Our everyday interactions hold many important lessons, outside the margins of formal education. Starting a column...

To fans of the hugely acclaimed sci-fi “trilogy” in five parts — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — by the late Douglas Adams, the title of this occasional column might seem an unabashed rip-off. Confession: yes, it is. I am one of those fans, and the title is in the nature of a tribute to the spirit of the novels, in which an intrepid inter-galactic traveller stumbles through the universe, trying to make sense of it as he puts together a guidebook for hitchhikers. If you want to find out more, you can take the easy ride to discovery on Google, but better still would be to take a walk to the nearest library and check out a copy of the first book in the series. Or, or of course, do the same thing online.

Let’s set aside the term “hitchhiking” for the moment (I certainly do not want to encourage the practice of asking for lifts from unknown strangers on highways or city streets!) and turn to “backpacking” instead. There’s a certain romance about this notion. It holds a sense of freedom, excitement and discovery. You go off into unknown areas, taking only a small piece of luggage that can be carried on your back, without a fixed itinerary, open to new experiences and ideas, roughing it out, taking on the both the risk of disappointment and the hope of fulfilment. The backpacker is not just going on a journey; she is embarking on an adventure. She might have a plan, but is willing to change it based on what she encounters on her travels.

The backpacker sets off on a trip wearing comfortable, season-appropriate clothing and a sensible, strong pair of shoes. What goes into the backpack is important. It needs to hold the essentials: a map, a torch, something to protect against the elements, something to eat and drink, a spare pair of socks and an extra set of clothes, and maybe (just maybe) a book to read on a rainy day.

What does all this have to do with life and learning? The backpacker, unlike the tourist, experiences travel in a serendipitous, “bottom up” way. There isn’t anything orchestrated or fixed about his travel. In a similar sense, this column is about the important lessons we learn outside the margins of formal education.

Open attitude

It’s about developing the ability to take advantage of our everyday interactions and encounters, and use them to do better at work, in the classroom and, generally, in our progress through life. Just as a backpacker’s open and flexible attitude allows him or her to get the most out of the journey, a learner’s open attitude can lead to unexpected gains that find application in many instrumental ways.

Like the backpacker, we also need to be able to equip ourselves with the appropriate luggage (and set aside what’s not needed) to allow us to draw out these lessons from our chance encounters. More about this as we go along.

21st century skills

There’s a lot of talk these days about “twentyfirst century skills,” about what’s needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive education and employment “marketplace.” These same skills also help us cope with an increasingly complex world, where choices can confuse us and throw us off balance at times. While school and college build a knowledge base for us, formal education does not always give us all the skills we need to deal with the world.

To a large extent, we pick these up on our own, or sometimes in extra-curricular situations — or if we have had the privilege of attending a non-mainstream programme that focuses on broader learning outcomes. Among the most important of these (and we shall come across others) is something called “learnability.” This is something the backpacker has in abundance. Every stop in her journey tells her how to approach the next; every stumble allows her to recalibrate her compass.

This column is about developing learnability and other such tools to draw something from our everyday journey through life — inside and outside classrooms, institutions, and texts. It’s about putting together our virtual backpacks, and drawing our own maps, so that we get the most out of the experience as we traverse our own universe.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus, www.teacherplus.org. Email: usha.raman@gmail.com