Polynesian Voyaging Society

What does practicing purposeful, skillful navigation but remaining adaptive in the face of ambiguity look like?

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash, O'ahu
Tried and Tested
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Purpose for Students
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Date Added: 
June 2019

Relationship to Ambiguity

The term “wayfinding” comes from an ancient system of navigation used by Polynesians to voyage thousands of miles across open ocean in the Pacific. In order to determine their location and chart their course, wayfinders learn to recognize important signs and patterns in the natural world.  They rely upon inputs like the position of specific stars, weather and climate, the migration patters of various species, the ocean's currents, colors of the sea and sky, and cloud formation relative to land mass.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society is a non-profit organization in Hawai’i committed to the transmission, preservation, and active practice of these ancient wayfinding traditions. Wayfinders of the past and present represent what it looks like to step into ambiguity and uncertainty with purpose and vision, but be very flexible and adaptable in their approach.




The K-12 lab at the d.school collaborated with PVS to explore how wayfinding traditions might influence purpose education for young people.  We found their stories, practices, mindsets, and values all to be tremendously inspirational and useful to high schoolers grappling with the ambiguity and uncertainty of their future.

Since a large part of PVS' mission is education and community involvement, both locally and globally, they also generously share a wealth of information on their website.  You can read about their roots and history (and their epic voyage to Tahiti 1976), watch videos about what wayfinding looks like, hear from master navigators, get a glimpse into specific tools wayfinders use, follow blogs from their recent 4-year long worldwide voyage with the traditional voyaging canoe Hokule'a, and track their current voyages and projects.




The more time I've spent with individuals from PVS, the more I see how their leaders and people are so much more than navigators of ambiguity at sea.  They care deeply about the Hawaiian islands, the world's oceans, and the future of our planet.  They are also committed to ensuring ancient wisdom has a place in our modern, global, interconnected world.  And in all these ways, they are gracefully and humbly showing what wayfinding might mean to those of us (most of us!) who will never be ocean navigators, but seek to have a purposeful life.

In this way, they have quite a bit to offer us all, and you can begin to discover it on their website.  For educators specifically, the "Learning Center" section of their website offers a wealth of resources to explore and use in the classroom.

Design Abilities Used

Wayfinders rely on a constant feed of information, both from the natural world, and from their crewmates.  They're continually synthesizing this information to orient.

They are also build and care for their voyaging canoes with a meticulous level of craft.  Along with navigation tools like the Star Compass, they help to provide a sense of foundation in the face of uncertainty.

Master navigators thoughtfully plan a course for a voyage, but are open to how that plan will change depending on weather and other variables -- they are continuously designing their voyaging strategy.


The d.school's friendship with PVS could not have been possible without the warm aloha of Miki Tomita, Jenna Ishii, Hye Jung Kim, and of course Nainoa Thompson.

Submitted by:

Kelly Schmutte
Kelly Schmutte
Curriculum Designer and Lecturer, Stanford d.school + Founder, PerfectFit Pointe

Design Abilities Used

Learn from Others (People and Contexts)
Synthesize Information
Build + Craft Intentionally
Design Your Design Work
Learn More about Design Abilities 


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