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Expeditionary-learning

Expeditionary learning gets kids out of the classroom, into the field


Expeditionary learning combines fieldwork, community service, and deeper learning that hits every subject

Expeditionary-learningWhen juniors at Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, recently visited Queens, New York to study the effects of Hurricane Sandy, they weren’t on your ordinary field trip. Instead of touring museums or taking in the sights, they performed service work, helping those affected by the 2012 storm as they continue to recover, and created multimedia documentaries about the lasting impacts.

“Field trips have a passive connotation, like observing something like a tourist,” said Derek Pierce, the school’s principal. These students, however, were actually engaging in active fieldwork, he said, as part of a weeks-long project on climate change.

For Casco Bay, the trip wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary, and certainly was not a one-off project before students return to a typical classroom environment. Rather, it aligns directly with the school’s mission, which is grounded in expeditionary learning. Similar to project-based learning, expeditionary learning brings in elements of rigor and relevance as students work through real problems over an extended period of time across multiple subjects. But expeditionary learning forks off in its focus on real-world issues, off-campus fieldwork, and community engagement.

“There are set structures to expeditions,” Pierce said. “It starts with getting kids immersed in something that is unfamiliar to them. We go around the field, bring some experts in. It’s designed to provoke curiosity and it’s designed to make kids go, ‘Huh, I want to know more about that.’”

Next page: What expeditions look like

After the immersion phase, individual teachers work to build background knowledge on the topic. While science or social studies class is typically used to keep projects centered in terms of the content, English and math classes help develop the ancillary skills, such as argumentative writing, that propel projects forward. Later, students choose specific topics on which to focus on under the broad umbrella of the overall theme. They choose objectives, typically with a bent toward improving their community in some way, and perform fieldwork and research in support of it.

In ninth grade, students might work together in groups; in tenth or eleventh grade, in pairs or by themselves. By senior year, students are designing and executing expeditions on their own. (They can even apply for mini grants to help fund their projects). In the past, “One student focused on human trafficking and another focused on African American perceptions in media,” Pierce said. Others lead short courses for younger students on what they’ve learned. “We define [expeditions] as the intersection between a personal passion and a need in the world. Where that overlaps is where your senior expedition should be. All these projects, the idea is that there is a ‘what,’ a ‘so what,’ and a ‘now what.’”

Interdependent learning
As the name implies, all expeditionary projects encourage travel, fieldwork, and meeting with experts and members of the community. The trip to New York is a dramatic example, Pierce said, as most projects are locally-based. To celebrate Casco Bay’s 10th anniversary, one ongoing expedition is encouraging students to design and paint a mural commemorating its history. As part of their research, students will trek downtown and talk to local art professors and historical society members. By contrast, a recent expedition on the Arab world made fieldwork tricky, but students were able to use classroom computers to Skype with a class in Kazakhstan as part of their research.

“Sometimes the kids are in class doing what you think they’d be doing,” Pierce explained. “But more often than notand more frequently than in other placeswe’re getting kids out doing work that’s related to researching their expedition topics.”

In order to successfully integrate every subject into expeditions, teachers at the school only work with a single grade level. As Pierce explained, by necessity, teachers are more than collaborative; they’re interdependent, which means lots of time is needed for professional development. Teachers often meet with colleagues every day, at least briefly, and regularly devote time to full team planning. Math and science, and also English and social studies, teachers take about an hour every other day to work on the connections between their subjects. And then there’s a three-day full-staff summer retreat, biannual feedback exercises, personal learning communities focusing on different aspects of instructional practice, and learning walks, which let teachers see what other classrooms look like.

Additionally, a coach from the national network Expeditionary Learning (for which Casco Bay is a mentor school) visits monthly to help teachers push their practice and think about new ways to engage in deeper learning. “Teachers depend on each other to be successful,” Pierce said. “Our kids are merged in a lot of key places. You really need to deeply know your colleagues and what they need to get the best results for kids.”

Casco Bay is part of the city’s public school system and thus receives the same per-pupil spending as any other high school. To make some of the more ambitious expedition projects feasible, the school aggressively pursues grant funding from a variety of sources. “I think we’re entrepreneurial in nature,” Pierce explains. “Grant funders find the student-teacher work that we’re supporting to be compelling. It’s enabled some things to happen and be sustained, in part because the students and teachers are doing such exceptional work. People tend to think that it’s what more schools should be doing.”

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