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?

Expeditionary Learning is an educational system that differs from traditional systems in three main ways:
  • 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," and where does it come from?

The Expeditionary Learning system is based on ten design principles. Those principles grew in large part out of the experience of Outward Bound. The design principles are abstract and aspirational. Nonetheless, they are worth reading, because so much of the Expeditionary Learning system is derived from them. The preface to the design principles sums up the Expeditionary Learning approach to learning:
 
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 encouragement, 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?

Gone are the ringing bells, rows of desks, and fill-in-the blank worksheets. For all or most of the day, students and teachers are engaged in challenging learning expeditions. They explore a topic or theme in depth by working on projects that call for intellectual inquiry, physical exploration, and community service.

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. They are very carefully planned to have a clear set of learning goals built around a compelling topic and learning targets.

"The compelling topic articulates the content of the learning expedition, links the content to big ideas, and specifies the context in which that content will be studied.  Developing a compelling topic is the first step of planning learning expeditions.  The compelling topic is a cohesive package that includes in-depth investigations and one or more guiding questions that connect those investigations.  In-depth investigations engage students in long-term study of one aspect of the compelling topic.  Compelling expedition topics take content standards and shape and organize them to make them engaging and accessible to students.  They motivate students to become experts, to generalize to big ideas, and to experience how depth leads to breadth."  (Expeditionary Learning Core Practice Benchmarks, 2003)

What evidence is there that Expeditionary Learning works?

Two independent research groups, the Academy for Educational Development and a team from the University of Colorado's Department of Education, have studied Expeditionary Learning programs. Both groups found dramatic increases in students' levels of engagement and motivation, as demonstrated by high attendance and low rates of disciplinary problems. All of the original demonstration schools, most of which are located in inner cities and serve high proportions of low-income, at-risk students, showed dramatic improvement in the high stakes test used in their districts.

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 Expeditionary Learning schools assess the performance of their students?

Assessment is also embedded 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. We require students to meet skill and content requirements identified in the Colorado State standards. Students, at the end of 3rd, 5th, 8th, 10th and 12th grade, present their portfolios for evaluation by a panel of people who represent the RMSEL community, and then discuss their work in terms of effective communication, deep knowledge and higher order thinking. This demonstration of understanding is meant to further uncover student skill and knowledge. Students whose work is not judged by the passage panel and crew leaders as meeting passage requirements are not promoted until they demonstrate that they have completed the required work and attained the necessary knowledge and skills.

How do Expeditionary Learning schools assess their own performance?

Creating a culture of reflection, critique, and revision pushes students to better performances. Expeditionary Learning believes the same is true of entire schools. Expeditionary Learning has created Core Practice Benchmarks to help schools use the same cycle of self-evaluation and improvement.  Expeditionary Learning schools participate in a school-wide implementation review annually that engages staff members in self-reflection based upon these Core Practice Benchmarks. 

How does Expeditionary Learning change the role of the teacher?

Teachers are the key to Expeditionary Learning's success. As designers of Expeditionary Learning curricula and guides of learning expeditions, teachers must be engaged in their own learning process as well as that of their students.

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.

Is there an Expeditionary Learning school near me?

There are over 150 Expeditionary Learning schools in 30 states. The easiest way to tell whether one is near you is to use this map.

Where can I find more information?