“The Having of Wonderful Ideas”… Learning through expedition, exploration, and dead fish

By Becki Robins

Twenty-four kids and a handful of parents stand on a rocky island on the ambling Yuba River. One of the adults reaches into the chilly water and pulls out a very large, very dead fish. He holds it up with both hands.

Eyes widen. Noses wrinkle. A few of the kids inch forward to get a better look.

The teacher points to the mouth, the dorsal fin, and the battered tail. It’s a female chinook salmon, he explains. You can tell by the absence of a hooked upper jaw, and the tail is a clue, too. When female salmon spawn, they use their tails to clear sediment so they’ll have a safe place to leave their eggs. Often, that leaves them with a battered tail.

Then he asks if anyone wants to touch the fish. The response is a nearly unanimous “eewww,” but a few of the bolder kids creep forward with a single index finger poised for cold, slimy horror.

This is expeditionary learning. The kids are fourth grade students at Grass Valley Charter, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Grass Valley, California. On this sunny day in early November, their classroom is the Yuba River. To get to school this morning, they caravaned down to the riverbank in parent-volunteer vehicles, fidgeted through a safety lesson, and then climbed on board inflatable rafts. Today they won’t just talk about the river, they’ll have a first-hand experience on it.

“Kids need to be in nature,” says Mary Lehmberg, the Expeditionary Learning Education Instructional Guide at Grass Valley Charter School. “They need to be part of the world.” That’s the goal of the expeditionary learning model—give kids memorable, hands-on, out-in-the-world experiences, and the things they learn are more likely to stick.

Grass Valley Charter follows a curriculum created by the K-12 non-profit, EL Education. EL Education works with over 150 schools in more than 600 districts nationwide, serving a total of around 50,000 students. The expeditionary learning model EL Education promotes is really just an expansion of what science teachers already do in their classrooms by engaging kids in experiments and other activities that emphasize experience over book learning. But EL schools go beyond classroom activities to immerse kids in the experience of scientific observation, by getting them outside into nature, where science takes on real-world meaning.

The expeditionary learning model was developed in 1991 as a collaboration between Outward Bound, USA, which provides shorter-term outdoor adventure courses for kids and adults, and the Harvard Graduate School. “It was done in an effort to bridge the gap between exploration and education,” says Grass Valley Charter School principal Scott Maddock. The founders’ goal was to create a learning model that could be used throughout a child’s education, from kindergarten onwards.

EL Education isn’t just about academics. The model combines adventure and expedition with character-building, and encourages students to work on character traits like “diversity and inclusion,” “service and compassion,” and “the having of wonderful ideas.” Maddock says EL schools are focused not only on helping students become effective learners, but also ethical people. “Contributing to a better world is something we talk and walk,” he says. At EL schools, classes are called “crew,” and the kids are encouraged to verbally support and appreciate each other, self-assess, and set attainable goals. Maddock says all of this helps create a sense of belonging for the kids.

Fieldwork is a big part of the EL model, so kids can expect to embark on an outing at least a couple of times a month, sometimes as often as weekly. And fieldwork often takes the students to destinations that have price tags, so fundraising is a big part of what keeps EL schools functioning.

Parents chip in, too, by paying annual “expedition dues” that range from $100 to $400 per year per child, depending on grade. Families can pay their dues in monthly installments, and scholarships are also available. And parents are expected to contribute gas money, and/or volunteer to drive on fieldwork whenever they can, so the schools rarely have to use buses or public transportation. It is a greater commitment for parents and students than a traditional school, both in terms of cost and time, but EL Education works to create schools that are accessible for kids from all backgrounds.

There’s really no way to duplicate these experiences in the classroom—it’s the difference between watching a teacher point to the parts of a salmon on a whiteboard, and rafting down a river so you can look at the parts of a salmon in real life. For many Charter kids, the experience they’ll have on the banks of the Yuba River at age nine will become a cherished memory that they’ll carry into adulthood, while the whiteboard drawing probably wouldn’t have made it to the next Thursday.

It’s an upstream journey, just as it is for any kid, but those using the EL Learning model  give kids a drive to discover, they hope, will last their whole lives.

List of Sources

  1. EL Education. “By the Numbers.” https://eleducation.org/impact/by-the-numbers
  2. EL Education. “About Us.” http://curriculum.eleducation.org/about-us
  3. Outward Bound. “Our Programs.” https://www.outwardbound.org/programs/
  4. National Park Service. “Golden Gate Bridge.” https://www.nps.gov/prsf/planyourvisit/golden-gate-bridge.htm
  5. ScienceBlog. “’Sex That Moves Mountains’: Spawning Salmon Play Significant Role In Shaping Landscapes.” https://scienceblog.com/497052/sex-moves-mountains-spawning-salmon-play-significant-role-shaping-landscapes/
  6. BiologyWise. “Salmon Life Cycle.” https://biologywise.com/salmon-life-cycle
  7. Ingmire, Jann. “Learning by doing helps students perform better in science.” Univeristy of Chicago News. 29 April, 2015. https://news.uchicago.edu/story/learning-doing-helps-students-perform-better-science
  8. Stringer, Kate. “25 Years, 1 Million Kids. How Expeditionary Deeper Learning Engages Students Through Inquiry, Discovery & Creativity.” The 74. 8 November, 2017. https://www.the74million.org/article/25-years-50000-kids-how-expeditionary-deeper-learning-engages-students-through-inquiry-discovery-creativity/
  9. EdReports. “Expeditionary Learning (2016).” http://www.edreports.org/reports/detail/ahJzfmVkcmVwb3J0cy0yMDY2MThyKAsSCVB1Ymxpc2hlchgTDAsSBlNlcmllcxgsDAsSBlJlcG9ydBi8AQw Nichols-Barrer, Ira and Joshua Haimson. “Impacts of Five Expeditionary Learning Middle Schools on Academic Achievement.” Mathematica Policy Research. https://www.mathematica-mpr.com/our-publications-and-findings/publications/impacts-of-five-expeditionary-learning-middle-schools-on-academic-achievement
  10. Lehmberg, Mary. Telephone interview.
  11. Maddock, Scott. Email interview.

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