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Education Innovations: Expeditionary Learning

Lauren Gilchrist

Embarking on an Expedition

Education Innovations: Expeditionary Learning

An “example of how all our schools should be.” Those were the words of President Barack Obama after his visit to an Expeditionary Learning school in the nation’s capital.
Expeditionary Learning is based on the educational ideas of Kurt Hahn, a German educator and the founder of Outward Bound. There are more than 150 EL schools in the United States, with programs in 30 states and D.C. EL is growing in popularity among parents, teachers, and students alike. But what’s all the hype about?  

Fortunately, one of these 150+ EL schools is located right in our backyard. In fact, this year, two Skyward employees served as volunteer leaders at Point of Discovery School (PoDS), teaching a couple nontraditional electives available to students. Thanks to these connections, I was able to spend a day immersed in the environment. Here's what I learned:

10 principles

The EL model is based on 10 principles that stem from Hahn’s beliefs. They are:
1) the primacy of self-discovery
2) the having of wonderful ideas
3) the responsibility for learning
4) empathy and caring
5) success and failure
6) collaboration and competition
7) diversity and inclusion
8) the natural world
9) solitude and reflection
10) service and compassion

Kinesthetic learning

While traditional schooling may be effective for some students, the EL approach appeals to many. Per the University of Illinois, only 10% of secondary students are auditory learners, yet 80% of traditional instruction is auditory. On the contrary, 50% of secondary students are kinesthetic learners, students who learn best through movement and by doing. Though these learners often struggle in a traditional classroom, they shine in an EL environment where experiments, field trips, and community interaction take center stage.
“We go out into the public more, we do more experiments. I feel like it’s a better way to learn because it’s more accurate to what most things will be later in life.”
– Eric, 7th grader

Hands-on projects

Expeditionary learning is focused on real-world application. When I visited PoDS, the theme, or expedition, for the trimester was "Water is Life." In every core course, the topics students were learning about were somehow tied to water, be it conservation, analysis and testing, or a lack of clean water in third-world countries.
“[My daughter] is just excited about learning, and I think every kid should feel that way.”
– Carie Winn, parent

Community connection

A large part of the EL education model is the student-as-creator theme. Assignments have a tangible benefit to the school or community. PoDS kids have presented projects to city officials, for example. During an upcoming trimester, they will interview community members about the civil rights movement and put on a public film festival.  
“Finding ways to get the kids involved directly with the community here is the coolest thing about this school. We interact with the community and everything we do has a purpose.”
– Christopher Heitz, teacher

Non-traditional electives 

In addition to offering standard core courses, many EL schools offer a variety of ever-changing electives. Skyward's digital media manager taught a media class focused on podcasting and blogging, while one of our programmers taught his own trade. I dropped in on a yoga elective during my visit, and one excited student showed me the topographic map he’d created in a 3D printing class. These non-traditional electives expose students to a wider variety of subjects, giving them a chance to discover and more deeply explore their passions from a young age.
“They’re not just doing work to turn in.”
– Dan Lathrop, head teacher

Alternative grading, improved test scores

Learning in an EL classroom is still aligned to the Common Core, but students are not graded on performance-based skills tests and their ability to recall information on the spot. Rather, they are judged on the quality of the work they produce, the same way they’ll likely be assessed in the real world. The approach seems to be paying off, as students in EL schools outperform their peers on state exams.


Focus on relationships

“What’s crew?” I asked students and teachers, as both had shared their affinity for this part of the day. An emphasis of the EL model is community. Upon their enrollment at PoDS, for instance, students are divided into “crews” of about 20 students from various grades. A teacher serves as the in-school parent for each crew. They meet every day for team-building activities, goal-setting, and to hold each other accountable for the goals they set.
“Crew is mainly your family at school… We focus really intensely on character instruction in crew.”
– Dan Lathrop

Support from influencers 

As previously noted, President Obama spent time visiting an EL school and sang its praises. Bill and Melinda Gates have also been impressed by the quality of this educational model. In 2003, their foundation granted $12.6 million to Expeditionary Learning Schools to create small, public EL high schools across the U.S. After seeing the success of these programs, they granted another $11 million in 2007 to establish additional schools.
These concepts and facts look great on paper, but they’re even more impressive in person. What really pushed me over the edge in favor of Expeditionary Learning was the excitement of the students. They were full of joy and clearly exemplified the words of their head teacher:
“The most common piece of feedback that we get is, ‘My child is just happy. Their soul is fed. They feel like the people at school care about them. They feel like everything that they’re doing matters.’ At the middle school level, when you have happy kids, that’s victory.”
– Dan Lathrop

We love highlighting the creative ways schools are engaging students and preparing them to be successful. If you’d like us to consider your school for an Education Innovations spotlight, contact us today. We may send our video crew your way!


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