Beyond the Blackboard

Building Character in Public Schools


In the 1940s a British headmaster named Kurt Hahn set up a wilderness school called Outward Bound to teach young men the skills they needed to survive World War II — skills like leadership, persistence, and working together. Hahn believed these were skills conventional schools should focus on too. Fifty years later, Hahn’s ideas about education inspired the founding of a network of public schools in the United States. Students in these schools outperform their peers when it comes to test scores and graduation rates — and also motivation, academic engagement and problem-solving ability. This documentary explores the “Expeditionary Learning” approach, traces the history of ideas that led to its inception, and investigates what American schools could learn from its success.

    In This Documentary

  • Kurt Hahn and the roots of Expeditionary Learning

    Early in his life, Kurt Hahn had a vision of the kind of school he wanted to create, and it was nothing like the school he went to. It would be a school designed to help kids discover their interests and passions, not just prepare them for tests. And it would be a school devoted to character development.
  • A vision for a new kind of public school in America

    In 1987 an educator frustrated with American school reform challenged Outward Bound to get more involved in the debate about the direction of public education. He thought American schools could learn from Outward Bound's focus on experiential learning and on teaching skills like resilience and collaboration.
  • Inside Expeditionary Learning at the Springfield Renaissance School

    There's a lot of talk these days about the importance of traits like grit, curiosity, and self-discipline -- so-called "non-cognitive skills." How can schools teach those skills? Correspondent Emily Hanford explores the approach to character development at one school in Massachusetts.
  • Into the woods: Two principals explain what students learn by getting out of the classroom

    One of the features of education at many Expeditionary Learning schools is an Outward Bound trip. See photos of one of these trips and read an interview with two principals about why they send their students outside and how it relates to what they’re trying to do in the classroom.



Correspondent and Producer: Emily Hanford
Editor: Catherine Winter
Digital Producer: Andy Kruse
Audio Mixing: Craig Thorson
Actor: Eric Ringham
Production Help: Ryan Katz, Stephen Smith, Samara Freemark
Associate Producer: Suzanne Pekow
Executive Editor and Host: Stephen Smith
Project Manager: Ellen Guettler
Director, APM Arts & Ideas: Peter Clowney
Intern: Alex Baumhardt

Special thanks to David Sutcliffe, Liz Cunningham and Louise Avery.

Support for “Beyond the Blackboard” comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Lumina Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Spencer Foundation. A note of disclosure: The Hewlett Foundation has supported the national expeditionary learning organization and is also a funder of American Radioworks. The foundation has no influence on our coverage.


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