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The Ten Design Principles of Expeditionary Learning

David Powell

SHP was recently hired to design a new K-8 school for Clara J. Peck Elementary in Greensboro, North Carolina. The new Peck school will embrace Expeditionary Learning (EL) as an educational delivery model to reimagine learning environments and to instill a love for learning in students. The EL pedagogy was conceived in 1991 via a collaboration between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound, USA, the outdoor education group. While not yet as well-known as other models, EL is growing rapidly and is currently embraced at more than 150 schools across 45 states and the District of Columbia.

Like all successful pedagogies, EL is layered and nuanced, and resists a simple summary. However, you can begin to gain a reasonably clear understanding of EL from its ten “design principles” that are foundational to the program’s accomplishments to date.

The Primacy of Self-Discovery

EL helps students discover not only the world but themselves, too. This educational philosophy believes that when students are appropriately challenged and guided, they discover their talents, passions and responsibilities. An EL-inspired curriculum doesn’t shy away from pushing students as this often leads to the joy of accomplishment and the realization that one is capable of considerably more than she or he may realize. This is such a powerful stimulant for personal discovery and growth.

The Having of Wonderful Ideas

I absolutely love this notion. Encountering delightful ideas through one’s learning is profoundly important to self-awareness. EL schools seek to foster creative minds by giving students important things to ponder, discuss and experiment with. This is how learners come to encounter and even create powerful ideas. Of course, once you have a wonderful idea, you’re never really the same. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. put it so well: “A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension.”

The Responsibility for Learning

In EL, learning is the responsibility of every individual and the group. In other words, learning is both personal and social. Therefore, EL students are always encouraged totake on additional responsibilityfor their own learning and for theirowncontributions to the community.

Empathy and Caring

EL recognizes that learning is all but impossible in an environment in which students don’t feel physically and emotionally safe. Considerable emphasis is, therefore, placed on mutual respect and care. EL students benefit from the supervision and guidance of teachers as well as mentoring from older students through cross grade-level collaboration.

Success and Failure

EL aims to shape confident students. While self-confidence can come from experiencing success and the joy of accomplishing more than you thought you could, it also comes from failure. In fact, you can argue that learning from failure is substantially more profound.  To fail, try again and succeed develops wisdom in addition to reinforcing an important life skill: how to rebound from disappointments.

Collaboration and Competition

Provided the emphasis is placed on process rather than outcome, competition can inspire and drive students. Competition in the EL model does not focus on competing against other students but rather against your own best. EL encourages students to set their bar high and to go for it. Often, the best way to achieve one’s best is via collaboration with others seeking to do the same.

Diversity and Inclusion

These days, diversity and inclusion are, for good and necessary reasons, discussed broadly and in a multitude of contexts. Since its inception, EL has seen diversity and inclusion not only as a social good strengthening the bonds between us but a means to improve everyone’s cooperative, creative and critical thinking. This attitude is captured well in what Greg Farrell, a long-time leader of EL, wrote in Roots: From Outward Bound to EL Education: “Outward Bound crews are deliberately diverse; but that does not mean that only the strongest or fittest will climb the mountain. The goal is to get everyone up the mountain together.”

The Natural World

Not surprisingly, given its Outward Bound influences, EL incorporates the natural world into the learning experience. In addition to feeding something deep within us all, nature, at its core, is about discovery and has much to teach us about cycles, patterns and so much more. Experiencing nature intentionally is often restorative, renewing and interesting, which results in students that are more engaged and open to accepting new concepts.

Solitude and Reflection

We live in a noisy, often chaotic world. Distractions abound. But we all need alone time to sit with and reflect upon our thoughts and ideas. EL pedagogy recognizes the importance of this, and EL facilities support it by providing a variety of space types to encourage individual work as well as small- and large-group collaboration.

Service and Compassion

“We are crew, not passengers,” says the lead EL organization. This is why community service is such a key part of the EL pedagogy. The aim is to shape people who are attentive to the needs of their communities and—more to the point—ready to do what is necessary to improve the lives of the less fortunate and the one world we all share.

We are so pleased to have the opportunity to partner with the Peck team to help them envision and design a new school facility to support such a progressive, rich and inspiring pedagogy. As this interesting project unfolds, we’ll share updates and insights here. In the meantime, to learn more about EL, visit this website.

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