One of my most vivid memories was a trip I took with my brother in the Boundary Waters Wilderness in northern Minnesota. We spent a fair amount of the trip lost. The trail was much more rugged and considerably less well maintained any of the others we had experienced, and it became a running joke to spend thirty minutes searching for the the path after seeing it branch off in five different directions in each large patch of tall grass.
On our last day, we inadvertently wandered onto a peninsula and misread our position on the map. Our short two hour jaunt back to the car became an eleven hour ordeal, most of which was spent hopelessly lost in an alien landscape that looked like a giant's game of pick up sticks. We made our way carefully balancing across the trunks of large fallen trees that had blown down en masse in a previous storm, covered in soot from the controlled burn the forest service had done earlier that summer. Our food stores had dwindled to a single serving of rice and a handful of beef jerky. Eventually - in part through luck, and also in part due to our systematic exploration and continual reassessment of our assumptions - we found our way out and, elated, ran the rest of the way to the car just as the sun was setting.
I bring up this story because of a metaphor that Reggio Emilia educators use to describe their planning process: they focus on figuring out how to find "the way using a compass rather than taking a train with its fixed routes and schedules." (pg. 103).
This is a beautiful - and powerful - metaphor. It focuses on the important, essential elements of exploration. If you happen to have a good, reliable map, your compass is an essential element in orienting you within that map. If you don't have a map, a compass provides critical information to create your own based on landmarks and other observations.
A compass aligns you with reality, and whether in a forest or while navigating a new topic, this requires continual observation, engagement, and adjustment. Compare that with a train, which operates on a fixed schedule, and never strays from its rigidly defined path. Any bump in the path or defect in the rail spells disaster for everyone on board. It's so predictable that you can fall asleep and still arrive at your destination, having learned or seen nothing in the process.
The real world is not often as alien a landscape as the forest within which my brother and I were lost for over eight hours. But navigating the real world is often just as vivid and engaging, just as confusing and mysterious. We don't often have a map to guide our way, or even a clear sense of our final destination. The most interesting moments happen when we take the road less traveled and have to rely on our wit and good sense to find our own way.
This goes beyond the planning process for teachers to be more flexible and adaptive within the classroom. Good teachers are a compass for each student's individual journey. They don't set your destination or lay out the precise path you should take. They don't clear the trail for you, or expect you to blindly trust in their representation of reality (i.e. their preferred map). They don't carry you from one place to another, and don't expect everyone to be on board at the exact same time because otherwise you're going to be left behind at the station.
They provide you with opportunities to check-in with reality, and ways to orient yourself in the alien landscapes of new, confounding topics. They promise to be a reliable resource along the way, continually adapting to each new location as you go. They enable moments of breakthrough understanding, beautiful transformative moments of suddenly making sense of the world around you and your place in it.