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Adventures in Learning

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Dubuque, Iowa

From this distance, the fat, cartoonish outline of the C-130 several thousand feet up looks like a clumsy bird hurtling through the clouds. Blink, and you might lose sight of the image for a moment in the afternoon haze.

But down here on the ground, the young spectators lock their gaze on the dark blip--and don't let go. Tilting their heads back to extremes, they shade their eyes with one hand in mock salute.

A few point up. Others sit on the ground, frozen in an open-mouthed 'gee-whiz' expression as they wait for some sign from the Navy plane.

One of the women who has accompanied these junior air-show enthusiasts to Du-buque Regional Airport stands planted on a grass strip near the runway. She lets out a long "ooooh" as her excited charges chatter over two faint objects that have just shot silently from the tail of the plane. They hover for a moment and then fall like ribbons through the sky.

"That must be them! Here they come!" the woman says in one long breath. In a few minutes, she thinks, the "Leapfrogs"--the Navy seals parachute team--will come plunging toward land.

A 3rd grader shoots a quick glance in the chaperone's direction. "It's not them," the girl says matter-of-factly. "They're just sending that out to test the wind direction before they jump. The plane will come around again." The woman nods a few times, as if she should have known this.

The plane does loop back around, and the Leapfrogs do jump--right in front of the throngs of students who whoop almost loud enough to drown out the sound of chutes whipping in the wind.

When the parachutists finally touch down, the children pummel them with questions about the life of a Leapfrog. Then it's off to check out the planes and helicopters on display around the concourse.

As they climb in and out of the cockpits, the youngsters can't resist the impulse to reach out and touch the larger-than-life machines. After all, for the past two weeks, they've written stories about them, learned how they're made, studied how they work, and read about all the places they go. So the eager students run their fingers over every inch of metal they can. Some even grab the controls, as if pulling hard enough might actually result in liftoff.

Because today, you see, the airport is their school. This is "expeditionary learning."

In theory, it sounds like a simple enough idea: Get children out of the classroom, let them take more control of their learning, give them lots of time to test their ideas and fuel their natural curiosity, and organize their studies around central themes that make school more exciting, challenging, and real.

Not so radical, maybe. But in practice, the concept of expeditionary learning turns the old lecture-and-drill method of teaching inside out.

Its proponents say the approach breaks down the walls between traditional academic subjects by weaving science, social studies, and English lessons into projects on everything from flight to publishing. Instead of learning in 40-minute fits and starts, the less structured school day lets students and teachers be more spontaneous and creative. In the process, its architects say, students also learn valuable lessons about life.

The school-based expeditions run about three to nine weeks and blend together several disciplines under a common theme. Students spend about 25 percent of their time out of the classroom--a big change from the periodic field trips of the past. The rest of their time is spent on hands-on classroom activities that require students to make connections between their studies and draw their own conclusions.

Pieces of the curriculum are still taught in the traditional fashion. At Central High, for instance, many students take stand-alone reading and science courses in the afternoon. And the elementary schools usually offer math outside the time teachers set aside for expeditions.

Teachers also take care to make sure expeditions at every grade level meet the district's expectations for teaching such basic skills as reading, writing, and problem-solving. But beyond that, schools design many activities simply to instill a love of books, the desire to learn, or the ability to work with others.

At Table Mound Elementary, for example, students of all ages worked for several weeks on units related to transportation,

flight, and space exploration. Throughout such units, a variety of field trips brought their studies to life: demonstrations of hot-air balloons, a helicopter landing at school, and, finally, a visit to the air show. In the end, some students took away new research, writing, and mapmaking skills.

Expeditionary learning builds on the principles of Outward Bound, an outdoor-adventure program founded in England in 1941 by Kurt Hahn, an educator expelled from Nazi Germany. The program made its way to the United States in the 1960's, touting its wilderness expeditions as a way to teach about teamwork, leadership, and perseverance.

Outward Bound trips last up to three weeks and involve small groups in activities such as camping, rock climbing, and rope exercises. As the activities become increasingly difficult, participants learn to brainstorm on how to tackle problems together--an exercise that encourages both cooperation and self-reflection.

Now, Outward Bound proponents insist, student expeditions like Table Mound Elementary's flight unit can help bring similar lessons to schools. By making learning more spontaneous and connecting it to the outside world, teachers can encourage students to discover that learning doesn't stop when the school bell rings.

In 1992, officials from Outward Bound and Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound U.S.A., its partner in Cambridge, Mass., that oversees the project, competed with hundreds of other designers for a "break the mold schools" grant from the New American Schools Development Corporation. NASDC, a private, nonprofit corporation organized by business leaders during the Bush Administration, is now providing funding to nine design teams--like E.L.O.B.--carrying out their blueprints through 1995. After that, the teams will enter a two-year dissemination-and-replication period, when they are expected to require less outside support.

Four Dubuque schools have embraced expeditionary learning: Bryant, Lincoln, and Table Mound elementary schools and Central High, an alternative school. Four "spirit schools" across the district have also adopted some features of the program, but the district--not the NASDC grant--is underwriting their projects.

In addition to Dubuque, seven other expeditionary-learning schools are up and running in four cities across the country: Denver, Boston, New York, and Portland, Me. Schools in San Antonio, Baltimore, and Decatur, Ga., have also expressed interest in the approach, according to E.L.O.B. officials.

But Meg Campbell, E.L.O.B.'s executive director, says the schools here have tackled more elements of expeditionary learning than their counterparts at other sites. For instance, the district is leading the way in using authentic assessments, one of the program's central features. A handful of teachers at the elementary schools are already making portfolio reviews the basis of their conferences with both parents and students.

Now in their second year of operation, the elementary schools have also incorporated most of the other central features of the project design. (See "Expeditionary Learning By Design." )

  • The program's interdisciplinary curriculum is designed to make learning richer and link it to everyday decisions. Teachers weave technology, for example, through most of the expeditions at every grade level. But other subjects aren't so easy to work in. Most teachers continue to present mathematics, which they say is the most difficult subject to integrate, in an isolated block.

    (See education, we have little pockets of learning--30 mintues of this or 40 minutes of that," says Nancy Bradley, the district's associate director of staff development. "And kids don't necessarily make that quantum leap from one isolated piece of learning to another. Now, I think they understand much more about how their learning connects to the real world and to other subjects they work on."

  • Teachers also stress character development throughout the curriculum. "How To Launch a Dream," one of Table Mound Elementary's recent mini-expeditions, featured a model-rocket project and other hands-on activities to teach about the importance of setting--and attaining--personal goals.

    But while schools want children to learn about both success and failure, Scott Gill, a school designer for the project, is quick to add that teachers must follow the rule of "guided discovery"--nudging students along in the right direction. "Sometimes, when we let kids fail in things that are significant, it ends up demoralizing them and knocking them down," he explains. "Then they're not likely to take risks again."

  • Throughout each expedition, students set aside time to reflect on their learning in daily journals. One entry in a 4th grader's journal written during Table Mound's flight expedition featured long descriptions about everything from the principles of flight to the history of the commercial airlines to the use of planes in World War II.
  • In keeping with the program's central features, teachers encourage students to share control over the curriculum. A learning experience is richer, the theory goes, when it includes personal challenge and an element of the unknown. "Kids are, in some ways, just paddling along and letting others be the leaders," Gill explains. "But we've said, no, the concept of an expedition is jumping in. We have to let kids know, 'You have to pay attention because you're going to have to perform."'

    So teachers encourage students to make daily decisions about how to approach an expedition. In the 4th-grade flight expedition, for example, students were allowed to rank a list of theme-related activities, including visits from flight instructors in the community, a field trip to the aviation center for research, and a variety of social-studies and science projects. Of course, this flexibility also means teachers often revise their plans for the next day based on their students' interests.

For more than a year, the district has also been matching teachers with students, a practice called "looping." For example, 1st-grade teachers follow their students to the 2nd grade but then loop back to pick up another 1st-grade class, starting the two-year process all over again. The aim is to build trust and a sense of community, an environment much like "the old country schoolhouse," says Superintendent Marvin O'Hare, a longtime district administrator who recently assumed the city's top school post.

Even though they have the same teacher for more than one year, students don't repeat expeditions. Instead, each expedition is geared toward a specific grade level. Teachers can use these plans year after year, but they're expected to come up with new ones to add to the mix and share ideas from other sites.

The time and planning involved in writing the expeditions has been both a professional windfall and a tremendous strain for teachers. "You cannot diminish the importance of the teacher and the teacher buy-in to make this a success," Lesley Stephens, the principal of Bryant Elementary, says. "It's a tremendous load for teachers ... the resources needed and the preparing for expeditions."

Teachers were trained to write expeditionary-learning plans in the first and second years of the grant. Because an expedition can cross several disciplines, typically a group of teachers will come together to collaborate. But the writing process involves more than just coming up with interdisciplinary lessons and fun field trips.

Teachers must make sure each expedition meets the district's strict curriculum expectations in each subject area. District officials and a handful of national education organizations review the plans, Gill says. What's more, schools have also asked teachers to defend their ideas before their colleagues, parents, and community members.

Tammy Duehr, a 2nd-grade teacher at Table Mound Elementary, admits the work has been stressful, but she says the payoffs are worth it. "That's a key part of this," she explains. "The teachers are really getting to create."

John Burgart, the district's associate director of instruction and the project director for expeditionary learning, says teachers seem to finally feel ownership of the curriculum. "For many years, we operated under the sort of 'teacher proof' curriculum," he says with a hint of sarcasm. "Everything was packaged for them. Now, they really have to know the district's expectations and be a curriculum planner and developer."

Most of teachers' planning and writing time falls over the summer and in mini-sabbaticals and release days during the school year. But many still complain that they don't have enough daily planning time to keep up with their flexible classroom--and field trip--schedules.

On top of these in-service days, teachers and school officials juggle several other staff-development projects throughout the year, many of them sponsored by groups like Project Adventure or the Voyageur Outward Bound School in Minnesota, which are design-team partners for the national project. In fact, professsional development--on everything from assessment training to river rafting--has been the biggest expense under the grant.

Of the $250,000 the district received for 1994-95, about $135,000 went toward staff-development purposes, including honoraria for teachers and pay for substitutes. Another chunk of funding has gone toward trips to help teachers write their expeditions. Last summer, for example, the district paid for a 5th- and 6th-grade teacher from Table Mound Elementary to travel to the U.S. Air Force Academy to learn about rocketry for an expedition on space travel.

The expeditionary-learning approach has ushered in an "immediate, major menu of opportunities" for teachers, says Bradley, Dubuque's associate staff-development director. "You can imagine what a shift this is for teachers who used to beg just to drive to Des Moines for a conference."

Despite the extra time and training involved in adopting the new approach, expeditionary learning seems to be taking hold. It's gone over particularly well in the elementary schools where the day already has a fairly loose structure and teachers are accustomed to blending several subjects together in their lessons. And, elementary teachers say, keeping their options open has always made sense: Sometimes they have to make a sudden change of course just to keep the children's attention.

But expeditionary learning seems trickier to pull off at the high school level. There, teachers tend to be less collaborative, and academic requirements place all sorts of restrictions on how the school day gets organized.

At Dubuque's Central High, an alternative school where about 35 of 170 students have severe learning disabilities, the staff was already accustomed to finding creative ways around the system. But the shift to expeditonary learning still left both teachers and administrators feeling overextended at times.

"It was so hard last year we weren't even sure we'd make it sometimes," confides David Olson, Central's principal. "We did everything at once. So there was no falling back because all the old ways were gone."

The school had to rearrange and open up blocks of time. The staff had to get comfortable with an interdisciplinary curriculum--a stretch for high school teachers accustomed to being "specialists." Teachers had to come up with new ways to teach a student body that has a tough time dealing with change. Some students are themselves parents, and many others are dropouts who had little success in more traditional schools.

But the school finally hit smoother waters this year, Olson says, and the staff members seem excited and more comfortable in their new environment. Now, the day is divided so students spend a block of time in the morning on their longer expeditions, which weave together two to three traditional subjects. In the afternoon, their schedule looks more like a conventional high school student's, although teachers continue to follow the principles of expeditionary learning.

Sue Schmuck, a physical-education teacher, says the new approach helped her refine her teaching style. "It really pushed me to have a good grasp of what I'm teaching," she says. "And I think the kids really see me in a different light now: I wasn't just having fun in the gym."

But students are proving to be a tougher sell when it comes to expeditionary learning at Central High. Not only do the teenagers bring their own special circumstances to the alternative school, but like most kids their age, the high schoolers are skeptical of anything a teacher claims will be "fun."

"Most kids will tell you they don't like expeditionary learning because it's more work," Principal Olson points out. "Our expectations for their learning are higher. With all the changes, the kids can't just slide by."

Jeremiah, who's come down to the river to do some fishing for his "Metric Sports" class, agrees. "Central used to be a slacker school," he says, keeping a close eye on his line. "It keeps getting harder and harder. But you learn more instead of sitting in class all day, which is what would make people want to drop out."

Overhead, a train idles on the old railroad bridge that will carry it to Wisconsin or Illinois just across the Mississippi River. A couple of girls from the class sit and talk on a rock ledge while their classmates measure and weigh their catches or wait patiently to hook a fish. Metric Sports, a physical-education course with a twist, is designed to teach students the practical applications of metrics through physical outings like this fishing expedition.

Tim Ebeling, one of the teachers who's brought the class here, takes the girls' obvious lack of interest in stride. "Some of the kids, when you get on their case about it, you lose them the next time" there's an activity, he explains. "We say expeditionary learning is challenge by choice."

Still, some students just don't know what to make of the new ways. The fieldwork "just doesn't make sense to me," admits Ian, a burly student whose glasses and fuzzy beard make him appear older than he is. "We're more likely to smoke and goof off when we're out of school" for a project, he adds defiantly.

But with time, Central administrators say students have come to appreciate--and even enjoy--the new approach to learning. Karol Cervantes, an 18-year-old Central graduate who now waits tables at Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant while attending community college in nearby Peosta, says the emphasis on self-discovery brought her closer to her teachers, though she admits things were difficult at times.

"The first semester, everyone was new at it," she says of the 1993-94 school year. "We barely had a clue what we were doing, and the teachers hardly had a clue. I had a hard time getting adjusted, and some of my friends dropped out because of the changes. But they went back this year."

"More and more kids want to be at Central now," Olson says, "instead of looking at this as their last option for education." For proof, the principal points to the school's waiting list of a dozen students.

One program feature that helped win over students at Central is service learning. What's more, the practical work experience also seems to go over well with parents who say they hope their teenagers will have a better shot at finding a job after graduation.

Unfortunately, administrators say the service-learning component of the program has been hard to integrate. Sometimes, Gill admits, teachers have "had to contrive some things to get it in." At Central, for example, students help out at area businesses under a program that has no clear connection to their expeditions. But district officials say they've brought in consultants to help schools improve and expand on the service-learning connection.

About a dozen Central students get credits for spending their mornings pitching in around the community under the "City as School" program. Most go where their interests lie, working at the local parks department, for example, or the community-access television station.

Wendy Miller, a business teacher and a coordinator of the project, says the exposure to the workplace "has made the kids realize they can do more than they think they can. They always wanted to know, 'What's in it for me?' Now, we're starting to see kids more willing to give of themselves."

Miller and Olson say they've watched students who were once indifferent to school--where learning meant cracking books all day and turning in worksheets--finally become interested in something.

Robert, a lanky 16-year-old from Central, is doing a five-week rotation at The Farmacy, a veterinarian's office and pet store downtown. He learned how to care for animals on the farm where he was raised, but he says he wants to find out more about the field. Robert does everything from prepping the animals for procedures to actually observing or assisting in surgery--an experience that made him a little woozy on the first and second go-round.

His friend, Jason, who's come to meet him at the vet's office so they can head back to Central for the afternoon, works around the corner at Prescott Elementary School. An affable but intense 15-year-old, Jason says he has already singled out a handful of children there who he thinks may be headed for the same troubles he's had: a lack of focus in school and a tendency to act out. He's excited about trying to take them under his wing. He's started a basketball group and talks frequently with the school's social worker about other ways to get through to the children.

The people behind expeditionary learning also had their work cut out for them when it came down to convincing the public of its benefits.

Though support for the approach came from the bottom up--the schools expressed interest in the national proposal--some parents and others feared that it was simply something the district decided "to do" with the children, like a laboratory experiment.

A small, fairly conservative city where almost all the residents are white and a majority are Catholic, Dubuque has a strong, well-supported network of parochial schools. Some parents of children in those schools, locals say, were among the harshest critics of the district's new initiatives. (A few parents in the expeditionary-learning schools were also critical, and some withdrew their children.)

They painted expeditionary learning as a vague, outcomes-oriented approach that sacrificed the "basics" for such things as character development, despite the district's promise that expeditions would adhere to its core curriculum.

According to a few parents, district officials and expeditionary-learning supporters seemed to have trouble getting their aims across, which only made the naysayers more skeptical. "I think they missed the boat early on, because people didn't understand what it was," says Ed Zaccaro, whose children attend Table Mound Elementary. "People formed an image in their minds, and once that happens, it's hard to change it."

The local criticism irked many teachers, who felt it showed how little trust community members put in their abilities. Duehr, the 2nd-grade teacher, says she was mystified that people "actually believed we'd leave the basics behind." Joe Dolan, her colleague who teaches 5th and 6th grades at Table Mound, adds, "I'm still teaching the things I always taught; I'm just doing it in a different way."

Susanna Robey, the president and 18-year veteran of the school board, explains it like this: "Iowans are basic, down-to-earth people. They think, things aren't broken so why do you have to fix them? Well, they weren't broken, but we made them better."

Some community members also had a hard time accepting then-Superintendent Diana Lam, who was tapped in 1992 to bring in reforms and solidify the district's commitment to expeditionary learning. Gill says many thought of Lam as a visionary, but others say she was too brash for local tastes.

The first female superintendent in Dubuque, Lam headed the Chelsea, Mass., public schools before helping design the expeditionary-learning model. Earlier this year, the board voted 4 to 3 to renew her two-year contract. Observers interpreted this as a lukewarm endorsement and a factor in Lam's decision to accept the superintendency of the San Antonio schools.

But the superintendent's departure did not silence all of the schools' detractors. Earlier this fall, for example, half of the candidates vying for three seats on the board campaigned against the district's reforms, including expeditionary learning. They lost. For Robey and others, this was a welcome sign of parents' confidence in the reform effort.

Indeed, parents seem to have gotten involved at the four expeditionary-learning schools. On a recent day, for instance, one of the schools had three times as many parent volunteers as it needed for a student outing.

Several parents say they feel the biggest benefit of expeditionary learning has been the professional boost to teachers. "I think the effects of the program will be cumulative," Martha DeGree, another parent, says. "The grant will end, but the teachers will be trained. And you can't take that away."

But even supportive parents have their share of concerns. DeGree, for instance, has reservations about how expeditionary learning addresses the needs of gifted-and-talented children. Recently, though, she was heartened to hear that the district had reached a compromise with parents who feared that the elimination of tracking--a feature of expeditionary learning--would slow down more advanced students. The schools instead practice "flexible grouping," organizing children by their ability to handle given assignments in reading or math.

District officials have no clear indication yet that expeditionary learning is boosting student achievement, Superintendent O'Hare admits. He says officials still need to evaluate all of the reforms under way in schools to see if they're making a difference. In the meantime, the education school at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Academy for Educational Development have also been evaluating the district's progress, and the rand Corporation is reviewing all of the NASDC sites.

Though test scores are up over all in Du-buque, it's hard to pinpoint which, if any, of the district's initiatives is the cause, Gill says. (And children in Iowa already do well in national test comparisons, he adds, typically scoring in the 80th to 90th percentile.)

But at some of the expeditionary-learning schools, subtle signs of improvement do indicate that the approach is making inroads. Principal Kathryn Kolarich of Lincoln Elementary says her students have become more motivated and more interested in the insights of their peers. And the school environment is more welcoming to parents--a change that has nearly doubled the number of parent-volunteers on the school's roster, she says. Officials at the other schools say improvement in student attendance may also mean that the changes are catching on with students.

O'Hare points to an even more striking improvement: how the approach has reinvigorated teachers and principals. "The beauty of what's happening is that it's changing our people," he says. "That's the heart of the whole thing."

And if they see more signs of its benefits, school officials say, they hope expeditionary learning will catch on in more schools here. But they're not pushing it. The district doesn't want to force the approach on anybody, Burgart, the expeditionary-learning project director, adds. For the time being, officials are content to focus on a handful of schools, where expeditionary learning is still evolving.

"One piece of this I sort of underestimated is the energy it takes to work with the staff, the parents, and the community to help them understand" what the district is doing, adds Principal Stephens from Bryant Elementary. "The fieldwork's the frosting on the cake. But we still have to get across that the basics are really still there and kids are going to be able to compete."

"Breaking the Mold: The Shape of Schools To Come" is an Education Week occasional series on the projects and progress of the New American Schools Development Corporation's nine design teams. Coming up in the series: A look at the Audrey Cohen College team's reform effort. The "Breaking the Mold" series is being underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Expeditionary Learning By Design

General Principles

  • The primacy of self-discovery
  • The having of wonderful ideas
  • The responsibility for learning
  • Intimacy and caring
  • Success and failure
  • Collaboration and competition
  • Diversity and inclusivity
  • The natural world
  • Solitude and reflection
  • Service and compassion

Central Features

  • Real-life challenges, with fieldwork comprising about one-quarter of students' time
  • Interdisciplinary approach
  • Material designed to be intellectually rigorous
  • Equal value placed on intellectual and character development
  • Cooperative and individual work
  • Tracking eliminated
  • Time for silence and reflection, journal writing
  • Student-centered approach, some self-directed learning
  • Matching students and teachers for two years or more
  • Flexible schedule, site, and grouping of students
  • Typically three- to nine-week expeditions organized around theme
  • Emphasis on family and community involvement
  • Use of performance and portfolio assessments

SOURCE: Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound

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