Expeditionary Learning: A leap into un-'chartered' territory?

Sunday , October 01, 2017 - 12:00 AM

TX. Correspondent

Editor’s note: The name of the organization partnering with charter and public schools across the nation is EL Education; its name was changed in 2015 and the old name was used in a previous version of this story.


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“Work hard at work worth doing.”

— Teddy Roosevelt

Many students are inclined to think that schoolwork is not something worth doing. A quick search about “Why I hate school” will easily yield hundreds of rants about why students hate the education system and why everything in it is wrong.

But it’s about time for a checkup on the education process.The good news is we have schools all around the state that are making strides to improve education and make learning meaningful. These are EL Education — formerly known as expeditionary learning — charter schools.

The basic idea of the nonprofit EL Education, as explained by its website, is “to create classrooms where teachers can fulfill their highest aspirations, and students achieve more than they think possible, becoming active contributors to building a better world.” In essence, to help students own their learning.

The most common reasons kids hate school, according to the Top Tens website, include things like school is boring, homework is pointless and exams are stressful. The interesting thing is that in a lot of ways, EL Education solves these problems.

For example, EL strives to create real-world experiences in the learning environment and make a positive impact on the community beyond the school itself. A study by the University of Nebraska published in 2000, showed that for most college students, using service learning — the very same concept that is encouraged by EL schools — led to significant positive impacts on all measures studied such as academics, values (like commitment to activism) and self-efficacy. Furthermore, it is well documented that service itself leads to higher levels of happiness and a whole host of other benefits, which is just what is needed to get rid of both apathy and bitterness about the traditional schooling system.

But even with the basic idea of EL easily accessible, many misunderstandings fly surrounding the school.

To clear up some of these misunderstandings, I spoke to Kathryn Clark, a founder of the charter high school Venture High in Marriott-Slaterville, and a teacher at  GreenWood Charter School in Harrisville. Like many people who enter the charter school system, Clark said she was unhappy with the education that public schools offered for her son, which led to the switch to the then brand-new Venture Academy.

A common misunderstanding about expeditionary learning is that many think students literally leave the classroom on an expedition, Clark said, but the idea is, “It is not just about leaving the school to go on an adventure, though fieldwork is an important facet; it is the idea that a learning expedition goes deep on a subject and whether the learning in is in the classroom or in the field, it is meaningful.”

EL schools are positive members of their community and strive to bring real-world impacts into their learning. One example is students from one local middle school had the opportunity to create a plan for an unincorporated piece of land in Ogden, and after presenting, revising and putting in a lot of work, a team got to actually present their idea to the city council, and have the opportunity to see the local political system work.

Similarly, Clark points to a few other examples of real-world impacts that students in expeditionary learning schools have had, such as writing superhero stories for kids with life threatening illnesses, or a final product where students learned about adaptations of a species, then ran the ranger program at Zion National Park for a day to educate visitors about a keystone species, the desert tortoise. An EL student gets an education with the mindset that he or she can change the world.

So what does this mean for other public schools that don’t have EL programs?

One school of thought from the EL camp believes that charter schools can help improve education everywhere. As Clark, who has a master’s degree in education, explains, “Because of the flexibility charter schools have to experiment with educational models, EL charter schools in Utah have modeled many of the experiential and character building concepts that are taught in educational preparation courses, but larger public school systems don’t have the flexibility to implement.”

This means that with the ability of charter schools to use more effective teaching strategies, more and more kids are able to receive said practices that would not have been available if a charter school had not been present.

Beyond this, there is the idea that the rise of charter schools in general and the competition this presents to public schools can increase the motivation, and thus the quality of, education practices within public school walls. Education Next, a online source of education news, explains that since in previous decades public schools were almost the only option for education, there was no threat of losing a student, and thus, very little motivation to improve practices more than strictly necessary. But when charter schools draw enough people away to affect the schools seriously, it creates the fire needed to make curriculum better in order to keep students. Thus education improves in both places, leading to better educated and happier students.

In the end, the most important thing is that, as teens, our biggest opposition in regard to education is to end up not caring, and in reality, there are many who have reached that point.

But for those who are willing to take a leap and explore an unknown universe such as an expeditionary learning charter school (or at least embrace the idea of such schools), they may find the meaning behind math (gasp!), find projects that really impact the world and discover a better outlook on what school can be.

Sierra Clark is a junior at Venture High School. She plays piano and flute and is an avid reader, but most of all she enjoys learning all about new things. Email her at s.siclark@venturelearning.org.

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