Staying on trail

“So how was school today?”


“How so?”

“Things were pretty good.”

“Okay.  What was the most challenging part of your day?”

“I don’t know…”

“Okay.  How about this: What was the easiest part of your day?”

“Oh, math.”


“Yeah?  How so?”

If you’ve ever spoken with a middle schooler about their school day, then the above script may sound familiar.  (Edutopia has some better advice if you’re in a pinch though (Aguilar, 2016).)  I mention this exchange because I eventually got more out of “Nate,” a seventh grader from a central New Hampshire town.  But not without metaphor.

I presented Nate with an activity to explore at least three trails in a small conservation area.  If he chose, he could challenge himself to explore more.  I gave him the map, and off we walked.  Before long, Nate realized, and articulated, that he hadn’t planned very much: If he had taken some time to think about the route we took before we left the trailhead, he could have been more efficient.

“Was there a time at school today when you weren’t very efficient?”

“I suppose I could’ve planned for the quiz better.”

“Did other people know about the quiz?”

“Yeah, probably a few.”

At each junction, Nate took a minute or less to recap where he was and where he wanted to go next.  He articulated this process to me.

“How often do you take the time to recap something at school?” I asked.

“I don’t really do that.”

“What would it look like if you did?”

“I don’t know.  There’s just so much going on that it gets overwhelming, and school’s a really busy place after all.”

Talking a little more, we discussed the consequences of being “wrong” in each setting.  Making a mistake outside, in the woods, meant getting lost, freezing, maybe even dying.  Make a mistake at school, though, didn’t mean as much.

“So what you’re saying is that the consequences at school are small, but you make a big deal of them there.”


“And the consequences out here are pretty big, but you don’t make a big deal of them.”



While I respect Vygotsky’s claim that we have little choice whether or not to think metaphorically (n.d.), I think many metaphors in my line of work are frontloaded for students.  “Well-chosen parallel metaphoric structures can add depth to the learning experience and encourage clients to make strong connections between the experience [exploring trails] and everyday life [school]” (Gass & Stevens, 2007, p. 105).  For Nate, the trails and forest are the numerous trails and trees he faces every day at school.  Nate’s problem, more often than not, is seeing the forest for the trees and staying on trail.

By that I mean, the consequences of being lost in the woods are threatening, but the consequences to Nate’s sense of self are astronomically more threatening to him in middle school.  Each trail junction required a decision from Nate, and it required him to stay focused on meeting the objective I set for him (explore at least three trails) while making those decisions.  “People have tended to conceive decision making as a point in time.  [But really] you amass the facts and circumstances and evidence and then make a call” (Brooks, 2011, p. 22).  While I had no intentional agenda when we began our walk in the woods, I certainly exploited the inherent metaphors of hiking in the woods and reading a map as ways to process through how Nate makes decisions in school.  He needed a lot of information to make a decision on his own, because I predominantly didn’t help him choose which way to go or which trails to take.  But he found the information he needed, and indeed, he made decisions.  What could we take away from this?

First, Nate can benefit from being more efficient.  He needs a “map” before classes, and he needs to plan his “route.”  Otherwise, he’ll be inefficient, and risk getting “lost.”  Second, the consequences aren’t that big of a deal.  In other words, the strife Nate creates for himself is largely just that, created by Nate.  Lastly, taking time to pause and recap at each “junction” could be really beneficial for Nate.

I didn’t always use metaphors this way: You know, to get middle schoolers to talk about their school day.  But I have used sports and physical activities as a way to view myself and how I fit within a larger context.  “You practice how you play,” as the adage goes, morphed into, “You play how you live.”  And those are really the guiding ideas behind my use of metaphors with clients.  My hope is that in the coming months, Nate can find connections at school to stay on trail.


Aguilar, E.  (2016, October 27).  15 questions to replace “How was school today?”.  Edutopia.  Retrieved from

Brooks, D.  (2011).  The social animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement.  New York: Random House.

Gass, M. A. & Stevens C. A.  (2007).  Facilitating the adventure process.  In D. Prouty, J. Panicucci, & R. Collinson (Eds.), Adventure education: Theory and application, pp. 101-124.  Champaign: Human Kinetics.


High on Neuropsych: An Introduction to Neurotransmitters

Dewey's conditions and the principles of experiential education