The following blog has excepts from the book Computers, Cockroaches and Ecosystems: Understanding Learning through Metaphor.

The map is not the substitute for a personal experience. The map does not take the place of an actual journey. (Dewey, 1990/1902, p. 198)

The above quote has profound implications for education. Implications we have largely ignored. Let me explain.

On August 13th, 1869 John Wesley Powell wrote, “We are now ready to start our way down the Great Unknown…We have an unknown distance yet to run; an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not. Ah, well!” (Powell, 1875, p. 80). When Powell wrote this, he was standing at the junction of the Colorado River and the Little Colorado. Below him waited the unexplored Grand Canyon.

GrandCanyon copy

Sketch included in Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries

Powell’s 1869 expedition of the Colorado River was a legendary achievement, and his report of the expedition, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries, became a classic. With its detailed map and a wealth of information on distances, directions, elevations, landmarks, rapids, and navigation strategies, it became a guide for future explorers and thrill seekers for decades to come. In an introduction to the 1987 edition of the report, Wallace Stegner wrote, “Nearly everyone who runs any part of the canyons now…either carries this story of Powell’s in his duffelbag or has it read or recited to him around the fire while the tamed Colorado slips past” (Powell, 1997, p. xii).

In the fall of 2009, I had the awe-inspiring experience of rafting the Grand Canyon. We used an updated guidebook with topographical maps and detailed information about rapids, campsites, side canyons, sites of historical significance, and the geology and zoology of the region. The guide was even waterproof so we kept it strapped to the top of a cooler where we could use it as a constant reference. The thing was indispensable. It made our journey possible and greatly enriched the experience.


Our trip down the Grand Canyon

Such is the purpose of a guidebook. It compiles information obtained by visionaries like John Wesley Powell and, in doing so, opens up opportunities for us ordinary folk. Guidebooks can be fun to read for their own sake, but their full value is in the experiences they make possible. Reading the guidebook, or viewing the map, should not substitute for a personal experiencing. This is the point John Dewey (one of America’s great philosophers and educators) was making in the opening quotation. Only he was speaking metaphorically about the purpose of education. Education should not be the equivalent of the map substituting for an actual journey. What does this mean?


To answer this question, let us start by laying out the parts of this metaphor. We have explorers, whose experiences result in the creation of a map or guidebook that then becomes a guide for future journeys. To apply this to education, switch the reference from a wilderness domain (e.g., the Colorado River) to a knowledge domain (e.g., literature, history, science). The explorers then become the pioneers of the knowledge domain, such as Newton and Einstein in physics. Their experiences and knowledge are compiled into a school curriculum just as Powell’s experience and knowledge was compiled into a map and guidebook. Thus, in Dewey’s metaphor, the map is analogous to the curriculum. Further, just as Powell’s map and guidebook served as a guide for journeys down the Colorado River, so the curriculum should serve as a guide for journeys in the knowledge domain.

There are at least two meanings to “having the journey” in a knowledge domain. One is that students should have the experience of authentic doing in the knowledge domain. Just as I had the experience of actually rafting the Grand Canyon instead of just learning about John Wesley Powell and his experience, so physics students should have the experience of actually doing physics instead of just learning about Newton or Einstein and their ideas. Psychology students should have the experience of actually doing psychological investigation instead of just learning about Freud or Maslow and their ideas. History students should actually do historical analysis and so on. The curriculum should play a vital role in guiding such doing. Students should not be left to discover everything for themselves any more than I was left to discover my way down the Grand Canyon. The curriculum is vital. But it should not substitute for the actual journey. It should not be an end unto itself (sadly, this is exactly what it has become).


The second meaning of “having the journey” is to use the curriculum, or rather the powerful ideas contained in the curriculum, to see and experience the world in exciting new ways. These ideas should enrich and expand students’ everyday experience. Teachers are well aware of how experience can enrich learning. What Dewey would have us consider is how learning can enrich experience. My colleagues and I have focused on this purpose of education in our Transformative Experience Theory. As an example of a transformative experience reflective of “having the journey,” consider this anecdote.

“Teachers are well aware of how experience can enrich learning. What Dewey would have us consider is how learning can enrich experience.”

“Every rock is a story waiting to read by those with the knowledge to read them,” spoke Mark Girod to a class of fourth graders. He held a rock in his hand and slowly turned it for the students to see. Mark had a particular passion for geology and possessed a real gift for infecting his students with this same passion. As he began narrating the story of this rock, the students watched with rapt attention. As the lesson progressed he taught the initial principles of reading the story of a rock, convinced the students of how cool rocks are, and told them they would never see a rock the same again.


Over the next week, a number of his students became engrossed with rocks. They would pick up rocks on the playground and study them, bring rocks to class and share their stories, or start rock collections at home. One such student was captivated by the idea that rocks contained stories that could be uncovered by examining such things as crystal size, color pattern, and shape. She started a “rock book” at home and often brought rocks in to class. During an interview, she explained, “I think about rocks differently than I did before. Now when I don’t have anything to do, I look at a rock and try to tell its story. I think about where it came from, where it formed, where it’s been, what its name is…I used to skip rocks down at the lake but now I can’t bear to throw away all those stories!” (Girod & Wong, 2002, p. 211-212). I love that comment.

For this student, the curriculum was not an end unto itself. Learning the ideas of geology was not the end goal. Instead, she used the ideas of geology as a guide for exploring and experiencing the world in a fascinating new way. This is what it means to have the journey.


Dewey, J. (1990). The school and society and the child and the curriculum. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (original work published 1902).

Girod, M., & Wong, D. (2002). An aesthetic (Deweyan) perspective on science learning: Case studies of three fourth graders. Elementary School Journal, 102, 199-224. doi:10.1086/499700

Powell, J. W. (1875). Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its tributaries: Explored in 1869, 1870, 1871, and 1872 under the direction of the secretary of the Smithsonian institution. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Powell, J. W. (1997). Exploration of the Colorado River and its canyons. New York: Penguin Books.


3 thoughts on “Having the Journey

  1. You are so right! Read and learn about what ever you choose to learn but the but it would not be worth while if you do not have your own experience.
    Self Exspriences are very vital.


  2. I want to thank you for your very well researched and informative article. The greatest gift in the world is sharing, and with educators like yourself that shares valuable and positive knowledge, makes this journey wonderful. Once again, thank you.


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