A vision for a new kind of public school in America

The hallway in an Expeditionary Learning school in Springfield, Mass. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

This essay is part of the larger radio documentary Beyond the Blackboard, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).


It was 1987. Outward Bound International, the membership organization of Outward Bound centers around the world, was having a conference in Cooperstown, New York. Paul Ylvisaker was the keynote speaker.

Ylvisaker, a former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, had long admired Outward Bound for its focus on experiential learning and on teaching character skills such as resilience and collaboration.

But he was also frustrated with Outward Bound. The organization had begun in the 1940s as an extension of founder Kurt Hahn’s ideas about the kinds of skills kids should learn in school.

“If you’re going to try to reform schools, restructure them, change them, you have to begin by imagining what a human being can be.”
–Tom James

When American educators helped bring Outward Bound to the United States in 1961, one goal was to influence the direction of U.S. schooling by persuading teachers and administrators to adopt experiential methods of teaching and learning and to focus more on character development, not just academics.

But that hadn’t happened. Outward Bound USA had become more of an adventure education program focused on brief, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Ylvisaker wanted Outward Bound to take a more “aggressive” role in the conversation about American education.

“You are not audible, as I can hear it, in the debate over reform,” said Ylvisaker in his speech at the Cooperstown conference. “You are not articulate.”

This was a time of much debate about the future of American schools. Just four years earlier, the Reagan administration had issued a now-famous report called “A Nation at Risk.” The report declared that American schools were failing to prepare students to compete in the global economy. It touched off a wave of local, state, and federal reform efforts that continue today.

But Ylvisaker was impatient with the direction the reform movement had taken.

“All of the reforms that legislatures and educators have been talking about have to do with curriculum and the conventions of the game,” he said to the Outward Bound crowd. The focus was too much on things like reading, writing, and I.Q., he said, and not enough on “some of these other qualities that we ought to be nourishing” such as motivation, values, community service, and teamwork.

“Is there somebody from your organization … who is talking about these missing dimensions in contemporary education?” he asked the crowd. “That extra dimension badly needs talking and writing about.”

Outward Bound: Back to its Roots

Inspired by the Ylvisaker speech, Outward Bound USA and the Harvard Graduate School of Education teamed up to create an organization called the Harvard/Outward Bound Project in Experience-Based Education. It provided experiential education programs to schools, and did teacher training.

“Educators find Outward Bound intriguing because it offers a curriculum in which towering standards of human performance are paradoxically joined to an assumption that everyone can succeed.”
–original proposal for Expeditionary Learning schools

But what if you could create a whole school based on these ideas? How about a network of schools across the country?

The chance to do that came in 1991, when the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private nonprofit created by American CEOs and supported by the George H.W. Bush administration, issued a request for proposals to identify and fund what it called “break-the-mold” designs to reform public schools.

The Harvard/Outward Bound Project decided to submit a proposal. The title of their proposal was “Expeditionary Learning: A Design for New American Schools.”

“Ultimately, what students will be taught in the schools we propose is not how to thrive in the mountains or at sea,” the proposal said, “but how to flourish in school.”

The Proposal

The team assembled to write the proposal included teachers, principals, a former boarding school headmaster, professors, community activists and members of the Outward Bound board. The proposal is a fascinating read, full of bold and idealistic language. It opens with the line: “To start a school is to proclaim what it means to be a human being.”

“If you’re going to try to reform schools, restructure them, change them, you have to begin by imagining what a human being can be,” says Tom James, who wrote that line. “Then you map backwards from that and create a realm of experience in which people can really grow.”

By this time in the early 1990s there were a number of progressive private schools around the world committed to Hahn’s educational philosophy. In public schools, there were gifted and talented programs that prioritized hands-on learning and long-term projects, methods that Hahn promoted. But the goal of Expeditionary Learning was to prove these methods could work for all kids, not just those in private schools and gifted programs.

The proposal was organized around a set of “design principles” inspired by The Seven Laws of Salem Hahn had written in the 1920s to guide education at his private boarding school in Germany.

These are the principles laid out in the original proposal for Expeditionary Learning, with excerpts of the language used to describe each one:

1. The value of values.
A dominant feature of our proposed New American School is an ethos where character development as well as universal intellectual achievement are viewed as the central mission of a school community. We go to school to learn how to create the good society, a world in which we can all live freely and responsibly to our greatest potential.

2. Learning needs emotion and challenge.
Outward Bound teaches that to strengthen the will to prevail against adversity, we must learn persistence in turning our disabilities into opportunities, our weakness into strength, our incomprehension into a devotion to truth.

3. Learning occurs with intimacy and caring.
Deeper relationships foster deeper and clearer thinking. The antidote to insularity and alienation is not competition but friendship, the discovery of bonds and mutual commitment among human beings.

4. The collective and the individual can be brought together.
Outward Bound has pioneered a pedagogy that addresses the severe motivational and self-esteem issues which prevent some students from learning how to learn as well as enhancing the growth of those who almost intuitively learn well. Outward Bound does this by putting all students on equal footing, with competition subordinated to cooperation, and with genuine opportunities for students at all levels of learning skill to test themselves and their deepest held values.

5. A fair assurance of success.
Educators find Outward Bound intriguing because it offers a curriculum in which towering standards of human performance are paradoxically joined to an assumption that everyone can succeed. Those contentious categories of educational reform—excellence and equality—are fused into a program singlemindedly devoted to improving human character and performance among all kinds of learners.

6. The having of wonderful ideas.
We view children neither as receptacles to be filled nor damaged goods to be patched. Instead … [w]e view all children and teachers as scientists, inventors, writers, mathematicians, leaders, artists, linguists, and deeply compassionate human beings who are in the process of discovering and becoming. We want them to become more thoughtful, more knowledgeable, more confident and more courageous as they develop their minds, bodies and character to their fullest potential.

7. Solitude and reflection.
Every aspect of education must have times when people can be quiet, alone and reflective, not only to refresh their nervous systems, but to ask questions about themselves, to examine their own inner lives, and to discover for themselves their own springs of growth and self-renewal. This experience is virtually unknown today in public schools.

8. Social vision.
The young can learn best when they are allowed to place their formidable energies in service of the common good. One of the greatest needs in education today, the one on which intellectual achievement and lifelong learning importantly depend, is to involve young people in real service experiences that will teach them the bonds of social life and connect them constructively to their future education and employment.

Learning Expeditions

The key concept in the proposal was to organize school around “learning expeditions.” These would be long-term, interdisciplinary, intellectual investigations that would take students and teachers out into their communities.

The authors of the proposal provided an example of a learning expedition in their proposal. It would bring together reading, writing, social studies, science and art.

Students would read “A Distant Mirror,” a book by Barbara Tuchman that explores life in the 14th century and the impact of the bubonic plague. Using the book as a jumping off point, students would generate a series of questions about the plague. What caused it? How did it spread? What impact did it have on social and political life?

Students would create a historically accurate 14th century village and use computer modeling to understand how the disease spread. They’d write biographies of the people who lived in the village and identify the rituals, beliefs and power structures of the time. They would interview a contemporary public health epidemiologist who would make connections between the plague and the AIDS epidemic. They would visit a medieval art historian and use a microscope to look at germs and study how diseases spread.

At that point, the students would be “ready to hypothesize, discuss and debate the plague’s impact on one community,” the authors of the proposal wrote. The students would “grapple with thorny issues of superstition, public health and the role of church and state making connections to the AIDS epidemic today.”

Not everything at Expeditionary Learning schools would be taught through expeditions. The authors envisioned a role for “traditional instruction” and for some standardized testing too. But they made it clear they didn’t like standardized testing.

“We view the role of most traditional standardized testing as problematic because it has been misused to track, sort and segregate students on the basis of facility in high speed recall of segmented facts,” the authors wrote. “These tests … cannot reflect the full range of students’ thoughtfulness, resourcefulness or multiple intelligences … [w]e see no value in preparing for traditional standardized examinations.”

“We view children neither as receptacles to be filled nor damaged goods to be patched.”
–original proposal for Expeditionary Learning schools

This was a time when standardized testing was emerging as a popular idea among American school reformers. Putting this kind of anti-testing language in a proposal like this was not necessarily going to put it on the top of the pile to be funded.

“We didn’t really think we had a chance,” says Greg Farrell, who worked for Outward Bound and was one of the authors of the proposal.

But a few months after submitting it, Farrell and his co-authors made the final cut. They were called to Washington, D.C. to defend their proposal in front of a group of people from the New American Schools Development Corporation.

“We sat on one side of a long table with a bunch of older, somber, grim-looking faces on the other side, a kind of Republican bunch,” he says. “And I remember the first question from one of them was, ‘these expeditions … is this something you’re going to do after school? Or is this school?'”

This is school, Farrell told them, assuming that was probably not the right answer.

But the young staff people seated behind the somber bunch signaled their approval with silent fist bumps. “They loved our proposal and they wanted us to win,” says Farrell, laughing. “They were cheering me on.”

To his surprise, the proposal was funded.

Today, there are more than 160 Expeditionary Learning schools in 31 states and D.C. serving more than 53,000 students. They are almost all public schools, about half charter schools and half regular district schools. Fifty-seven percent of the students are from low-income families.

Read more about what Expeditionary Learning looks like today and what the data show about how students at these schools do compared to similar students in other public schools.


This essay is part of the larger radio documentary Beyond the Blackboard, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

Episode: Beyond the Blackboard