the original wayfinders
The term wayfinding comes from a system of navigation used for thousands of years by Polynesians to make long voyages across thousands of miles of open ocean using the natural world as their guide. These voyagers miraculously use only their own senses and knowledge passed by oral tradition from navigator to apprentice. In order to locate directions at various times of day and year, these wayfinders memorize and learn to recognize important signs and patterns, such as the motion of specific stars, weather and the seasons of travel, wildlife species, the direction, size, and speed of ocean waves, colors of the sea and sky, and cloud formation and shape relative to land mass.
We were incredibly inspired by the Polynesian navigators’ persistence, sense of purpose, vast body of knowledge, and sense of exploration. We loved how these navigators showed what is possible through using the best technology ever made available to humans: their minds. The minds and bodies of wayfinders must be incredibly well trained and aware. Master navigators such as Mau Piailug can feel several different swells of the ocean at one time, sensing changes in course even while sleeping in the hull of the canoe.
THE NEUROSCIENCE OF NAVIGATION
Modern brain science shows that using our mind to navigate our physical world can increase our awareness and change our brain. One of the most famous studies demonstrating this is about London taxi cab drivers who are required to memorize the streets of London before passing their cabbie test. After extensive studies, it was shown that the cab drivers actually changed the structure of the part of the brain (the hippocampus) that is involved in memory and spatial knowledge. When they navigated by memory, parts of their brain related to spatial awareness lit up; but when they navigated using GPS, nothing lit up.
But globally today, young people are increasingly relying on GPS to navigate their physical worlds and this has grave implications for their mental and emotional worlds as well. Studies show that those with high levels of spatial and cognitive brain function are more likely to be empathetic, have decision making skills, and working memory. But these are on the decline in as young people are increasingly addicted to screens and spend most of their time inside. Recent studies show that the average American teenager spends over nine hours a day using media and sends an average of 3,339 texts a month. There are lot of links to the rise in technological use and increasing anxiety, depression, and social isolation. A recent study showed that levels of empathy in young people has dropped rapidly in the past thirty years, and accelerated rapidly with the rise of social media and increased technological use.
We are not damning the use of modern technology, however we do think there is something powerful about students stepping back from their routine habits with technology to explore themselves and the world around them through a new lens. We want our project to be a way for students to connect deeply with themselves, their environment, and the natural world that supports their existence.
We believe that the wayfinders are a powerful example for young people to know what is possible if they tune in to the power of their own mind and the physical world around them.
THE POLYNESIAN VOYAGING SOCIETY
History of PVS
In the last quarter of the 20th century there has been a resurgence of traditional navigating led by the Polynesian Voyaging Society. This was part of a broader movement of native-based cultures reclaiming their heritage and the achievements of their ancestors. At the time PVS launched the double-hulled voyaging canoe Hokule'a, there was a theory held by a European scholar that people from South America drifted from rafts and hit the Polynesian islands by chance. Pius “Mau” Piailug traditionally navigated Hokule'a from Hawai'i to Tahiti in 1976, providing evidence that Polynesians could intentionally sail and navigate across the great expanse of the Pacific, leading to increased respect being paid to native bodies of knowledge. Since then PVS has grown and become a leading organization in the world training new generations of wayfinders in Polynesia.
Visit to PVS in May 2016
In May 2016, the Project Wayfinder team went to visit O’ahu, the headquarters of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. We spent a week learning about Polynesian wayfinding and going for a sail on the Hikianalia (a modern version of the ancient Polynesian voyaging canoes). During our week with the PVS education team, we talked about how to appropriately translate Polynesian wayfinding for students around the world. The navigating tradition is centuries old and passed on by lineage and training. Of course with a deep lineage like this, there are things that cannot be passed along to the public. But we learned from talking to the PVS education team that the mission of PVS is broader than teaching people how to navigate and voyage the waters of the Pacific: part of their hope is that the story of Hokule'a can help each person be inspired to be a wayfinder in their own life, honoring the Earth and their ancestry, and understanding where they came from. We found a lot of synergy between their broader vision for the world and what we are hoping to do with students of Project Wayfinder.
how we are translating wayfinder practices
On our visit to PVS, we spent an afternoon brainstorming possible ways that the principles and traditions of wayfinding could be translated into tools, lessons, or principles for students. Many students will never taste the waters of the Pacific or get on a voyaging canoe, but they can still learn from the principles of Polynesian voyaging. Here’s one example of how we are starting to translate voyaging practices into thought-provoking activities for student wayfinders.
The “Cone of Error”
When PVS navigators are planning a voyage from Hawai'i to Tahiti, they don’t aim directly for Tahiti - given how small a target Tahiti represents in the vastness of the Pacific, that would be a nearly impossible feat. Instead they smartly aim to hit a fan of islands in the Tuamotu Archipelago that extend east from Tahiti. From there, they can accurately navigate towards the island of Tahiti. This is referred to as a “cone of error” because it means there are an infinite number of paths a canoe could take within this cone that successfully lead the navigator and crew to their destination. As our friends at PVS described it, the wayfinders were smart about picking “waypoints that allow for flexibility.” In the case of sailing to Tahiti, the fan or “cone” that navigators aim for is about 400 miles wide.
Navigators also do a tremendous amount of planning before making a voyage. They design a Reference Course as part of their course strategy, which represents the idealized, linear path the canoe would sail given average wind, currents, and weather conditions anticipated along the way. However, as described on a PVS website: “It is highly unlikely that the canoe will stay on the reference course because wind direction will vary along the way, and the canoe can only sail in the direction the wind allows it to sail. The art of wayfinding involves adapting to variable and unexpected conditions of wind and weather while maintaining progress towards the windward side of the targeted islands.”
Several things inspired us about these practices, especially the fact that (1) wayfinders wisely know how plan for multiple ways to get to their target, and (2) that they almost never take a linear path in getting there, but constantly calibrate along the way, using what they have.
Translating this into an Activity for Students
We developed an activity that helps students “Chart a Summer Voyage.” The key principle and goal behind this activity (which could be repeated with any other plan/goal) is to understand their WHY to broaden their HOW. Students start by brainstorming several ideas for summer goals, plans, and dreams. They then pick a couple and “why-ladder” up, repeatedly asking themselves why that goal is important to them. Once they get a couple levels up to a place that feels like an unverbalized insight, they then “how-ladder” back down, brainstorming other ways to achieve that same ultimate goal. They effectively widen the cone of possibilities, and see that there are multiple (perhaps better, more exciting, more efficient) paths to get to their “destination” (their “why”). They then brainstorm action steps to make a couple of those pathways happen.
incorporating other wayfinding traditions
Part of our mission at Project Wayfinder is to expose students to the different traditions of native wayfinders so students can learn their histories and celebrate their achievements, especially in the face of oppression and racism they have encountered. But wayfinding is not just held by native or indigenous cultures; all cultures had a tradition of wayfinding. And new wayfinding traditions continue to get invented in the modern age: astronauts are a powerful example of the wayfinders of the 20th century. We believe the power of wayfinders of different traditions will inspire young people and push them towards their dreams.
As we build out our content for next year, we will be looking to add 3 more wayfinding traditions as the basis of our Wayfinder Navigation Toolkit. We would like to get a group that represents the diversity of the planet, its ecosystems, and cultural diversity.
As we did with the Wayfinders and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a key principle behind our work is respecting the lineage of where these practices came from and working with the organizations and teachers that hold these lineages.
We want this to be a collaborative effort with cultures that want to share their practices with the world, not a form of extraction and appropriation. We believe talking to the lineage holders of the traditions, like PVS, is an essential part of this process. Right now we are thinking about the possibilities of exploring Aboriginal trackers, Norse Navigators, Inuit Hunters, and modern astronauts. We are exploring a number of options, so if you have an idea, please let us know!
To learn more about Polynesian Wayfinding, visit our Resources page.
Note: We respect that the Polynesian Voyaging Society is sensitive to and understands the importance of diacritical markings (glyphs added to letters) for Hawaiian words and names. As our website does not reproduce diacritical markings correctly, diacritical markings will not be used. We thank PVS for their understanding.