Expeditionary Learning: A Journey to Knowledge


“To start a school is to proclaim what it means to be human.”

This phrase, written in 1996 by Harvard University professor Meg Campbell in collaboration with a group of educators from the well-known organization Outward Bound in an article entitled “The Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound Design,” has inspired a generation of school administrators, teachers and learning specialists to rethink the way we educate our children in the United States. It implies that at their root, people—and educators especially—are curious, want to know about the world and, rather than run from that which they don’t know and understand, prefer instead to run toward it and learn about it. Educators in particular want to share that knowledge with others, teach them what they know and help them along the amazing path from childhood to adulthood. Expeditionary Learning (EL) is an approach to education that seeks to engage students in a way that excites them not only about the subjects they’re studying, but also about the process of education. In the same way that life is about the journey, education is about the process of learning, and that is what Expeditionary Learning teaches.

Elements of Expeditionary Learning

Based on the educational theories of Outward Bound founder Kurt Hahn and brought to the U.S. by Joshua Miner and Charles Froelicher, Expeditionary Learning primarily involves what most educators today know by the name “Project Based Learning.” The original educational expeditions were comprised of intense, focused units of study that lasted from six to nine weeks and always involved physical activity and real-world work paired with more traditional, intellectual classroom activities. A study of geology would always involve going outside and finding different types of rocks. A study of microorganisms would always involve going to a local pond, taking water samples and bringing them back for study under a microscope. A study of government would involve visiting the mayor’s office or city council, and a study of engineering would always involve going out and seeing how various types of bridges were made.

The Ten Essential Elements of a Learning Expedition are:

  • Self-Discovery and Personal Investment: Students have a greater chance of gaining new knowledge when they experience things for themselves, when they’re committed to the learning process and they feel that their input is not only valued, but also driving the direction of the expedition.
  • Interesting and Engaging Ideas: Students are more motivated to learn when their curiosity is piqued. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to present ideas in a way that will make a student say “Wow! I want to know more about that.”
  • Individual Ownership of Learning: A student who learns to become responsible for his or her own process learns to value the educational outcomes more than a student who is following a process that is externally driven.
  • Compassion and Connection: Learning takes place both inside every student and within groups of students. When students are involved in a learning expedition with a small group of peers whom they respect and trust, they become motivated to learn for themselves and to help their peers at the same time.
  • Real Success and Real Failure: Since a big part of most learning expeditions takes place out in the world, there is a built-in chance of failure. If a group wants to study tadpoles and goes to a pond to catch some, there’s a chance they might not find any—but this makes it all the more meaningful when they revise their plan and go back the next day and are successful in their search.
  • Working Together and Pushing Limits: Learning Expeditions work best in smaller units where trust and friendship develops as a natural part of the learning experience. Students learn to compete with each other in order to push one another’s limits, as well as with themselves in order to find that their own potential is virtually limitless.
  • Inclusive and Diverse: In small expeditionary units, teachers are encouraged to pair students of different backgrounds, experiences and ages. In this way, a student learns to value the opinions and viewpoints of people from outside his or her typical range of experience.
  • Nature: A direct relationship to nature teaches students about the natural cycles of life on earth and fosters in them a sense of stewardship for the planet.
  • Personal Time and Introspection: In order to bring the new knowledge gained during a Learning Expedition forward into their lives, students need time to process, ponder and reflect. This helps them to situate their learning in the larger context of their lives and to situate themselves in the larger context of the world.
  • Community and Empathy: Learning Expeditions teach children the fundamental concept, coined by inventor Buckminster Fuller, of “Spaceship Earth.” Students learn that one of the greatest gifts of education is to share that knowledge with another person and that one of the primary roles of a school is to enrich society as a whole.

Expeditionary Learning Resources

Since the 1990s, Expeditionary Learning has taken many forms. From individual schools to entire school districts, from one-day to one-semester to year-long projects embarked upon by traditional teachers and classes in traditional schools, the Expeditionary Model has found its way into almost every facet of education in the U.S. Aside from the allure of the practical, experiential, results-based approach to teaching and learning, educators are attracted to the Expeditionary Model because of its focus on the development of the whole individual: character, teamwork and respect are as important in EL as the knowledge itself. In fact, many educators find that the soft skills students learn from the EL experience augment and enrich all subsequent learning. For school administrators and teachers interested in implementing an Expeditionary component into their current curricula, the non-profit organization Expeditionary Learning Schools offers an abundance of resources for getting started—it might be just the thing needed to infuse a new energy into the school day, the school year or maybe even the entire school’s approach to teaching and learning.