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Expeditionary Learning Guides Students on a New Path

The upper-middle class suburb of Stapleton outside Denver, CO, would probably not spring to mind were you to think about where some of the most radical ideas in education are thriving. There is nothing radical about Stapleton, other than the speed at which it grew on the pancake plains of Eastern Colorado. Block after homogeneous block of row houses and condominiums rise as one giant mass from the dry grasslands. Driving slowly through the immaculate, alphabetized streets only hours after arriving from the melting pot metropolis of New York City, my preconceptions faltered – a fitting lesson on my first day back to school.

There was a time when American schools were preparing their students as well as, if not better than, any other nation. As with so many things lately – wealth, test scores, basketball – the world is catching up … or America is falling behind. Add in the financial disparity found throughout US schools, and few if any seem satisfied with the flash cards they’ve been dealt. Smart kids aren’t being challenged. Slower children aren’t being helped. As the federal, state, and local governments bicker among themselves about tests and standards, more and more parents are dropping out, placing their children in private schools or resorting to homeschooling. While the congressional wheels spin over how many kids are being left behind and stuck inside, a new movement in education has been getting kids outside and into colleges.

This system, called Expeditionary Learning, is perhaps most exceptional in that it’s excelling within the system, in public schools that typically are anything but engaging to students. With this new model, even the name sounds cool: Expeditionary Learning Schools Outward Bound. The words conjure images of children following the footsteps of Walden or Muir into the woods.

Slaying Dragons

Woods, however, are hard to come by on the eastern plains of Colorado, where Odyssey School, an Expeditionary Learning school, rises in parallel to its surroundings: stark and clean, unprotected from the beating sun. The word “expeditionary” doesn’t lead to an immediate association with suburbia, but no matter. Going back to school became as otherworldly as the most far-flung polar expedition once I arrived at the morning’s “crew circle.” This is not your run-of-the-mill school, I quickly learned.

Built upon the educational ideals Outward Bound founder Kurt Hann first developed in Germany in the 1930s, Expeditionary Learning schools (ELS) incorporate the methods of wilderness instruction into a complex educational design. The idea relies on a project-based, active pedagogy in which students take a hands-on approach to their own education by helping to determine curriculum, progress assessments, and behavioral development. In other words, ELS brings the classic Outward Bound course into the everyday classroom to create something that is anything but traditional.

Like most people who have experienced Outward Bound, Greg Farrell, ELS CEO and founding board member, vividly remembers his month-long Outward Bound course, even if he can’t recall if it was in 1963 or ‘64. A wilderness course like those offered by Outward Bound or the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is a life-altering journey for its students. “You do things you couldn’t have imagined you’d be able to do,” Farrell says. “I remember feeling that school ought to be more like this. And I wasn’t thinking that we needed to climb more mountains in school. Outward Bound is kind of this puberty rite, once-in-a-lifetime experience. You go off and slay dragons and come back a different person. But most of us have to slay dragons every day just to keep up. Most of what we know about education is that these things need to be reinforced and reproduced, so why couldn’t every day be like this?”

Three decades after his rite of passage – after years working in, with, and against the educational establishment through various schools, organizations, and foundations – Farrell finally found the means to “bring the mountain to Muhammad.” In 1992, ELS was one of the 11 school designs (out of almost 800 proposals) selected for a major funding effort bankrolled by New American Schools (then New American Schools Development Corporation), a private nonprofit guided by the notion that educational progress was not going to be achieved through incremental means. After three years, the 11 selections were down to seven. Today, just six remain.

Working with like-minded educators passionate about school reform, Farrell and his colleagues found a way to teach the majority of what students needed to learn in the classroom through active curriculum projects, which the founders called “learning expeditions.” Through a given umbrella topic – such as geology, water, or the Middle East – all subjects could be taught, or “guided,” as the instructors preferred to call it. With expeditionary learning, linear progression is replaced with the realism of interconnectedness in the world and the child’s place in it, similar to how a food web is a more accurate descriptor than a food chain. Fieldtrips – whether in the woods for a week or down the street for the afternoon – put an authentic stamp on abstract academics and foster interaction between students and their world.

During my week at Odyssey, the first-graders returned from an overnight camping trip to Cherry Creek State Park, where they learned about ecology by studying a creek restoration project underway there. By the end of the school year, these five- and six-year- olds will be able to assess whether the ecosystem is healthy. I didn’t do such a project until college. The sixth-graders, meanwhile, were preparing for three days and two nights of caving and canoeing as part of a geology expedition. Later in the term, the class will visit the Colorado School of Mines, where graduate students will assist with rock identification techniques. From the palm of their hands to the limits of their cognition, these 11- and 12-year-olds will be able to discern the structure and history of earth, things I didn’t learn until 10th grade.

The very essence of the design, with its simple belief that teachers talk too much, bucks the dictatorial education model. In the course of an intellectual expedition, kids are charged with discovering not only what they know, but also what they need and want to know. They exercise critical thinking not just to find the correct answers, but also to determine the right questions.

“People initially have this idea that it is about the outdoors,” Farrell says. “But to me, it’s more profound than that. It’s all these challenges in which anxiety is induced and then resolved in a positive way.” These are the necessary tools for surviving in the wilderness world of Outward Bound. They are also the skills needed to prepare students for surviving the wilderness of the 21st-century global economy.

Fifteen years after its inception, there are 160 EL schools in the US, three quarters of which are public schools. The other 25 percent are public charter schools; just two are private. Priority is given to inner-city locations and low-income children. “It’s the kind of education you would want for your own kids,” Farrell says. “And it works very well for low-income kids. And that is where the need is greatest. So that is where we tried to focus.”

How well is it working? Although the majority of EL schools are just beginning to quantify their impacts – ELS is 15 years old, but most of the schools are much younger – early results show that the design is working across the board, with especially strong results for low-income students long neglected by the system. At Odyssey, for example, where more than one-third of the students qualify as low-income, achievement levels were 12 to 38 percent better at every grade level than the state averages in 2003, and have continued to increase. The Crossroads School in Baltimore, MD, with 80 percent low-income students, had the highest reading scores and second highest math scores for middle schools in the city. Crossroads also had the highest student attendance for middle schools in all of Baltimore. Nearly every school that has switched to an EL model has seen improvements, even on the standardized tests their teachers rail against.

Though each school is connected to the basic philosophy of ELS and its design principles through the national office in Massachusetts (which, for a fee, works with schools to implement the principles and train professionals), EL schools run independently and are free to tailor those principles to the needs of their particular students and communities. It gives the greatest power to administrators and teachers who are in the field doing the work. This means each of the 160 EL schools can look very different. Some consist of uniformed students under a strict code of conduct. Others are a pop culture patchwork of bandanas and ball caps where kids are encouraged to express their individuality in any harmless way. But how the kids appear is not the point. Who that student is behind the wardrobe – be it tie or tie-dye – is the focus.

The Whole Child

“We’re Crew, Not Passengers,” read the 12-foot-long paper sign taped above some bookshelves in a corner of the large classroom. Twenty-three 11- and-12-year-olds gathered cross-legged for the morning’s “crew circle.” It was less than a month into the school year, and “crew courtesies” were on the agenda. Each student needed to evaluate how well he or she had been living up to the behavioral guidelines drawn from Odyssey’s four character traits – courage, empathy, responsibility, and discipline. If they felt after some personal reflection that they had been successful, they could sign their name to the colorful poster – a contract of sorts – celebrating their achievement and pursuit of continued progress. If needed, the teacher or “crew leader” was available to help in the process, continually assessing a student or “crew member’s” aptitude and honesty. Students, as always in Expeditionary Learning, were encouraged to help others achieve the goal.

It took me only a few minutes into my first day of EL school to understand what the idea was and how it was continually reinforced. Underneath the piles of academic lingo, behind the terms like “expeditionary” and “Outward Bound,” is a commitment to spending as much time on character as on academics. Along with the numerous field trips that distinguish EL, and the daily sessions of reading, writing, math, and science that can’t be avoided, time was allotted for character development.

It’s pretty clear to anyone who thinks about it that today’s kids aren’t getting the skills they need to be good adults. Test takers? Maybe. But quality people?

Ron Berger has spent his professional life fighting for educational quality. A consultant with ELS since its inception and now acting field director and director of teacher expeditions and arts, Berger has authored some of the seminal literature on this new kind of cultural curriculum, including 1985’s Culture of Quality. “There is nothing wrong with testing and I think it is a really important thing to do,” Berger says. “But once you leave school and for the rest of your life, you’re judged not only by the quality of work that you do, but the quality of person that you are. There are ethical qualities; there is artistic quality. And the community has to feel as if it’s a place that shepherds quality. Expeditionary Learning is one of the few movements that is trying to look broadly at what kind of people – what kind of citizens – are we producing?”

We’ve all heard the old cliché: It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey. For believers in EL, it’s not about the grade, it’s about what you have learned. The answer without knowledge is worth little more than a passing grade. Tests, no matter how high the scores, don’t tell a complete picture. But try telling that to students, parents, and the college admissions officers looking for a way to quantify that knowledge. For this reason, and due mostly to parental concerns, some EL schools do give out traditional grades, but the majority work daily with students, parents, and even university admission departments to help them understand the need for holistic assessment in a world where homogenized tests say so little about the test taker.

Constant reexamination and redrafting of evaluation of students, teachers, and schools is an intrinsic part of EL and is most common when it comes to portfolios. Largely taking the place of grades at EL schools, portfolios monitor student progress not by the final product, but by looking at previous drafts and revisions through ongoing assessments that help both students and teachers guide the process. Emphasis is placed on the assessment for learning – not just the assessment of learning – a distinction popularized by famed educator Rick Stiggins, who fought against the exclusive use of the latter, the erstwhile domain of the traditional test. While more admission boards are accepting applicants from nontraditional schools, and while EL students on the whole have shown success on standardized tests, it’s still an ambiguity parents struggle with. “It’s almost always the first question,” Odyssey’s Executive Director Marcia Fulton told me when I asked about her EL sales pitch. “Parents were raised on grades and tests. Our whole society was. It’s a hard pattern to break.”

No Spoon-Feeding

Karen Ray has two children at Odyssey and a third in high school, and has struggled with both conventional and unconventional schools. Her independent daughter, 14-year-old Lucy, was producing great work, but wanted tangible proof of her ability, like her friends at other schools had with their GPAs. Ray wondered if her daughter was being sufficiently challenged. On the other hand, her son, 11-year-old Charlie, hated his teacher and needed clearer expectations set for him. Ray wondered if Odyssey was too student-led. Both children struggled with the limited social circles of a very small school. The independence Odyssey offered didn’t seem to fit for either. So Ray pulled them out and enrolled them in traditional schools. Her daughter is thriving at an arts charter school, and after two years away, her son is back at Odyssey. “I’m reinvigorated with it,” she told me, sitting under the rock-climbing wall in an entrance hall to the building. “My son did well at the other school, but he wasn’t learning anything. I realized to some degree that Odyssey was doing a fantastic job.” The Center for Research on the Education of Students at Risk agrees; in 2002, it awarded ELS the highest rating given to any model created in the last 10 years.

Erin Collier-Zans is 17 years old and has been at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning for seven years. She was homeschooled for several years and did a stint at the traditional public school. She can’t imagine being anywhere else than at an EL school. “I barely remember what school was like before EL,” she says, patiently waiting for chemistry class to begin. “I like the pacing of subjects and work, and love the open-ended projects that allow me to do extra work and get credit for it… but it’s not for everyone. … Some kids take to EL, others don’t. That’s life. You kind of love it or hate it.

“I can tell kids who come from other high schools,” she says. “Some are great. Some don’t belong here. Sometimes it just takes a long time to adapt and begin guiding your own education. They’re used to the spoon-feeding.”

The Path Less Traveled

Education is a team sport that begins with everybody reading from the same playbook. One could argue that EL has everything stacked against it. It is a very hard model to teach. It takes extreme teacher involvement. It requires students and parents to be open and involved. To get all of those variables to come together in the face of systematic and societal pressures is no easy task. Yet in the face of those challenges, all signs point to its success. No one said school was supposed to be easy, even if low teacher salaries and parents passing the buck suggest otherwise.

We’re told that school is supposed to educate, that it’s supposed to leave no child behind. Yet so many kids are left behind, lost in the big scary world. The next step a student takes during a school day may not mean life or death, as it can in the mountains. But the journey is no less important, getting lost no less dire.

What trail are your kids on? Z

Atlanta-born, New York-based writer Adam Spangler has reported for Vanity Fair, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and OnEarth. He fills in the gaps of the lackluster media coverage of American soccer at



courtesy of Odyssey School


EL schools focus on courage, empathy, responsibility, and

courtesy of Odyssey School

A class on geology can include an underground expedition.


courtesy of Odyssey School


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