About Expeditionary Learning
"Expeditionary Learning brings the values that come from Outward Bound to a school - values of collaboration, of high expectations for everyone."
Tom Glennan, advisor for education policy at the RAND Corp. and New American Schools
What is Expeditionary Learning?
- In Expeditionary Learning schools, students learn by conducting "learning expeditions" rather than by sitting in a classroom being taught one subject at a time.
- Expeditionary Learning works on developing the character -- as well as the intellect -- of students.
- Expeditionary Learning changes not only how students learn but also a school's culture. The Expeditionary Learning system holds, as Massachusetts educator Ron Berger says in A Culture of Quality: A Reflection on Practice (from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform's Occasional Paper Series, Number 1, September 1996, Brown University), that "the quality of a school lies in its culture." Expeditionary Learning affects standards, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and school organization. At a successful Expeditionary Learning school, teachers, parents, staff, and students work together to create a school culture of collaboration, respect, and high expectations.
What is the Expeditionary Learning philosophy?
Learning is an expedition into the unknown. Expeditions draw together personal experience and intellectual growth to promote self-discovery and the construction of knowledge. We believe that adults should guide students along this journey with care, compassion, and respect for their diverse learning styles, backgrounds, and needs. Addressing individual differences profoundly increases the potential for learning and creativity of each student.
Given fundamental levels of health, safety and love, all people can and want to learn. We believe Expeditionary Learning harnesses the natural passion to learn and is a powerful method for developing the curiosity, skills, knowledge and courage needed to imagine a better world and work toward realizing it.
The design principles inform all aspects of the Expeditionary Learning system -- from how furniture is arranged in the classrooms to how an Expeditionary Learning school is evaluated. The principles have been fleshed out and "brought down to earth" in a set of specific educational guidelines labelled "Core Practices." The Core Practices provide direction on how a school becomes an Expeditionary Learning School. They also give a better description of what is actually going on in an Expeditionary Learning classroom.
What is a typical school day like?
On a given day, their explorations may take them outside the school building to do scientific research in natural areas, conduct interviews in local businesses, or carry out a range of other fieldwork assignments.
Each day provides opportunities for quiet reflection -- time for students to write in their journals, gather their thoughts, and reflect on what they have learned. Students work individually and in small groups. Together they learn to draw on the strengths of a whole class and are not separated into "ability groups."
What is a learning expedition?
In Expeditionary Learning schools, students spend most of their time engaged in purposeful, rigorous "learning expeditions." These special expeditions are the core of the curriculum. Although learning expeditions often take students outside of school, unlike the familiar "field trip" or outing, these expeditions are in-depth studies of a single theme or topic. Expeditions vary in length depending on the topic. Most classes will complete two to three expeditions each school year. They are very carefully planned to have a clear set of learning goals - goals consistent with school and school district standards. A plan for an expedition typically describes specific activities, definite final products, specific performance standards, and how students and teachers will measure success in the expedition.
What evidence is there that Expeditionary Learning works?
In our own city, the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning continues to thrive. Spring 1997 scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills administered by Denver Public Schools generated the following results.
Math, reading and language scores were above average in every grade level.
Every grade level averaged at least one year above grade equivalency in every subject.
In addition, the report of the accreditation visit by the North Central Association Visiting Resource Team in April 1997 concluded that the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning is well on its way to becoming a powerful example of educational practice for the state of Colorado and the nation. We were greatly impressed with the level of commitment, respect, and thought about learning that both students and teachers demonstrated during our visit. Nearly every student interviewed by the visiting team could articulate what they were learning and where they were going. . . . It is clear that RMSEL is a thoughtful, caring, and respectful community of educators! We look forward to following the school's progress.
Elsewhere, the evidence of Expeditionary Learning's success continues to accumulate:
- King Middle School in Portland achieved dramatic gains on the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA), surpassing the rate of change statewide. King students went from performing below the bottom of the range for demographically similar schools in six curriculum areas in 1995, to performing above the top of the range in all six areas one year later. King students averaged a 59-point increase in their scores, compared to a statewide average gain of only 15 points. In 1997, King's reading, math, and language arts scores increased again, by an average of an additional 25 points.
- In New York City, three-year longitudinal comparisons show significant increases on the Degrees of Reading Power Test in grades seven and eight at the School for the Physical City, placing the school 29th out of the city's 226 junior high schools in reading in 1996. Some 75 percent of the students were reading at or above grade level, compared to only 47 percent across the school system as a whole.
- In 1996, fifth-grade students at Clairemont Elementary School in Decatur scored at the 8.1 grade equivalent in math on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and the 7.6 grade equivalent in reading after its third year of implementation. Clairemont fifth graders also outperformed both the school district and the state in all curriculum areas on the Georgia Curriculum Based Assessment Test in 1996, scoring at the 99th percentile in reading, the 95th percentile in math, the 98th percentile in science, and the 95th percentile in social studies.
- In Boston, the Rafael Hernandez School ranked 11th in math and 17th in reading out of the city's 76 elementary schools on the Stanford-9 test in the percentage of fifth graders reading above grade level. The Hernandez School is a two-way bilingual school that serves a student population that is 59 percent Hispanic, 27 percent African American, and 14 percent Caucasian; 73 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
- McKinley Elementary School's fourth graders improved their scores on Cincinnati's Fourth-Grade Proficiency Test by 26 percentage points in math, 23 in citizenship, and six in reading from 1995 to 1996. In all five areas tested, McKinley's fourth graders achieved a higher rate of proficiency than the district and state average. Sixth graders at McKinley scored higher than the district and state average in reading (89 percent proficiency) and science (46 percent proficiency).
- At the Lincoln, Bryant, and Table Mound Elementary Schools in Dubuque, Iowa, a longitudinal study showed a significant decrease in the percentage of sixth graders scoring below the 25th percentile and a substantial increase in those scoring above the 75th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
How do EL schools assess student performance?
Assessment is also imbedded in an Expeditionary Learning school's curriculum and instruction. Expeditionary Learning nurtures a culture of continuous reflection, revision, and improvement. Expeditionary Learning schools make explicit the criteria they apply to judge student performance, and they expect students to work hard until they have achieved their best work. Expeditionary Learning schools try to avoid setting assessment apart as an isolated, dreaded event. Instead, Expeditionary Learning makes assessment indistinguishable from quality instruction.
Expeditionary Learning recognizes that effective assessment is impossible unless one has clearly defined standards. The Odyssey School's overarching performance standard is that by the time of their eighth grade Passage (graduation), every student will meet or exceed each of the DPS Content Standards for Grades 5 - 8, as outlined in the district document Standards for Success, and be fully prepared for a successful high school career.
How do EL schools assess their own performance?
These benchmarks are derived from the Core Practices. They consist of specific criteria that a school can use to determine its progress in implementing the Core Practices.
Is there an EL school near me?
How does EL change the role of the teacher?
Instead of working in isolation behind closed classroom doors, teachers collaborate closely with colleagues, family and community members. This openness and collaboration ensures rich and high quality learning experiences for students, and significant professional growth and renewal for teachers.
Where Can I Find More Information?
- Expeditionary Learning Design Principles
- Expeditionary Learning Core Practices
- A Framework for Planning a Learning Expedition - A teacher's guide to planning a learning expedition.
- Water: A Whole School Expedition - a description of an actual learning expedition by Ron Berger.
- Expeditionary Learning website. A comprehensive collection of information about Expeditionary Learning