Travel Journal: Wading into Deeper Learning
It is one thing to read or hear about education policies and practices that result in innovative and transformative schools - schools that leave the common perceptions about how teaching and learning take place in the dust. It is a quite different experience altogether to see these policies and practices in action.
I walked through the hallway at The Odyssey School in Denver recently. In many ways it looked like most K-8 public schools. Although it was only the second week of the school year, bulletin boards testified to school events. Doors led to classrooms where teachers briskly zig-zagged from one table to the next with great agility, guiding students through their assignments.
Then, in the midst of my school tour, something almost stopped me in my tracks: 20-25 sets of wading boots hung from pegs in a hallway. The boots were taller than some of the students who walked past them each day. These were serious wading boots, the kind one might expect to see an adult salmon fisher wearing in a stream in Alaska. Yet they were used by sixth-graders last year as part of a science assignment.
Before explaining the assignment, it’s important to note The Odyssey School is part of The Expeditionary Learning School Network, which is approaching 200 schools in more than 30 states. If all the schools making up the Expeditionary School Network were combined it would be one of the largest school districts in the United States.
Expeditionary Learning (EL) is based on 10 design principles. They include self-discovery, imagination, research, experimentation, collaboration, and reflection. The hallmark of an EL school is that students learn not in traditional ways – listening to teachers, reading their textbooks, or completing worksheets – but through field experiences and project-based learning.
Which brings me back to the wading boots. Last year’s sixth graders were assigned to collect data on the nearby South Platte River. This involved putting on the rubber boots and wading into the river to conduct scientific testing and data collection related to water quality and presence of aquatic life. They could have been scientists studying the river’s ecosystem. Then, ironically, scientists from the EPA actually converged on the same part of the South Platte River for an investigation just one week later, after a broken pipeline at a refinery leaked crude oil into the river. A local television station interviewed some of the students about the findings of their own research into possible contamination of the river and the effects on the ecosystem. Odyssey Director Marcia Fulton said, “The scientists said (to the school), ‘Your data is as good as the data that I produce.”
The Odyssey School was Denver’s first charter school, organized 14 years ago in just two classrooms. Since then it has grown remarkably, at one point moving four times in five years as it outgrew one school, then another, and another. Today, students apply and are chosen based on a lottery, although the lottery is weighed to ensure approximately 40 percent of the students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. Fulton says when Odyssey is viewed in terms of the number of applications from parents wanting their children to go to school there, it is the most in-demand school in Denver.
So what makes Odyssey the kind of school where parents want to send their children? That was part of my assignment. I was examining policies and practices at Odyssey that lead to a outcome known as ‘deeper learning,’ which involves critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication skills, and personalized learning.
Some of the best answers to that question came from the students themselves. In an eighth grade humanities class, several students told me about the value of collaborating with their classmates on assignments. Samuel said, “Being a good collaborator helps you in a lot of ways. I think no matter what you’re doing, if you’re working with someone, collaboration helps you do something faster and more efficient.”
Other students chimed in. “Collaboration helps because if you didn’t know something or you were having trouble with something, I could ask someone in my group (to help me),” one explained. “We use collaboration because everyone brings in different opinions and ideas and different background knowledge. And so if we can just put those things together your ideas can become much stronger,” said another.
Another eighth grader shared how Odyssey helps students achieve critical thinking skills that they will need to be successful in postsecondary education and careers. “They never give us the answers,” she said. “We have to think through the answers. We’re given tools to get us there, but we are never given the direct answer. We get guiding questions and a learning target and an inquiry process that helps us ask questions and build background knowledge.”
Then came the comparisons with traditional public schools some of the students had attended before Odyssey. For some, the comparison was impossible to make; Odyssey was the only school they had attended. Others, like Zion, who is beginning his third year at Odyssey, was quick to raise his hand. “At other schools it was like, workbook. Do it. I didn’t really feel that I was part of the community. … (Odyssey) is more of a sense of something I look forward to every day. Instead of, oh, I have to go to school every day it more, like, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Laurel added, “Here at Odyssey, we are crew, not passengers. Everyone contributes and has a part to a project.” The theme of students being a crew on a ship, working in harmony with one another, was one I heard repeated several times throughout my visit.
Fulton explained the name Odyssey says a lot about what the school stands for. “It is the journey. It is the unknown. When you dive into these core practices, they are all underpinnings of an expedition. Our motto is, ‘We are crew members, not passengers.’ It drives the work. It keeps us true to the mission and vision of the school. We care not just about test scores and what they do but also how they get there.”