Learning as Story
The Corps of Discovery as a Learning Model

by Michael L. Umphrey

Let us answer this book of ink with a book of flesh and blood.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Lewis and Clark | Ask | Listen | Explore | Reflect | Transform | Conclusion

Students at Simms High School re-create a typical camp as it might have existed during the Lewis and Clark exploration of the Sun River. With the same spirit of adventure that led the Corps of Discovery to explore an unknown continent, people today can explore the mysteries of the past.

In traditional classrooms, we end up being observers. But when we begin expeditionary projects, we become protagonists in our own story. We pursue desires, face obstacles, meet opportunities, make decisions, and arrive at conclusions. This comes naturally to us: it is precisely what people are made to do and want to do.

After studying dozens of comprehensive teaching designs, I identified the common elements they shared and arranged them into an acronym that’s easy to remember: Ask, Listen, Explore, Reflect, Transform (ALERT).

It is a process rather than a model because it points to stages we go through in deep learning rather than providing a recipe for teaching. The stages are presented in a discrete sequence because we can only say one thing at a time, but in practice they overlap and flow into one another, and come in various orders, and when we are doing any one of them we are likely also to be doing others. The important thing is to recognize that all the processes are involved in deep learning .

This process works in fifth grade classrooms, but it is also the basic pattern of doctoral dissertations. Most dissertations begin by posing a hypothesis or forming a research question (asking a question), then move on to a review of the literature (listening to the historical record), formulating and implementing a research methodology (exploring current reality to uncover new findings), interpreting and evaluating what happened (reflecting on possible meanings), and reaching a final conclusion (transforming what we know with new insights).

We can understand the processes better by examining a real life expeditionary project: the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The main goal of the expedition was learning. It was, after all, called the Corps of Discovery.

Ask: The story of the Corps of Discovery began with a rigorous formulation of questions. The big question, of course, was what was out there? Thomas Jefferson quickly focused this to what "useful knowledge" might be found. Jefferson spent months conferring with Meriwether Lewis, and many others, discussing which questions should be asked and how they might be answered. In the instructions that came from this process, Jefferson listed dozens of specific questions about flora, fauna, rivers, soils, climates and peoples. What could the land be used for? What possibilities for trade existed? What agricultural or commercial opportunities might be developed?

Until we have a question, it’s hard to learn anything. The name we give information we aren’t looking for or don’t need is "noise." Every teacher has had the experience of having their finely wrought utterings screened out as so much elevator music. In John Dewey's term, learning begins with a "felt difficulty."

For students, schooling stretches out before them into seeming infinity. The great project of human knowledge has been going on for a long while and a tremendous amount of information has been gathered, constructed, organized and published. In conventional schooling, the student’s task is to take in all this pre-formulated knowledge.

But few of us are interested in information for information’s sake. This is not a failing but a necessity for survival. No one can pay attention to everything. Even before the information revolution, the amount of information available to any person at any place at any moment was potentially infinite. Sitting in an ordinary room, a person could count the holes in the ceiling tile, figure out the temperature gradients from the floor to the ceiling, analyze the furniture spacing according to Chinese philosophy, ascertain the thickness of the window glass, calculate the board feet of lumber used to manufacture the baseboards, assess likely emotional responses to various fabric colors, estimate the foot candles of light from the fluorescent fixtures and calculate the watts used in an average year. But most people don’t busy themselves with such things. A person whose interests are too promiscuous, who constantly pursues information for its own sake rather than for purposes, is odd. If she takes it to an extreme, she may be downright dysfunctional, unless she can get a professorship.

Lewis and Clark had a focus that helped them sort through infinite details, recognizing what was pertinent and useful. They were not looking for a city of gold; they were not looking for a Fountain of Youth; they were not looking for sites for Christian missions; and they were not looking for wives and homesteads.

The process of coming to questions is central to learning, whether for students or professionals. The choice of questions guides the entire process, and re-forming questions along the way is a vital part of incorporating new information into the process. The habit of converting problems, dilemmas, and opportunities into questions answerable through research is a fundamental scholarly habit.

And, in what is not at all a coincidence, it turns out that the most powerful motivation for students is not an extrinsic reward (or threat), such as a grade or a movie on Friday, but a compelling question. The main work of a human organism is to organize meaning. It’s what we were meant to do. Once we have a question that moves us, we are well on our way to becoming explorers and detectives.

Listen/Look: Before the Lewis and Clark Expedition got underway, its planners led by Thomas Jefferson labored for months listening to what was known to develop the right questions. Jefferson read many texts and sought advice from dozens of people with scientific interests. He sought news from everyone who had been up either the Mississippi or the Columbia River to increase his chances of guessing accurately what might lay between them.

Once we have a basic question, we refine it by finding out what is already known. Lewis began by asking what equipment and supplies would be needed, then discussed possible scenarios with many experts and listened to their advice and suggestions. How many men? With what knowledge and skills? What supplies for food, medicine, clothing, and trade? What provisions for defense? What scientific instruments?

The explorers scrutinized what was already known as well as what processes others had developed for exploring, experimenting, interviewing and observing to gather new knowledge.

At key points in the learning process, it is important to review the existing literature, collect existing evidence, and examine work that has already been completed. This is the library phase of research. It is critical not only because it helps focus questions, it also provides the learner with a repertoire of research strategies and it familiarizes the learner with others who share similar concerns–kindred spirits, so to speak–who may be the best resources in the future.

Explore: The explorations are the best-known part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and they will also be the most memorable and exciting parts of most student legacy projects.

The Expedition conducted extensive interviews with Native Americans along the way; they made detailed notes and sketches of fish, wildlife, and plants they encountered; they took painstaking celestial readings to calculate precise locations; and they made critical decisions on the basis of all that was known and careful observations of the situation. Dozens of plants and animals were first identified by these explorers. They noted such details as the way the Nez Perce gelded horses, and they described games played by the Chinooks.

One dramatic example of the way that our explorations lead us to confront the unexpected occurred on June 2, 1805. The Corps of Discovery arrived at a fork in the river that no one had warned them would be there. This presented a serious dilemma. Since they were seeking the best water route to traverse the continent, they had to follow the Missouri to get as near as possible to the Columbia, which they knew lay on the other side of the mountains.

They had neither time nor energy for a mistake. Meriwether Lewis noted in his journal that "to ascend [the wrong] stream . . . would not only loose us the whole of this season, but would probably so dishearten the party that it might defeat the expedition altogether."

So they looked things over carefully. The northern fork of the river was muddy, just as the Missouri had been throughout their journey. Most of the men thought this was the correct fork to follow. But the captains thought the river should be getting clearer if it was coming out of the mountains. They thought the southern fork was the right one.

They could have voted. They could have flipped a coin. But since they were scholars, they used what they already knew, in this case about river hydrology and geography, and they combined this with hard homework. One team spent days following the muddy northern fork—which they named the Marias—forty miles north. As the river wandered out into the endless Canadian prairie, the captains were ready to bet their expedition on the theory that the other fork would be the shortest route to the Columbia.

They were right. The Expedition was made up of such challenges daily and weekly. New information had to be reconciled with existing knowledge, leading to new theories to test and new learning strategies to attempt.

For students today, research can involve exploration of historic sites, exploration of various points of view represented by living community members, and exploration of various academic disciplines and their methodologies for converting ignorance to knowledge. A spirit of adventure is a primary scholarly virtue. Deep learning involves responding to new questions, confusions and opportunities that present themselves as we push forward.

Reflect: Reflection is analogous to the physical process of digestion: it is the way we convert facts into meanings, so we can use them. When we interpret and evaluate our experience, we are reflecting on it. Lewis and Clark did this through private pondering, as we all do, but they also did it through discussions and journal writing.

Since their expedition was planned as a learning project from the outset, they worked hard at figuring things out and writing them down. It was one of the best documented of all early exploratory projects. Donald Jackson noted that they were the "writingest explorers of their time. They wrote constantly and abundantly, afloat or ashore, legibly and illegibly, and always with an urgent sense of purpose."

This was not an accident. Thomas Jefferson insisted on detailed journals kept by several people. Both Lewis and Clark kept journals and they ordered their sergeants "to keep a separate journal from day to day of all passing occurences, and such other observations on the country &c. as shall appear to them worthy of notice."

If we do not take time to reflect on our experiences, they tend to disappear from our memories before we can digest them and learn what they have to teach. As events and information tend to press in on us, the past is continually being swallowed by the present, and it is easy, in school or in life, to continue moving on to new things without pausing to consider the meaning and importance of what has happened.

Through reflection, new knowledge is incorporated into existing knowledge, obstacles and opportunities are examined from several points of view, information is manipulated and tested, new questions are posed and new avenues for exploration are considered.

We learn from experience only if we make time to reflect on that experience. Of all the stages of learning, reflection is the one that is most often neglected, though it is the one where most learning occurs. Teachers need to be especially careful to structure it into their teaching, so that students have occasion to ponder and discuss what they are experiencing.

Quite likely, the fondest academic memories you have are of discussion sessions, where you and other students and, if you were lucky, a teacher or two, sat around and played with what you were studying. The study is the ticket to the real game, which is thinking. Nothing is more fun than thinking.

Transform: After the expedition was over, Clark’s extensive navigational notes were converted into maps that are amazingly accurate. When Lewis reported in person to Jefferson, Jefferson noted that he spread the maps out on the floor and "examined these sheets myself minutely."

However, one of the greatest disappointments of the Expedition is that Meriwether Lewis had tremendous difficulty with this stage. He never even began writing his final report though it had been promised to publishers and was eagerly awaited by Jefferson. His failure to put his thoughts and experiences into final form was a loss both for him personally and for the nation. His suicide not long after the Expedition may be related to this failure. Suicides are often suffering from a kind of narrative dysfunction: they can no longer make satisfactory meaning of the story of their lives.

To learn is to change: the transformation of ourselves and our world remain fundamental goals of education. The concrete manifestations of such change are original products that grow out of all the other processes. It is in making something new that we refine our critical abilities, move from vague and confusing impressions to precise formulations, and make our own contributions to the ongoing project of improving our knowledge.

Student learning projects can culminate in public exhibitions and performances that give the learner a chance to demonstrate knowledge and skill that have been acquired while the new work is given back to the community in a form that will be useful for later learners. Students should understand that their work is a legacy they are creating for others.


By exploring questions that are near at hand in their own communities, all of us can share the spirit of the Corps of Discovery. We engage. We wake up. We become more alert.

Unless our learning is driven by a desire to transform at least some little part of our world, we are likely to stop short of understanding, and we are likely to miss the self-confidence that grows from genuine accomplishment.

Researches done for the 1910 Expedition should aim at the creation of a final product of lasting worth, so that standards flow from the demands of actual situations–such as the need for accuracy and elegance in a museum display–rather than arbitrary-appearing teacher rules, and so that the connections between classroom work and the real world are developed and clarified.

Final products might include a transcript of discussions or interviews, a radio show, a magazine or pamphlet, a web site, a dramatic production, a research report, a public forum, a museum display, a video, a collection of indexed oral history audio tapes, a photo essay, or any number of other products.

The processes included in the ALERT framework form the basis for a school culture that promotes high expectations, quality work, and strong efforts toward learning. Expeditionary projects encourage young people to make learning and contributing to the community an important part of the story of their own lives.

Any of us in our neighborhoods and towns can partake of the zest and adventure that Lewis and Clark knew. It is only our limited imaginations that lead us to think the age of exploration is over.

When groups set out on their own quests for understanding, they soon become protagonists in a fresh story, finding themselves explorers in unknown terrain.

1910 Expedition Home



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