When I was about 9, I went to Cub Scout day camp at Camp Delmont for the first time. Every day, a group of us got on a bus and we rode for an hour or so. I had a great time, and at the end of the week, for reasons that I can’t now recall, my dad and I decided to take a ride up to the camp. So we hopped in the car, and Dad said, “Tell me which way to go.”

Now I had sat in the middle of the bus and knew vaguely (at best) which way the bus had gone, but I did remember one of the other kids commenting at one point that we were getting on the Turnpike. Or was it the Expressway? No, Turnpike, definitely. “Go to the Turnpike.” We hadn’t gone more than a minute or two, when Dad took a left at an intersection through which I was absolutely certain the bus had gone straight. “No, Dad, go straight!” So he calmly got turned around and back onto the route I remembered.

Wasn’t long before I was completely lost. But I wasn’t about to let Dad know that, after my absolute certainty about the first turn. So he kept driving, and I kept directing him as best I could. “Are you sure you drove through Norristown?” he asked. “Yep, Dad, I’m sure. Right through here. Yep.”

Miraculously, or so it seemed at the time, we managed to end up at the camp, and I showed him all the places I had done stuff that week, and we had a great time. In retrospect, Dad, being the map king he is, probably had already figured out where the camp was and knew how to get us where we needed to go.

School has a tendency to work like the camp bus. At the start of the year (or a unit, or a chapter, or a lesson), we pile all the students on the bus, the teacher drives us to camp, and the kids all get off. The teacher knows where we’re starting, where we want to end up, and the best way to get there. All the students have to do is go along for the ride.

The problem comes when later the students have to make the journey on their own. Without the bus or the driver, they get lost, miss turns, and lose track of where they’re going.

Learning isn’t linear, though, and the kids aren’t all at the same starting point. The process is much more complex and takes place in three (or more) dimensions. As a teacher it is far more efficient to plan the camp bus kind of lesson than to work in three dimensions, but it’s not about our convenience. In my next post, I will elaborate more on the implications of nonlinear learning as I consider what a family vacation would look like if it were organized according to school structures. I will also be co-presenting a session with Mary Beth Hertz on this topic this Saturday at TeachMeet NJ. If you’re in the area, come join us to continue the conversation.