Elementary Expeditions
Decatur, Georgia
Del Stover
October 1, 2017

Once upon a time, first-graders at Winnona Park Elementary School were presented with a challenge: Help Rapunzel escape from her tower using nothing but commonplace items found in the home.

Students debated several ideas and decided that a parachute might be the solution. So, to test their theory, they built a small parachute using a plastic bag, string, and paper cup—then attached it to a doll and then dropped it from the top of a stepladder.

Their conclusion: Rapunzel could escape her tower any time she wants.

“We think’ed of what our design would be, then we made it and see’d how it turned out,” one student explained after a school assembly celebrating the first grade’s work. 

This innovative, engaging classroom project was just part of a multiweek lesson that combined the study of fairy tales with instruction in the scientific method—a journey of discovery that educators in Georgia’s City Schools of Decatur call an “expedition.”

Engagement takes root

Such expeditions are at the core of an instructional model known as expeditionary learning (EL). Embraced by the 4,200-student suburban school district, this approach to learning emphasizes interactive, project-based lessons taught across academic subjects and classes.

“Students do several expeditions throughout the year, and those expeditions guide what they’re doing in all their classes, whether it’s in their homeroom or music or art or PE,” says Superintendent David Dude. The concepts taught in each expedition are “integrated throughout their entire day.”

One of the strengths of expeditionary learning is student engagement, adds Principal Greg Wiseman. As part of a third-grade expedition into rocks and minerals, for example, students conducted fieldwork on a nearby mountain, toured a granite quarry, and met with geologists from the University of Georgia.

“Kids love it,” he says. “It’s engaging and it’s fun … a big thing is making connections to the real world. “

One parent impressed with how this engagement takes root is Jean Jacques Credi, whose daughter Eve attends Winnona Park. 

As an administrator at a nearby school, Credi is familiar with expeditionary learning, but he says he saw its impact when Eve was studying American symbols, including the bald eagle. While at home one evening, she asked to show him a live video feed of an eagle’s nest.

“So, we pulled it up on the internet, and we’re watching the eagle cam, and we happen to catch the eagle feeding a fish to its babies. [Eve] went and got a bunch of paper, folded it together, wanted me to staple the binding, and she sat there for almost an hour creating this scientific journal about what she was observing.” 

Taking the initiative in their learning is exactly what educators hope to encourage in their students. Worksheets and lectures are kept to a minimum, Wiseman says, so students can work in groups to conduct research or engage in hands-on projects.

“There’s hardly any lecturing at all,” he adds. “When I’m in my classrooms doing observations or just checking in, I want to see the kids doing all the heavy lifting.”

Yet, the novelty of this instructional model isn’t as important as how it transforms the educational program, Wiseman says.

“EL education looks at more than just student achievement test scores. Their definition of student achievement is mastery of knowledge and skills, student character, and high-quality student work...They’re really looking at the whole child.”

EL gets results

National research shows that students in expeditionary learning programs perform better academically. After piloting the instructional model at one school some years ago, local educators say they witnessed the results themselves. That’s why they expanded the program to all five of the district’s K-3 schools.

“We’ve been doing it long enough that students who originally came up through our system are now in high school and beyond,” Dude says. “And we recognize extreme levels of success. Our students are very well prepared as they move up to the upper grade levels and we transition into the International Baccalaureate program starting in fourth grade.”

The quality of the K-3 program has helped make the district one of the most successful in the state, he says. “People move here to get their students into our school system.”

That seems fitting, given that the city itself is rather exceptional. Only 4.2 square miles in size, this affluent suburb outside Atlanta is notable for its tree-lined residential streets, a trendy food scene, and, thanks to smart urban planning, a small-town feel.

Some of the city’s charm was visible on the morning Winnona Park held its assembly to celebrate completion of the first grade’s latest expedition. In an idyllic scene, students and parents could be seen walking shady, tree-lined sidewalks toward the school, the children dressed up for the event. 

Once gathered in the school’s small cafeteria, scores of parents listened and applauded as the children made presentations on their projects. During the performance, students underscored the interdisciplinary nature of their studies by singing songs—both in English and Spanish—about the scientific method.

With the scientific method,

You can find solutions:

A question and hypothesis,

Experiments and conclusions.

After the assembly, parents visited classrooms. In one room, a boy sat on the floor—his parents awkwardly joining him as he explained how his class had used scientific and engineering principles to solve the problems faced by such fairy tale characters as the Three Little Pigs, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, and Humpty Dumpty.

This student’s enthusiasm—and simply the fact that a 6-year-old knew anything about the scientific method—offered evidence of the potential of expeditionary learning.

It’s what’s appealing about the school, says parent Darryl Ford, who took time away from work to attend the assembly.

“It’s an incredible way for kids not just to learn things, but they spend a good deal of time focusing on how they learn—and why it’s relevant for them. I think that it’s actually done a great job of helping our kids not just be more educated but be better global citizens.”

Investment important

For all the local enthusiasm for this instructional model, expeditionary learning isn’t widely used across the country. Developed nearly a quarter century ago by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound USA, and designed for students of all grades, today only about 50,000 students in 152 schools participate in the program.

But, while successful in Decatur, expeditionary learning is not for everyone. To make it work, a school or district leadership must make a considerable investment, Dude says. 

“If you don’t have the funding, you’re not going to be able to implement this program with fidelity,” he says. “The other piece is professional development. We have to be updating our teachers and our administrators and instructional coaches frequently.”

A change in culture also is essential, Wiseman adds. “You have to provide the culture of teachers as continual learners. You have to have buy-in from the teachers, from the community, from the superintendent, the school board.”

One reason the Decatur schools have stayed the course is that many district leaders, from school board members to administrators, have had children taught using the instructional model—and have witnessed its impact.

“They get it,” Wiseman says. “The superintendent’s own children are in this school. He’s been here for a year and a half, and he gets it. He sees the difference in the quality and the depth and the creativity that we marry into the academics, as well as into the arts and PE and Spanish and music—that it’s a really rich learning experience.”

Teacher creativity

Other project-oriented curricula exist for K-12 schools, of course, but Decatur educators are enthusiastic about expeditionary learning because it provides a useful and more developed framework to help teachers plan strong classroom lessons, Dude says. Some of that framework is provided by EL Education, a national group that supports a network of schools using expeditionary learning. 

Having this support, Dude says, means a lot for teachers who are looking for innovative ways to educate and engage students. The coursework pairing the study of fairy tales with the scientific method is a perfect example.

“Teachers are creative people, and one of the things they’ll do is they’ll take that framework, and they’ll run with it.”

The opportunity to make innovative instructional decisions—and to focus on learning rather than on test scores—makes working at Winnona Park a more satisfying professional experience, teachers say.

Teachers say they also appreciate the time set aside each week for planning. Instead of teachers working alone in silos, the interdisciplinary approach of most lessons means that joint planning and professional collaboration are essential.

“We meet every week, multiple times,” says first-grade teacher Maleea March. “We’re constantly in each other’s rooms.” It’s not uncommon, she adds, to say, “‘Hey, we need to tweak some things. Let’s have a meeting.’ It never ends, and we keep working on it, and we keep making it better.”

That doesn’t make this instructional model perfect, of course. As students displayed their fairy tale projects to parents, a glaring—and somewhat awkward—failure was quietly ignored in one classroom: the fate of Humpty Dumpty.

You see, the students in this class had no better luck than the king’s men in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. So, they came up with a practical, if unsentimental, solution.

Students decided to cook up a plate of scrambled eggs.

Del Stover (dstover@nsba.org) is senior editor of American School Board Journal.