Adventures in Learning

School Board

AS .   © 2005, NSBA


Adventures in Learning: How 'learning expeditions' fueled one middle school's come-from-behind reform

What if you could capture students’ interest and increase their learning by taking them on expeditions? Not just on field trips, but in government buildings and museums and parks -- as well as right in their own classrooms. That’s the idea behind Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, a whole-school reform model that emphasizes high achievement through active learning, character development, and teamwork.

One school that takes this kind of learning seriously is Helen King Middle School in Portland, Maine. The school serves the most racially, ethnically, and economically diverse neighborhoods in the state, yet King students outscore the rest of the district (and the state) in writing, math, and science and score the same in reading and social studies.

Throughout the year, students are engaged in learning expeditions -- thoughtful investigations that lead to deep understanding of important concepts. One such expedition is a good example of how the program works.

In 2001 and 2003, teachers Scott Comstock, Ellen Norton, and David Grant led their 85 seventh-graders on a 12-week study of Maine’s endangered species. The learning expedition involved classroom and library studies, trips to estuaries and tide pools, and opportunities to learn from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife expert.

It didn’t take long for the students to become experts themselves. Armed with classroom knowledge of ecological principles, the kids delved into the plight of Atlantic puffins, loggerhead turtles, finback whales, and other protected species. Their studies culminated in an interactive field guide titled Fading Footprints, a CD that includes the young scientists’ video and audio recordings, text, hyperlinks, and scientifically accurate watercolors. (Portions of the CD are posted at http:// fprints/begin.html.)

Twelve years of reform

Thanks to projects like Fading Footprints, science lessons at King are vibrant and engaging. And they represent many of the National Science Education Standards, including:

Inquiry-based science programs where students and teachers work together as active learners;

Adequate time to study and learn important science concepts;

A rich array of learning materials;

Inclusion of all students;

Use of community resources; and

Supportive professional development programs.

But it wasn’t always this way, Grant, the school’s technology specialist, told me. For years King had been identified as a “failing school” due to abysmally low fourth-grade and eighth-grade scores on the MEA -- the Maine Educational Assessment, a series of standardized tests in reading, writing, mathematics, science, arts and humanities, and health and social studies. In science, King students scored lower than other schools in Portland and similar schools across the state.

In 1992, principal Michael McCarthy and King’s school improvement team resolved to make the school better. They acknowledged that King, a 6-8 school with 65 percent of its 600 students on free or reduced-price lunch and 22 percent with limited English proficiency, required more than a little tinkering. The model they chose was Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, a New American Schools Design.

With McCarthy’s encouragement, teachers and support staff attended ELOB’s intensive professional development sessions, where they were immersed in five core practices that guided reforms in teaching, learning, and school culture. (See sidebar.) Staff training stressed literacy-based, interdisciplinary instruction and authentic assessment practices.

Training for learning expeditions emphasized teamwork, courage, craftsmanship, perseverance, and compassion -- the same traits used in Outward Bound’s wilderness experiences. Teachers didn’t have to cross rivers on ropes, or rappel off mountain ledges, but they did encounter risks and rewards. For some teachers, the challenge was daunting, especially when they were asked to help “create a cultural shift” in the school. The change emphasized high expectations for all students, without exception, and motivated students to “go deeper, work harder, and do more than they thought they could.”

Many teachers experienced plenty of pain before they saw gains, Grant recalls. For one thing, they had to adapt to curriculum changes, such as winnowing down long lists of topics they touched upon briefly to fewer topics that they covered in more depth. For another, they had to adjust to organizational changes, including working on teams and looping with their students as they moved up the grades. “It took three to four years for most teachers to adjust to the new model, and to use it well,” Grant says.

Steady improvement

After three years of experimenting, and allowing teachers the choice of using the model, King implemented Expeditionary Learning across the board. Some teachers opposed the mandate, Grant says, “But we kept hammering home the message that this is what we do and this is why we do it.”

“Student results spoke louder than any opposition could,” he added.

In 2000, an independent program evaluation, conducted by Brown University researcher Polly Ulichny, portrayed 10 years of student achievement. Ulichny compared MEA test scores and district writing assessment scores with state and district standards and with schools with similar student populations. The results show steady improvement:

In all seven academic areas on the MEA, test scores have steadily climbed since 1993, the year King implemented ELOB.

King students outscored the state average in six of the seven academic areas.

Compared to other middle schools in the district, King shows the most improvement in four of seven academic areas.

In addition, since the program was fully implemented, all special education students have been integrated into regular classrooms, as have nearly all ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students. Twenty students who had attended private schools recently enrolled in King, and the number of students transferring out of the school has declined. Student participation in sports and other co-curricular activities has grown, and student-led parent-teacher portfolio conferences have also increased.

Such developments suggest that King is on the right path, and McCarthy attributes the improvement to ELOB’s learning journeys -- the classroom equivalent of a wilderness journey. At King, learning expeditions are standard practice throughout the school. Recently, for example, teachers and students have launched in-depth investigations into immigration patterns and the civil rights movement, as well as Maine’s flora and fauna.

Learning to take time

Good learning requires time, King teachers have discovered. For example, in the Fading Footprints science journey, teachers and students needed time to master “representing-to-learn.” This ELOB technique enables all students to “create representations that are rich in core content, fixed in narrative, connected to broad concepts, and reflect complexity.”

Grant used his multimedia expertise to teach the seventh-graders and their teachers to use color images, video and audio recordings, and hyperlinked text as “a virtually unlimited canvas for students” to present their research and other contributions to the interactive field guide.

Reflecting on the students’ multimedia projects, Grant told me, “Learning gets deep when kids make things as they pursue new information. We give kids time to think about big ideas; reflect on their developing representations, whether in text, pictures, or some other format; go out into the world to get more data; perfect their representations; and, in the end, develop a solid understanding of scientific principles.”

At a celebration of the unveiling of Fading Footprints, held at Maine’s Falmouth Audubon Society, the students described their learning adventures. One girl, Amelia, was especially confident in her newfound expertise. “You can ask me anything about the Harlequin duck,” she proclaimed. (Amelia’s study is posted at documents/fprints/species/duckste2. html.)

McCarthy was pleased with the changes he saw. “I watched these students enjoying the excitement of discovery,” he wrote about the expedition. “Neither science nor school would ever be the same for them. I thought about the fact that this was ‘school,’ this was ‘my school,’ and it’s the way school should be.”

Lasting reform

Science reforms at King Middle School are likely to last far into the future. They’re firmly anchored in a change process that includes:

Whole-school reform that focuses on raising student achievement by first improving school culture

Principals and other leaders who wholeheartedly believe in improving science teaching and learning

A long-term commitment that involves years of training and support

Educating teachers to be experts in science and to think and act like scientists

Teaching science through hands-on learning, inquiry-based learning, and service learning

Integration of science with all other subjects, particularly language arts and writing

High expectations for all students, including special education students, to learn and succeed

Teamwork for both teachers and students

Opportunities to learn from scientists and conduct field experiments

Opportunities to learn in the community and local environment

Authentic learning that culminates in high-level presentations to student and

Continuous program evaluation and use of data to refine and adjust program methods.

Other schools now aspire to be the way King is today. And King teachers are happy to oblige. In May 2004, King sponsored “An Expeditionary Learning School for All,” a seminar that covered topics such as students’ high-quality learning products; use of portfolios in assessment; inclusion of all learners; looping; outside experts and specialists; scheduling; team building; and planning for change.

The cultural shift ELOB promised has come true. Teachers continue to study and learn, and they strive to perfect their practice. They also look forward to training newly hired teachers and teachers from other districts to embark on learning journeys.

As David Grant says, “For all of us at King, this is an ongoing process with no end in sight.”

Susan Black, an ASBJ contributing editor, is an education research consultant in Hammondsport, N.Y.

Selected references

Black, Susan. “Peak Performance,” in Medick, Amy, and Emily Cousins, editors. Fieldwork: An Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound Reader, Volume II. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1996.

Black, Susan. “Science Lessons.” American School Board Journal, May 1999, pp. 50-52.

Dolquist, Scott. “Active Pedagogy -- Our New Core Practice.” Fieldwork: Notes from Expeditionary Learning Classrooms. Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, January 2004.

Grant, David. “It’s Not the Computers; It’s the Practice.” Fieldwork: Notes from Expeditionary Learning Classrooms. Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, March 2004.

National Science Education Standards