The Lessons of Learning Expeditions - ASCD
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November 1, 1994

The Lessons of Learning Expeditions

Through intellectually stimulating projects and purposeful fieldwork, students extend their learning in powerful new ways.

I felt like a real scientist. When I looked into the microscope and found the specimen, it was awesome. When you are done with the expedition, you go home and tell your mom and dad what you learned, and they practically don't even know what you are talking about. Six weeks ago I would never have known about pond life.—5th grader's journal entry Dubuque, Iowa

Students in Expeditionary Learning schools spend most of their time engaged in sustained, in-depth studies of a single theme or topic. The experiences, which generally last four to nine weeks, include strong intellectual, service, and physical dimensions. Intellectually rigorous projects and purposeful fieldwork—the heart of each expedition—provide a vision and a strategy for assessment that are fully integrated with curriculum and instruction.

The Origin of Learning Expeditions

Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound® was one of nine projects funded in 1992 by the New American Schools Development Corporation to create “break-the-mold” schools over a five-year period. A design team of educators from Outward Bound, K–12 schools, universities, and educational organizations shaped a plan for school change. Ten design principles that encapsulate the philosophy of Expeditionary Learning emerged from the process (see fig. 1 for an abbreviated list).

Figure 1. Design Principles of Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound

  1. The Primacy of Self-Discovery. Learning happens best with emotion, challenge, and the requisite support. People discover their abilities, values, “grand passions,” and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected. A primary job of the educator is to help students overcome their fear and discover they have more in them than they think.

  2. The Having of Wonderful Ideas. Teach so as to build on children's curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide matter to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.

  3. The Responsibility for Learning. Every aspect of a school must encourage children, young people, and adults to become increasingly responsible for directing their own personal and collective learning.

  4. Intimacy and Caring. Learning is fostered best in small groups where there is trust, sustained caring, and mutual respect. Be sure there is a caring adult looking after the progress of each child. Arrange for older students to mentor younger ones.

  5. Success and Failure. All students must attain a fair measure of success in learning in order to gain the confidence and capacity to rise to increasingly difficult challenges. But they must also learn to experience failure, to overcome negative inclinations, to prevail against adversity.

  6. Collaboration and Competition. Teach so that the value of friendship, trust, and group endeavor is made manifest. Encourage students to compete, not against one another, but against their own personal best and against rigorous standards of excellence.

  7. Diversity and Inclusivity. Diversity and inclusivity dramatically increase richness of ideas, creative power, problem-solving ability, and acceptance of others. Encourage students to investigate, value, and draw upon their own histories, talents, and resources as well as those of other communities and cultures.

  8. The Natural World. A direct and respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit. Students must learn to become stewards of the earth and of the generations to come.

  9. Solitude and Reflection. Solitude, reflection, and silence replenish our energies and open our minds. Be sure students have time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas.

  10. Service and Compassion. We are crew, not passengers, and are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others. One of a school's primary functions is to instill in students the attitudes and skills they need to learn from and be of service to others.

Note: The above principles are based on Kurt Hahn's “Seven Laws of Salem”; Paul Ylvisaker's “The Missing Dimension”; and Eleanor Duckworth's “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning, (New York: Teachers College Press, 1987).

Expeditionary Learning achieves its goals through reorganization of existing resources and, after an initial period of transition, should not require significant additional funding. Tracking is eliminated. Teachers teach the same group of students for at least two years, preferably longer. To provide necessary support to students and their families, expeditionary centers develop working relations with the appropriate service agencies.

Now beginning its second year, Expeditionary Learning has taken root in 11 elementary, middle, and secondary schools in 5 primary sites: Boston; Denver; New York City; Dubuque, Iowa; and Portland, Maine. As we collaborate with teachers in thinking through a new structure for curriculum, we are simultaneously immersed in questions of professional development, the organization and support of school change, and the communication of ideas within local sites and across a national network.

A Spectrum of Possibilities

Within a range of elementary, middle, and secondary schools, in both urban areas and small cities, teachers are testing the boundaries of what it means to launch learning expeditions. Some expeditions focus on two academic disciplines, while others integrate multiple disciplines such as math, science, humanities, and arts. Some are four to six weeks in length; others last three months. Expeditionary learning explicitly joins intellectual and character development.

The organizing center of the expedition is an intriguing and open-ended theme or topic, which defines the territory but also generates questions. Themes or topics naturally cut across disciplines, though some, such as Pond Life and Urban Renewal, lend themselves more to one discipline than another. Guiding questions give learning expeditions a structure. For example, at the School for the Physical City, the question “How can we tell when a community is thriving?” gave focus to the theme Our City, Ourselves. Across all sites, as the initial learning expeditions unfold, teachers weigh which themes and questions work and which seem too broad or narrow. They consider the role of the student in developing guiding questions and in shaping the expedition plan. At Dubuque's Central Alternative High School, for example, teachers offer students academic credit for effective participation in planning meetings.

Sifting through the spectrum of possibilities for learning goals and developing a focused set of priorities are the toughest challenges of planning a learning expedition. At King Middle School in Portland, Maine, teachers wanted to ensure that they could satisfy their major objectives for each discipline. The social studies teacher discovered she could address aspects of world culture, but not American history, which was the schoolwide focus of the following year's curriculum. Similarly, the science teacher needed to focus on biology, and the language arts teacher knew her students should focus on writing a major research paper and persuasive essays.

After a lively discussion of possible themes to address each of these needs, the teachers settled on Endangered Species. In their social studies work, students use a case study approach to examine the complex interactions between humans and the environment of endangered species in selected non-American cultures. Their science work focuses on ecological issues, and math includes the collection and presentation of data on endangered species.

The Journeys Take Shape

A learning expedition is shapeless until ideas for projects are developed. Projects unify and ignite student learning by calling for concrete products or actions that address authentic problems and situations.

After the King Middle School teachers chose their theme, they brainstormed ideas for projects that would integrate the social studies and science content with writing. The projects they agreed on included a debate, a campaign to inform the school and community about endangered species issues, and an in-depth research paper on an endangered species encompassing several disciplines.

One of the tensions in developing projects is finding the balance between group and individual assignments. Individual work ensures student engagement and gives teachers the opportunity to assess the strengths and challenges of each student. Portfolios are a primary assessment vehicle. Within individual projects, however, students have opportunities to share skills and resources and critique one another's work.

Teachers also plan group projects with specific components that are clearly the responsibility of individual students. For example, in creating a field guide to a local pond, each 5th grader at the Table Mound School in Dubuque was responsible for his or her own page in the field guide. As students become accustomed to project work and develop strong work habits and high standards for their work, group projects grow stronger.

Preparation for the Expeditions

A driving question in the planning of learning expeditions has been how best to prepare students for sophisticated projects. Over time, students tackle an array of tasks and experiences that develop and stretch their background knowledge and skills. Teachers cultivate students' habits of work, thinking, and judgment through the daily rituals of reading, writing, problem solving, and discussion. Most important, preparation for sophisticated work relies on the development of a strong school culture with a common vision and experience.

The use of fieldwork and service is perhaps the most radically different dimension of learning expeditions. A new set of school norms soon develops, as clipboards for field notes and journal entries join chalkboards and three-ring binders as essential school equipment. Teachers discover the multiple purposes of fieldwork—for immersion into a topic, deeper investigation and research, team-building, and adventure—as they find their way through barriers of tradition, planning, logistics and safety, and time. The passive model of field trips, in which students followed a guide through a museum or business, gives way to a more active approach. Students interview passers-by, sketch buildings, measure shadows, and make observations. They venture out to answer questions and follow leads that cannot be looked up in textbooks.

When fieldwork is joined with meaningful service, the consequences and purpose of learning are made even clearer to students. Middle school students at the Hernandez School in Boston, for example, surveyed community members to determine the best uses for several vacant lots near the school. After students presented their plans and scale models to parents and community members, a local environmental organization decided to use one of their proposals in developing one of the lots. Not only had their ideas been heard and respected, but the students had also made a needed contribution.

Like every other aspect of learning expeditions, however, purposeful fieldwork and service present a great challenge. They require flexible scheduling and rethinking the grouping of students and the roles of all school staff. Field experiences, though, need not be elaborate or long-distance endeavors. Students learn much, for example, by interviewing the owner of a local business or developing an ongoing relationship with staff or residents of a local nursing home. In addition, visitors fro m the community—experts, parents, and neighbors—bring the outside world into the classroom.

The Central Role of Teachers

At Expeditionary Learning schools, professional development taps into a large network of resources and experience and recognizes the central role of teachers. During the school year and summer, in week-long planning institutes or mini-sabbaticals, teachers select themes, prioritize learning goals, create guiding questions, develop project ideas and fieldwork sites, and establish interdisciplinary connections.

Perhaps the most important facets of collaborative professional development are (1) frequent opportunities for planning and assessment, and (2) administrative support in establishing the schedule and school culture. Sufficient time and psychological space to allow for messy, recursive debates and discussion is not found easily amid the clamor and hectic pace of schools.

  1. Teachers have extended periods of time (a week or more) away from the distractions and hectic pace of school life.

  2. The planning groups are kept small (no more than four or five members).

  3. Teachers have the autonomy to select a theme and develop the parameters for their learning expedition.

  4. Although the professional autonomy of teachers is key to the process, facilitators of the planning institutes provide an organizing structure, an outside perspective, and an array of supporting resources. The end result is a powerful, effective, collective enterprise.

Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, captures the spirit of our endeavor: I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an indefatigable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.

The hard work and creativity of teachers and administrators engaged in collaboration is changing every level of school organization and culture. The evidence is found in the way faculty meetings are conducted, in the growth of new structures like community meetings, in the involvement of parents and the community, and most of all in educators' willingness to experiment and take purposeful risks.

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