Structure vs. Schedule: What’s the difference and why does it matter?

By Dan Miller, Professional Development Director, Association for Experiential Education

Learning how to be an effective instructor on 30-day canoeing courses with adjudicated youth was no easy task.  Of all the things that made it work, I believe these core principles were the most important. 

Structure: 

Simply defined as the things that DO NOT CHANGE during an expedition.  Elements of structure are usually broad in scope and form the foundation for an effective instructional team.  The term ‘united front’ often comes up when planning how to co-lead an extended trip.  If you and your co-leader are on the same page when it comes to the structure of your trip, then you are much more likely to succeed in your efforts to maintain a united front and avoid the ‘mommy/daddy’ situation that can often emerge on a co-led expedition. 

To dig deeper into what constitutes the structure of your trip, let’s first look at what it is not. Your structure is NOT the same as your daily schedule or routine.  While it may be a part of your schedule to do some stretching or exercise in the morning, your structure would be more broadly defined as including daily opportunities to engage activities that promote health and fitness.  While it may be part of your schedule to have group meeting time every evening, your structure calls for you to incorporate specific times on a regular basis to engage in reflection and group processing.

Schedule: 

This one is a lot more straightforward.  This includes the timeline, route, and some logistical aspects (transports and resupplies) for your trip.  The key here is that YOUR SCHEDULE CHANGES OFTEN.  You are usually not a slave to your schedule and you should feel free to change it in order to maintain structural elements of you trip such as physical and emotional safety or standards of communication and conflict resolution.  As a course director, briefing teams, I would always remind them that no scheduled activity was more important than the safety of our students and I would support them should they request a schedule change in order to accommodate the needs of their group.

Early in my career I led a group on a stupid and dangerous crossing of the Indian River Lagoon because I thought I HAD to arrive at my pick-up location on the other side.  During the next 8 hours my crew found themselves paddling in 3 ft. waves, painter lines ties together, with no way to stop for food or personal needs.  Each staff member essentially towed two boats apiece until we finally made it to the other side.  If a boat would have capsized, I am not certain we could have managed a rescue without outside assistance.  While we made it across, I jeopardized the physical and emotional safety of my crew by making this decision in spite of poor weather and inadequate experience among the instructor team.  If I could do it over again I simply would have called in and changed my pick-up location.  It is well documented that ‘schedule pressure’ has led to numerous accidents and incidents in this industry.  I was lucky to avoid becoming a part of that statistic.

A more positive example involved a group that was working hard on planning and time management.  The instructors set the expectation that in order to climb the following day, they had to be ready by a certain time.  They failed to meet this expectation and when I came out to meet them for a climbing day, I was taken aback to learn that the team had canceled it at the last minute.  After some conversation we agreed that this would be a powerful learning opportunity and the group did not climb that day.  The following 2 days they were ready on time and enjoyed some great time on the rock.  Sure, climbing was on the schedule but the schedule can change.  The structure of this course included holding the students to high standards and following through with consequences.

I have found that incorporating this idea into staff training and even course curriculum can have a drastic and positive effect on both students and staff. Please consider this distinction before you decide to drive for that 3am transport, make that 5-mile crossing in high winds, or push your students to hike beyond their ability just to make it ‘on time’. Your schedule can change, your structure should not.