Learning Expeditions FAQs

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Learning expeditions engage, challenge, and empower students in ways that traditional instructional methods miss.

Why do you use learning expeditions?

By situating learning in the context of authentic, complex problems, students come to understand the interdisciplinary nature of our world. They learn content and skills within real world contexts that drive them to research, read, write, and create for a purpose that matters.

Because the problems at the heart of our learning expeditions do not have either a clear path to a solution or one single right answer, students must develop and apply critical thinking and problem solving skills in their search for answers. Students also develop character skills as they work through the process of trying ideas, failing, revising their work, and persevering towards a final high-quality product. However, they also realize that these types of problems cannot be solved alone, but require teamwork. They develop communication and collaboration skills as they work together to create cohesive high-quality products.

Last but not least, learning expeditions empower students to be responsible and compassionate members of their communities as they work to address real problems in their community. They come to realize that they do have a voice and are empowered to take action and use their learning to improve the world around them.

What are the components of a learning expedition?

The major components of learning expeditions include: compelling topics with conceptual understandings, authentic problems with guiding questions, investigations, and products.

1. The Compelling Topic is the specific subject area and context through which we develop conceptual understanding and critical thinking and problem solving skills.

For example, in 2nd Grade, students participate in an expedition on the physics of flight. The compelling topic addresses the physics standards relevant to 2nd grade, but is situated within the context of how do students communicate to people getting on planes at National Airport how an airplane stays up in the air. By situating the problem in a compelling context with an authentic audience, students have a drive to learn the content and solve the problem.

Within each compelling topic we identify three to five conceptual understandings. Conceptual understandings are the foundational and transferable ideas that every student will learn through the course of an expedition. They are big ideas that function as the foundation of the discipline in which the learning expedition sits, and thus have broad applicability beyond the particular context of the problem at the heart of the learning expedition.

For example, with the 2nd Grade physics of flight expedition, two of the conceptual understandings that all students learn are:
Many forces work together in our world to make things happen.
Scientists use trial and error to form conclusions.

2. The Authentic Problem organizes the learning around a real world context in which students can apply their learning. By situating the project around a problem that others need help solving, students are motivated to deepen their understanding of the content because they have a real audience that is depending on them for an answer.

For example, with the 2nd Grade physics of flight expedition, the students were given the following problem: People taking flights at the National Airport don’t understand how flight works even though they are about to get on planes! How can we, as aeronautical artists, explain the physics of flight to them?

The authentic problem is supported by three to five guiding questions. The guiding questions serve as the broad open-ended questions that students must answer in order to solve the context specific authentic problem. In answering the guiding questions, students demonstrate their mastery of the conceptual understandings.

In the 2nd Grade physics of flight expedition, the guiding questions were:
How do scientists solve problems?
How do forces interact to make things move in different ways?
How do we effectively communicate our scientific conclusions to others?

3. We break each learning expedition into three investigations. The investigations function as units of instruction that move students in an organized way towards creation of a solution to the authentic problem. By organizing the expedition into three discrete investigations, we are able to focus students directly on the specific components of learning that will lead to deeper understanding of the conceptual knowledge and a clear solution to the problem.

For example with the 2nd Grade physics of flight expedition, we used the following investigations:

Investigation 1: Scientific Method and the Forces of Flight: During this investigation, students developed an understanding of the basic knowledge and concepts of the physics of flight. In addition, they learned how people came to understand that basic knowledge and concepts through experimentation and revision. and answered the guiding question, “How do scientists solve problems?”.
Investigation 2: Experimentation with the Forces of Flight: At this point, students deepened their conceptual understandings by applying their understanding of the forces of flight to experiments and through the creation of art. Through this work, students answered the guiding question, “How do forces interact to make things move in different ways?”
Investigation 3: Teaching Others About Flight: In the final investigation, students created artist statements and revised their artwork to be displayed at National Airport, answering the guiding question, “How do we effectively communicate our scientific conclusions to others?”

4. The fourth and final major component of an expedition is the high-quality product. The product serves as the solution to the authentic problem and utilizes the standards of quality of similarly professionally made products in the same field. The product should utilize the variety of learning that a student completes over the course of the expedition, and provides a lens to determine what experiences and knowledge a student needs to develop.

In the 2nd Grade physics of flight expedition, students created an exhibit of their art and artist statements entitled “The Art of Flight” at the National Airport to educate passengers on the physics of flight.

How do standards fit into a learning expedition?

Standards in social studies, science, and literacy sit at the heart of learning expeditions and drive the direction of what is learned.

In addition, standards in the arts and mathematics also are integrated where they can meaningfully advance student learning towards those goals while staying true to the content of the learning expedition.

We begin planning expeditions with social studies and science content standards in mind. We identify the major concepts that underlie the standards, and we keep these in focus as we plan every element of the expedition. A primary goal of the expedition is to ensure that students develop a deep conceptual understanding of the content as directed by the standards. With this in mind, we then plan the problem that students will address through their project, every experience that they have in addressing the problem, and the product that they will produce, with an eye to ensuring that students utilize these opportunities to develop their understanding of the essential concepts.

Because everything that we learn is integrally connected to how we research and communicate about those content and skills, learning expeditions are rich with opportunities to integrate literacy standards. Students read, write, and talk about the content of their expedition. By purposefully focusing on the literacy skills, students are able to both master the skills outlined in the standards while also deepening content knowledge.

In addition, learning expeditions are powerful places for integration of the arts and mathematics. Many projects have a visual or performance art connection that deepens students’ understanding of content while also building their artistic skills. Similarly, in math, many projects can move students in their learning of mathematics as they are given a meaningful place to apply their skills.

What is the flow of a learning expedition?

As stated above, learning expeditions are broken into three separate investigations each ranging from three to six weeks. The first focuses on building background knowledge, the second on applying that knowledge, and the third on communicating and synthesizing that knowledge.

For example, in our prekindergarten classes, we have done a learning expedition on nutrition in which they tackled the problem of how to help families make good choices about healthy snacks and meals. The teachers divided the learning expedition into three investigations titled Evaluate, Create, and Communicate. During the first investigation, the prekindergarten students learned how to evaluate meals for how healthy they are using the United States Department of Agriculture MyPlate recommendations. They were building their background knowledge about what makes choices healthy or not. In the second investigation, students applied their knowledge in creating healthy snacks and meals. In their third and final investigation, the students learned how to effectively communicate their learning to their families and other students through a presentation at our showcase.

In addition to the three investigations, we include two other key elements in the flow of an expedition launch and showcase of learning.

First, at the very beginning of every expedition, we include a launch where students are first introduced to the problem at the heart of their expedition. The launch is opportunity to hook students with a need to know, and get them excited about the learning that they are about to undertake. In the prekindergarten example above, we launched the expedition with short films of parents struggling to make a lunch for their kids and wondering how to make healthy choices. Students then watched the video and began brainstorming how to help the parents make healthy choices.

We conclude every learning expedition with a showcase of learning. Showcases are an opportunity for students to practice their communication skills and to synthesize their learning. It is both an opportunity to share how they solved the problem, as well as to describe the process that they undertook to get to a solution. Learn more about how we structure the sharing of student work below.

How do you determine the topics of your learning expeditions?

Each year students participate in one learning expedition that has primarily a social studies lens and one learning expedition that has primarily a science lens. Our learning expedition topics are determined using a curriculum framework that takes into account the science and social studies content that are taught at each grade to ensure breadth of learning over the course of a student’s career at Two Rivers, but depth of learning within each expedition. Thus we have several life science expeditions beginning in preschool with a focus on gardening and continuing through 1st grade with the study of spiders, 4th grade with exploration of the Anacostia Watershed ecosystems, and concluding in 8th grade with a study of the ethics of genetic research. Similarly, we have strands of learning that explore history, civics, economics, and geography across the grades in social studies and the physical and earth sciences as well.

Teachers take the broad topics from our curriculum framework and refine them into compelling topics that take into account both the content learning standards for their grade as well as the context in our community where those standards most come alive.

How do you find or create effective problems for a learning expedition?

At the heart of our expeditions are authentic problems.

​While there is no magic pill for creating effective problems, we do utilize a few guidelines to ensure that the problem engages students in challenging learning while also empowering them to solve real complex problems in their communities. We have three intersecting considerations that we take into account in designing effective problem: curriculum, students, and context.

We begin by considering the curriculum. By curriculum, we mean all of the discrete things that we want students to learn during the learning expedition. Curriculum includes standards in disciplines like science, social studies, English language arts, math, and the arts as well as the broad conceptual understandings, the critical thinking and problem solving skills, the collaboration and communication skills, and the habits of character that we want every student to master. We strive to create problems that will require students to master all of these skills and understandings through the process of developing a solution.

Second, we think about our students. For a problem to be effective, we believe you must take into account the whole child. We consider what previous knowledge they have about a topic and their current capacity in terms of both knowledge and skills. However, we also take into account their personal passions and perspectives. The problem will only engage them if they have some personal reason to solve the problem and see the problem as addressing an authentic need.

Which brings us to the last consideration: context. The context is the authentic place in the community where a real need can be met through application of student learning. Finding the right context requires that teachers know their communities well. This can include reaching out to partners in business, the civic sector, or the neighborhood to identify real needs that students can meet through learning and applying the curriculum.

The most powerful authentic problems lie in the intersection of all three of these considerations, addressing a real need in the community, connecting with students where they are, and providing a need to develop the skills, knowledge, and understandings outlined in the curriculum.

It should be noted that the design of problems is not linear. For the purposes of explaining each element, we addressed each of these in an order, but we recognize that each consideration impacts the others. For example, while we may begin by considering the curriculum, once we begin to consider student needs, we may go back and revise our thinking about the curriculum.

How do you plan daily experiences in a learning expedition?

We utilize backwards planning as outlined in Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s seminal work Understanding By Design in developing all of the experiences in an expedition.

We begin with the big picture outcomes that include the compelling topic and conceptual understandings. Then we identify all of the essential skills and knowledge students will need to develop those conceptual understandings and solve the problem at the heart of the learning expedition.

Once we have identified the outcomes for the expedition, teachers create a product exemplar. This product exemplar is our best effort to create a product that solves the authentic problem, not an effort to create a product that resembles what we might envision students to create. Creating the product exemplar serves a few purposes. First, it allows teachers to develop a vision of excellence. The exemplar becomes the mark to which we hold all students towards. Second, the exemplar gives us the opportunity to work out all of the technical details. While it is true in the world outside of school, that the same individual is not responsible for all elements of a quality product, we don’t believe that it is essential for students to be responsible for all elements of creation. For example, when writing a book, an author doesn’t work on layout and publishing. With that in mind, for all products, we identify what things we do want students to learn about through the creation of the product. We then take the other elements off of the table for them. Finally, the exemplar, provides us with a frame to think about the daily experiences in a learning expedition by identifying the discrete content and skills students will need to complete the work.

Building backwards from the product, we then calendar each of the broad investigations. Each investigation is associated with specific outcomes identified above and include assessments of student understanding along the way. Using the exemplar product as a filter, we include in the investigations all of the experiences a student will need to be successful in creating the product. However, this means taking out any experience that will not contribute to the conceptual understanding and skills needed.

Only after developing an understanding of the outcomes of the expedition, the product that students will create, and the broad investigations of a learning expedition, do we begin to plan the daily experiences. Each of these experiences must fit within the framework of moving students closer to a solution to their authentic problem. These experiences may include more traditional classroom activities like workshop model lessons, experiments, and readings, but they also include presentations and consultations with experts in the field as well as targeted field studies where we take students into the community to learn more deeply about the context of their problem and the content of the curriculum.

Another consideration that we take into account as we plan daily activities with students during a learning expedition, is that we recognize the importance of critique and revision in creating high quality products. With this in mind, we consciously plan time for students to produce drafts of their work, participate in critique protocols to improve their work, and rehearse presentations of their learning.

How do you assess student learning in a learning expedition?

We use assessment in two different ways: assessment for learning (AFL) and assessment of learning (AOL).

Assessment for learning is formative assessment that is used to inform students and their teachers about where each student is in her learning trajectory and identify next steps in her learning. In contrast, assessment of learning is summative assessment that occurs after learning has been completed and serves to communicate to students, teachers, and families the skills and knowledge that a student has mastered through the learning experience. We use both forms of assessment throughout an expedition.

Using assessment for learning, we name for students what the objectives of given lessons and longer investigations are through learning targets. Learning targets, written in student friendly language, give teachers and students a clear vision of what they are working towards. We then are able to collect evidence through the course of the expedition on how well students master learning targets. Matching different assessment tasks with different learning targets, we utilize a wide range of assessment tools for this evidence collection. Regardless of how the evidence is collected, we utilize the results to inform students and teachers about where they are in their trajectory towards mastering the targets. Teachers and students use this data to make plans for how to close the gap between where they are and where they need to be defined by the learning target.

However, we also recognize the need to communicate to students and their families about what they have learned through the course of an expedition. The products of expedition often tell an important component about what students have learned, but they are not enough. Products usually are collaborative efforts that have built on the work of groups of students collaborating. Thus it is often difficult to tell what an individual student knows or is able to do independently. In addition, final products often only highlight a small component of all of the content and skills that a student might learn over the course of a learning expedition. With this in mind, we utilize both traditional tests and short performance tasks to gain insight into what students are able to do independently for assessments of their learning.

How do you structure sharing of student work?

At Two Rivers we intentionally calendar all expeditions to launch in the same week and to culminate at the same time in these showcases. By having a shared showcase of learning, we accomplish two things as a school community. First and most importantly, we are able to celebrate our work together as all students are sharing their products at the same time. Secondly, by having a shared showcase, we set hard deadlines for all students to meet in completing their projects which gives them a real sense of urgency in completing their work.

In the process of presenting their work at showcase, students tell two different stories. The first story is the process of their expedition. Through documentation panels and formal presentations, students share how they met the problem at the heart of their expedition, how they learned the content that would help them solve that problem, and ultimately how they created a product as a solution. The second story is the story of the product itself.

A very concrete example of these two stories can be understood in our expedition on the founding of America. Fifth graders tackled the question: How can we bring to life the stories of the passionate voices that built our nation? Their solution to this problem lay in creating two-person performance poems inspired by the Broadway hit musical Hamilton. In their showcase of learning, they began by framing the showcase before their live audience with a description of the expedition: the problem they faced, how they learned about it from readings, experts, and field studies, and then how they solved the problem through the poems. Then, in telling the story of their product, they performed the poems for an enthusiastic audience.