitudes of the Explorer Mindset drive Explorers to learn about human and natural systems: the interplay between physical properties of our planet and the diverse human and nonhuman populations living on it. Explorers seek interconnections in these intricate systems, striving to understand our world holistically. 

How can educators help their students cultivate an Explorer Mindset? In 2014, the Education Division developed the Explorer Mindset Learning Framework in collaboration with a collective of educators, Explorers, and other experts as a guide to develop and design learning experiences to inspire the next generation of planetary stewards to take informed action. The Explorer Mindset Framework is a competency-based framework that identifies and codifies the Attitudes, Skills, and Knowledge (ASK) that are indicators of the Explorer Mindset. We use the Explorer Mindset Learning Framework to design National Geographic education experiences, products, and programs with the goal of developing an Explorer Mindset in learners and participants. 

“The Explorer Mindset Learning Framework is a living document that has changed over the years as we design, develop, and implement innovative learning solutions and programs,” says Elizabeth Wolzak, Director of Learning Innovation EduLab at the National Geographic Society. “One thing that has remained constant is the development of the Explorer Mindset in all people that interact with our resources and programs. As a designer of programs and resources, having this tool and clarity on the desired outcomes allows me to be innovative and creative without losing sight of the ultimate outcome: making each one of us and our audiences explorers with a mindset that will move us to take informed action.”

To take a closer look at how the Explorer Mindset manifests through Explorers’ work, check out the videos on the Explorer Mindset Learning Framework page. Hear National Geographic Explorers from around the world describe their work in their own words and find out how the Explorer Mindset manifests itself in everything they do.