Expeditionary Learning

In a previous post, I outlined how project based learning has become quite the hit in the education world – and rightfully so, in my opinion. Blog after blog after blog describes what the project based learning model is based on, how the Buck Institute for Education has helped advance education that is engaging and inquiry-driven, and how teachers across the country are practicing project based learning in their schools.

I also wrote about what is coming next. Project Based Learning is clearly a usable framework in many situations – but for my school, it is not the end. Our charter is being rewritten, and this time, the language of project based learning is being replaced with a new idea, the next step for our school: Expeditionary Learning.


Quick Intro Video

What is Expeditionary Learning?

While LMGTFY is always a help, I can give a quick backstory into how my school became connected to the Expeditionary Learning movement and what the Expeditionary Learning model looks like in practice! The EL model is not a replacement of project based learning – think of it as an expansion pack.


Many of the principles of project based learning underpin the foundation of the Expeditionary Learning model. The Outward Bound School teamed up with Harvard University’s School of Education to continue a model that doesn’t just make better students, but better citizens as well. The school I presently teach at became connected with the EL model through a board member of the North Carolina Outward Bound School, coincidentally also a founding visionary for the Expeditionary Learning model (prior to the partnership with the Harvard University School of Education.) When we first began adopting the EL model for our school, this board member visited and taught us that the EL model is based in 10 key principles, closely affiliated with the principles of the North Carolina Outward Bound School. I’ll outline them below:

1.) The Primacy of Self-Discovery

The EL model is based on the Outward Bound School’s value of helping life-long learners discover for themselves knowledge and connections by first engaging with real-world challenges. These challenges stimulate emotion and bring forward participants’ unique abilities, values, and passions, requiring perseverance, craftsmanship, imagination and meaningful contribution to tackle the challenge. Rather than relay content, a teacher’s job is to guide and support students as they learn to recognize and move past personal fears and expand what they believe is personally possible.

2.) The Having of Wonderful Ideas

(I love this one!) Student learning is based in a passionate curiosity about the world. This curiosity must be met with learning opportunities that foster thinking, experimentation, and crucially, time for reflection.

3.) The Responsibility for Learning

           While learning is both deeply personal and deeply collaborative, the EL model requires us to teach students to value learning for the sake of learning, be it by oneself or shared together.

4.) Empathy and Caring

Empathy is woven within the charter of our school, and this earning principle is key not only for building high-achieving learners, but also in building responsible, caring citizens. The EL model emphasizes the importance of empathy as not just a warm, fuzzy feeling, but a critically important foundational value from which progress – academically, personally, socially, and otherwise – is measured. Mentoring, advocacy, understanding, and compassion for self and others are shared values and responsibilities between teachers and students.

5.) Success and Failure

Hello Growth Mindset!  According to literature provided by our EL trainer, “All students need to be successful if they are to build the confidence and capacity to take risks and meet increasingly difficult challenges. But it is also important for students to learn from their failures, to persevere when things are hard, and to learn to turn disabilities into opportunities.” Students must be given space to recognize and own their successes and failures, seeing perseverance and challenge not as signs of diminished ability, but as roads to opportunity and growth.

6.) Collaboration and Competition

The values of friendship, trust, and group action are key to the EL model’s emphasis on personal and group development. (In accordance with literature provided by the EL board member.) But looking more closely at the “competition” piece, it is very clearly taught that students aren’t necessarily competing with each other, but should rather value competing against their own personal best, and with the bars set by rigorous standards of excellence. Personal growth, it is emphasized, never has an expiration date, nor a final mile marker.

7.) Diversity and Inclusion

Key to the other principles of the EL model are students’ understanding and seeking of diversity and inclusiveness. The point of building strong learners and citizens is to assist students in recognizing the creative power, richness, and problem-solving possibilities born of diversity, understanding and respect for differences in histories, recognition of other communities and cultures. Teachers are culturally competent and responsive to the communities they serve, and they work to ensure learning is not homogeneous.

8.) The Natural World

Built into EL learning is a “direct and respectful relationship” with the natural world. Learner-citizens recognize humanity’s connections to the natural world and bear witness, as well as personal connection to the links between our actions and their consequences. Strong stewardship of and a sense of belonging within the natural world fosters personal responsibility for ensuring responsible actions that will benefit future generations.

9.) Solitude and Reflection

Solitude and Reflection set the EL model apart. Teaching the incredible importance of time alone, away from distractions and outside influences, helps students turn inward to engage with their own thoughts and experiences, to build connections, and to generate new ideas and next steps, as well as reflect personally on the meaning of what they are learning. This portion of learning cannot be ignored.

10. Service and Compassion

As we say every morning with out students, “Together, we are crew, not passengers.” Students and teachers are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others, and one of an EL Education school’s primary functions is to prepare students with the attitudes and skills to learn from and be of service. (EL Education)

There are many connections to be drawn between the EL model of learning and the principles of PBL, Growth Mindset, etc. In future blogs I will move beyond my personal “What” to the “Why” for EL in the classroom!



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