"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Expeditionary Learning - A tough road, but is it worth it?

According to one presenter at the recent Education Policy Conference put on by the Constitutional Coalition, China may have it over America in terms of rote learning of existing material, but they still envy American entrepreneurship. That creative drive has launched thousands of companies in the United States making thousands of products that, to date, the Chinese can only copy. Their teachers recognize this limitation in their education model and asked the presenter how she taught her children creativity.
The Kauffman Foundation founder Ewing Kauffman, himself an entrepreneur who started a successful pharmaceutical company in America, wanted to make entrepreneurship a more common and achievable prospect for others. The Foundation has as one of its goals to better prepare students for success in an entrepreneurial economy. In that spirit they have offered seed funding to several schools in the Kansas City area to develop a Harvard Graduate School of Education concept called expeditionary learning.
A recent article chronicled one school’s experience with expeditionary learning:
Seven-year-old Dominic Allen can explain a lot of it - which fits the movement's aim that children take leadership of their education and work as a community in group projects. "It's a learning thing," he began. Dykman's class for several weeks now has anchored its lessons in reading, math, science and social studies on the journey of four bicyclists who are some 12,000 miles into a quest to bike through all 49 of the continental U.S. states.
Dykman knew about the group, Bike 49, because one of the riders is her cousin. When she and her fellow teachers at Delaware Ridge in Bonner Springs, Mo., last summer began plotting out potential "expeditions" for the school year, the Bike 49 experience clicked as another way to cover many of the required learning targets with engaging projects.
"Those are Bike 49 words right over there," Dominic said, pointing at a bulletin board that included "sustainability," "navigate" and "route." That's for their reading and writing lessons. They're also talking about the animals the bicyclists have seen (science). They've measured bike parts (math). They've used maps and charted the riders' course across the nation (social studies). They're writing letters to newspapers about saving the environment and using less fuel (activism). They even got into the healthy eating lessons endorsed by the bicyclists, Dominic said…
The truth is, expeditionary learning - like a taste for tofu - might not be for everybody. For starters, "it's hard work," said Corey Scholes, who coaches some of the area schools in expeditionary learning. Eight area schools are trying to pull off the whole-school transformation, as part of 165 schools nationwide using a model inspired by Outward Bound's team-building, wilderness adventure program. Bonner Springs, with four schools, and the West Platte School District, with two, are trying to complete the revolution district-wide. Red Bridge Elementary School in the Center School District and the private Kansas City Academy are changing at the school level.
"It's one thing understanding what it takes," Scholes said. "It's another thing to execute it." The eight schools that chose to become expeditionary learning schools did so with seed funding from the Kauffman Foundation. Three charter schools in Kansas City that also attempted the transformation with Kauffman funding have given up the program.
The transformation is hard, Expeditionary Learning program director Ron Berger said, because whole staffs have to row hard against a national current that judges schools chiefly by how they prepare for state tests. Red Bridge Elementary has felt the pressure of making the state's test standards as it has moved into its fourth year of expeditionary learning. The school had always met the rising standard of making adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act - until the first two years in its new model. The school made it back to AYP in its third year. But the struggle goes on, Principal Danelle Marsden said.
"Expeditionary learning is tugging us this way, over to the real world," she said. "And we're being tugged the other way, telling us to teach for this test in this format." Expeditionary schools have to make time for their "community circle" where they meet as a school once or twice a month to share stories of student growth and leadership. They make time for their "crews" where students of all grade levels meet in small groups with one of the school's adults to build a family sense of caring.
….Red Bridge is making Missouri's steep performance standards, and Bonner Springs and West Platte stand as some of the high-performing districts in their states - suggesting they're covering the content bases while adding the expeditionary enrichment.
"Achievement depends so much on how much kids care," Berger said. "It depends on kids wanting to be their best as a person and as a worker."
The founders of expeditionary learning, based in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, began shaping the model two decades ago with Outward Bound, known for its ropes courses and other team-building adventures.
By 2004, research analysis by the National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform labeled expeditionary learning as having "highly promising evidence of effectiveness." About that time, members of the Kauffman Foundation's brain trust for education began taking a serious look. The foundation saw great promise in the model, said Munro Richardson, Kauffman's vice president of education.
"The most powerful thing was seeing each child's expectations for learning," he said. " ... Kids are really aware of what they're learning and how they're progressing." In the model's attention to community, he said, he saw connections between children and adults "that ensure kids don't get lost."
….Under the traditional model of education, Delaware Ridge Principal Cindy Kapeller said, children too often focus simply on getting the work done. "They turn it in and then it's no longer theirs," she said. "In the new way, it's about the quality of the work. It's an extension of themselves." Like the children learning in the Bike 49 expedition, she said, talking about things like environmental waste and the fuel we use.
"It's going to change who our first-graders are."
Will expeditionary learning make it to your school? Parts of it, maybe, but given the described amount of work involved in developing lesson plans, coordinating with teachers and parents, and the pull towards excelling at state assessments, it seems unlikely. It was interesting to note the author’s focus on Outward Bound’s use of team building exercises. He forgot to mention that OB is also interested in people developing strong self reliance. Their Maine program actually drops you off on an island for a three day “solo” with 5 gallons of water, some fishing line, a hook, and a few matches. Entrepreneurs, while recognizing the value in maximizing other people’s skill sets in working towards a goal, are often the people willing to go out alone into an unchartered island of the market and risk their own survival for the achievement of a dream. If expeditionary learning forgets that element, it will fail to meet Ewing Kauffman’s goal.


  1. This is from the last two sentences in the original article:

    Like the children learning in the Bike 49 expedition, she said, talking about things like environmental waste and the fuel we use.
    "It's going to change who our first-graders are."

    It sure will change who our first-graders are. They'll be Van Jones followers by second grade. And they'll turn in their parents to the fuel police if they don't drive a Prius.

    This is the ticket to a great education? An education that leads to the green agenda which has been pillared as of late for its dubious scientific "research"?

  2. The supposed goal of expeditionary learning is to develop future leaders and entrepreneurs who are absolutely essential to our economy. In reading this article, it seems slightly more focused on generating conformity which will produce, as Anonymous said, little Van Joneses. Ironically, entrepreneurs who come out of this program may well be those students who least absorbed the lessons pushed in class.


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