The Durango Zip Code learning moment

Somewhat incredibly, it’s nearly a year since the APSA Learning & Teaching conference in Albuquerque, where the idea for this blog first took seed.  with this year’s event in Washington looming, I was taken back to reflecting on what I’d learnt from my time at my first US conference and my first thought was a bit surprising.

Prior to the conference, I was lucky enough to be able to take some time to drive around the Four Corners region, seeing the amazing scenery and generally relaxing.  One day I drove into Durango, CO., famous (to me) for its mountain-biking and (to others) for its beautiful location, nestled in the San Juan mountains.  After a long day on the road, I was looking forward to dropping off my bags at the hotel, then checking out the sights.

I’d booked my hotel the day before, and I had a zip code and a map, so I was all sorted.  However, when I got to the spot on the map, there was no hotel, only a liquor store. Obviously, I’d just passed it, so I backed up, and drove past each of the surrounding blocks – nothing.  So I checked my maps again and ended up in the liquor store car park again.  I applied the logic of the street numbering system and noted the numbers of the properties, but nothing matched up.

So I asked someone – the concierge of a hotel near where my hotel should be.  He nodded thoughtfully, and informed me that this happened a lot, and my hotel was ‘just down the road’.  I headed just down the road, until I reached the edge of town, but no hotel: I turned back and shortly found myself in the liquor store car park again.

I asked someone else – the concierge of another hotel near where my hotel should be.  He also told me this happened a lot and said the same as the other guy.  I noted that I’d tried that.  He explained that ‘just down the road’ in this context meant about 8 miles out of town. 15 minutes later, I was checking in.

I hope the parallels to learning in the classroom are obvious.  Even when we give students the tools to analyse situations, those tools don’t always help and can even mislead.  Likewise, it can be hard for students to ask for help: it feels like an admission of defeat – certainly, in my case, I managed five days and 1000+ miles of driving without any other problems at all.  And when help is requested, it might not be sufficiently unpacked to make appropriate sense to the student: what use is it really, to say “improve the structure of your work”?

Durango’s a lovely place and I learnt something there that I hope I have made good use of since.  Next time, you see a student metaphorically driving round and round the block, keep that in mind.