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Expeditionary Learning: Why it Matters in 2021

In this article, we'll review the key benefits of Expeditionary Learning, the design principles of EL education, as well as where you can find an Expeditionary Learning school in Toronto.

What is Expeditionary Learning?

Expeditionary Learning, or EL education, is a type of comprehensive school reform based on the educational ideas of German educator Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound. It's a model that emphasizes high achievement through active learning, character growth, and teamwork.

Rather than being tied to a traditional classroom setting, students engage in projects that challenge their thinking and teach them critical problem-solving skills. Work may be done inside or outside of the classroom, with a focus on journeys that help students discover their interests and passions, not just prepare them for tests.

That is not to say that testing is not a focus of Expeditionary Learning, either. In fact, EL students are outperforming many of their peers on standardized tests. To foster student motivation, the EL curriculum helps families understand the purpose and value of standardized tests.

What are the design principles of Expeditionary Learning?

According to, there are ten core design principles of Expeditionary Learning. These core values can come to life in schools across different contexts, regardless of if they are official EL Education partners or not.

  1. The Primacy of Self Discovery: Students discover their abilities, values, passions, and responsibilities in situations that are challenging and adventurous.

  2. The Having of Wonderful Ideas: Curiosity about the world is fostered when learning situations provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.

  3. The Responsibility for Learning: Learning is both a personal process of discovery and a social activity. Everyone learns both individually and as part of a group.

  4. Empathy and Caring: Learning is fostered best in communities where students feel physically and emotionally safe and where students’ and teachers’ ideas are respected and where there is mutual trust.

  5. Success and Failure: Students are encouraged to build the confidence to take risks, learn from their failures, persevere when things are hard, and turn limitations into opportunities.

  6. Collaboration and Competition: Students are encouraged to compete not against each other but with their own personal best and with rigorous standards of excellence.

  7. Diversity and Inclusion: Both diversity and inclusion increase the richness of ideas, creative power, problem-solving ability, and respect for others.

  8. The Natural World: A direct and respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect.

  9. Solitude and Reflection: Students and teachers need time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas.

  10. Service and Compassion: We are crew, not passengers. Students and teachers are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others.

What are the benefits of Expeditionary Learning?

The benefits of expeditionary learning are immense. The success of EL education is supported through documented examples of improved student achievement as well as student and teacher engagement.

In a report titled Working Towards Excellence: Results From Schools Implementing New American Schools Designs, the following schools were recognized for their progress after implementing expeditionary learning.

  • At King Middle School in Portland, students went from performing below the bottom of the range for demographically similar schools in six curriculum areas in 1995 to performing above the top of the range in all six areas one year later. Students averaged a 59-point increase in their scores, compared to a statewide average gain of only 15 points.

  • In New York City, three-year comparisons show significant increases on the Degrees of Reading Power Test in grades seven and eight at the School for the Physical City, placing the school 29th out of the city's 226 junior high schools in reading in 1996. 75% of the students were reading at or above grade level, compared to only 47% across the school system as a whole.

  • In 1996, fifth-grade students at Clairemont Elementary School in Decatur scored at the 8.1 grade equivalent in math on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and the 7.6 grade equivalent in reading after its third year of implementation. Clairemont fifth graders also outperformed both the school district and the state in all curriculum areas on the Georgia Curriculum-Based Assessment Test in 1996, scoring at the 99th percentile in reading, the 95th percentile in math, the 98th percentile in science, and the 95th percentile in social studies.

  • In Boston, the Rafael Hernandez School ranked 11th in math and 17th in reading out of the city's 76 elementary schools on the Stanford-9 test in the percentage of fifth-graders reading above grade level.

  • McKinley Elementary School's fourth-graders improved their scores on Cincinnati's Fourth-Grade Proficiency Test by 26 percentage points in math, 23 in citizenship, and six in reading from 1995 to 1996. In all five areas tested, McKinley's fourth-graders achieved a higher rate of proficiency than the district and state average. Sixth-graders at McKinley scored higher than the district and state average in reading (89% proficiency) and science (46% proficiency).

Why Expeditionary Learning matters now

Although schools and students adapted exceptionally well in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many still struggled with issues that were magnified in a fully remote learning environment. Some dealt with a lack of motivation, enjoyment, or diminished relationships with their teachers and peers.

The isolation of fully remote learning was a challenge for some -- particularly for those who enjoy face-to-face interactive classroom activities. Although technology played a key role in helping students and teachers connect, for some, a lack of self-confidence and shyness emerged.

Expeditionary Learning can reengage students and motivate them to play a more active role in their education. Again, in an Expeditionary Learning model, topics are constructed to engage student curiosity and passion. The perseverance, collaborative skills, and responsibility for learning that EL education promotes are more important than ever.

As limitations and restrictions ease, it's important for schools to embrace the key principles of EL education. Students and teachers should come together to ensure that they are moving together collectively towards success, pushing through and overcoming the challenges of a stressful year.

Where can I find an Expeditionary Learning school in Toronto?

Officially, EL Education is a nonprofit that partners with educators to transform public schools in the United States. Currently, there are no official EL Education partners in Canada. However, there are schools that embrace the principles of Expeditionary Learning in Toronto.

At CaST School in Toronto, for example, Expeditionary Learning is a fundamental element of our curriculum. Our students embark on journeys that foster a sense of curiosity. These expeditions provide a framework for study by focusing learning on a specific compelling topic. For example, a trip to High Park sets the stage for our lesson on water quality and ecology.

Our local resources infuse our lessons, which are firmly anchored in the Ontario Ministry of Education grades 9-12 curriculum. Our approach to education is a mix of place-based, expeditionary, and online learning. The unique blend of experiential, expeditionary, cooperative, and enterprise learning is what distinguishes us from other private high schools in Toronto.


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