Expeditionary Learning could change the face of education in the UK and it starts with XP School in Doncaster

When school leaders talk about their achievements the tone is usually serious, even slightly reverential. In contrast Gwyn ap Harri and Andy Sprakes, founders of XP School Doncaster, introduce their book 'How We XP' in an appealingly light-hearted way: 'Half story, half instruction manual, half call to arms. That equals one and a half. It’s that good.'

XP stands for Expeditionary Learning and, like ap Harri and Sprakes' introduction, it sounds like a lot of fun. Expeditionary is a metaphor for a style of learning that is radically different from the norm in the UK. Here students work together in groups, perhaps with students from other years and instead of absorbing a body of knowledge they develop a curiosity and find ways both to explore a subject and also to produce an original contribution which is of use to others in their community.

Expeditionary Learning has been popular in the United States for over 30 years, has been praised by Barack Obama and received funding from the Gates Foundation. But it wasn't available in the UK until XP School Doncaster opened in 2014.

Working with the Edge Foundation

TeachingTimes will be exploring Expeditionary Learning with The Edge Foundation in a free webinar The Lessons of Covid-19 – Are New Pedagogies Needed? on November 3rd at 4.30pm.

XP School Doncaster is one of the featured schools and delegates will learn first-hand what they and High Technology High in San Diego do that makes their learners so special, so independent, mature and ready for the world of work.

This webinar is especially topical right now. The skills shortages in the UK and the crisis in education were apparent even before the pandemic. The Edge Foundation has accused the government of trying to address, 'twenty-first century skills shortages using a curriculum and pedagogy from the late nineteenth century'.

Their report Towards a Twenty-First Century Education System goes on to say 'Their focus on a narrow ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum is squeezing out the very subjects that would train the engineers and creative professionals that we so badly need.'

Starting outside the classroom

XP School Doncaster opened in September 2014 in temporary accommodation at Doncaster Rovers Football Club with just 50 Year 7 students and a plan to increase numbers year on year with a cap of 350 learners.

Despite being over-subscribed, they have not given in to the temptation to Go Large. Tutor groups, known as 'crews', are less than half the size of a typical secondary class with just 12 or 13 students to one adult.

'The Pioneers' as that first cohort came to be known started their XP school career with a four day Outward Bound residential in Aberdovey where a series of challenges and outdoor pursuits helped the group to bond and develop strong healthy relationships both within the group and with staff.

This approach is not just for students either. The recruitment section of their website says: 'Our Induction is as long as it’s legendary – from June to September. From Outward Bound, to experiencing how our students learn. With character growth and challenging experiences.' While most schools have five days a year to spend on professional development, XP School Doncaster allocates 15 days and embraces imaginative opportunities, such as sending two members of staff to work alongside coaches at The National Theatre in London for two days

Their strategy seems to have paid off as their website claims, ‘Staff turnover and absence is low, and we never had to fund cover.' Covid may change the picture, but it is a claim many schools would be proud to make.

Curriculum with a difference

Based on a model forged in the USA, Expeditionary Learning is designed to be project based and bring together elements from different curriculum areas in unusual and inventive ways. It is interactive, creative and breaks down the boundaries between subjects. Students are engaged in two expeditions at any one time - one humanities themed and the other STEAM based. These will take half a term on average, but there are longer projects too which combine both where appropriate.

Some might wonder if this is a return to the cross curricular approach beloved of primary schools but in fact all expeditions are mapped to the National Curriculum and GCSE syllabus so that while students experience the curriculum holistically, teachers are absolutely clear exactly which elements of individual subjects are being taught at any time.

Sample interdisciplinary projects

Chefistry was a Year 7 expedition designed to show students the link between chemistry and cooking. Students studied the ratios involved, types of mixture such as solutions, colloids and suspensions, the Periodic Table, heat transfer and convection currents and the physical and chemical changes at play in cooking.

Practical work has varied for different year groups but has featured science experiments at Sheffield Hallam University and visiting food manufacturer King Asia, where they learned about changes in state of matter, cooked a meal in the test kitchen and found out about food manufacturing and distribution.

Over the years, students have produced:

  • A film showing how to cook a simple meal with annotations with a narration describing the importance of chemistry and maths in the process
  • Animations which show what is happening at the particle level in cooking
  • Animations which help to explain the practical uses of ratio and proportion in cooking

As well as cooking meals, crews have designed and made cake stands and hosted events including cream teas at a celebration evening. For this they worked with a local chef and learned how to use artisan methods to make baguettes, fruit scones and cupcakes,

Exams

Students still need to follow a broad and balanced curriculum and obtain GCSEs as they would in other schools. All students take core subjects:

  • English Language
  • English Literature
  • Mathematics
  • Statistics
  • Science (Double Award)
  • History
  • Art
  • Spanish or Citizenship

On top of this, they can choose any other appropriate GCSE and study this with guided help. Subjects include computing, PE, Triple Science, music, an additional language, Design & Technology, geography, economics, psychology, drama.

However, XP approaches exams in a different way from other schools. Instead of focusing on the GCSE syllabus for two years, students continue their studies through cross-subject learning expeditions until January of Year 11. The expeditions cover the elements of their GCSEs but go wider and offer more opportunities for creative work.

Take Guns, Germs and Steel. This was a Year 9 expedition that brought together history, English, physics and statistics and looked at how conflict has shaped our world. Students experienced what it would be like to prepare for battle and learned about weapons that would have been used in different eras and how they worked.

Crews visited Royal Armouries and studied poetry from the First World War and read The War of the Worlds by HG Wells. To conclude this expedition, students analysed and created a presentation on a conflict and created infographics to illustrate and explain key facts.

Their knowledge is not just drawn from teachers, books and the web. It is enhanced by a rich diet of out of school experiences. Students at XP School Doncaster have spent time with many external experts including professional poets, geologists, archaeologists and lawyers. At Sheffield Hallam University they worked with sports

scientists on fitness testing and biomechanical analysis and attended sessions in the chemistry laboratories and historical seminars on slavery. They did fieldwork at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at Sheffield University, interviewed the Bishop of Doncaster and worked alongside the curator of Doncaster Museum.

Outcomes for learners

In the school's first set of GCSE results in 2019 86% of the students achieved 9-4 in English Language. 84% achieved 9-4 in English Literature and History. However, academic achievement is only one measure of success. All students take part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award with 94% achieving Bronze award and 70% achieving Silver, as well as completing their National Citizen Service.

They also have a legacy of creative events that develop and showcase their skills to employers and universities and make them stand out as individuals. Recent school leavers have:

  • Exhibited artwork at Doncaster Art Gallery on the theme of ‘Are We Really Free to Choose?
  • Contributed to a Ted Hughes Festival culminating in a public access Poetry Slam at the Point Arts Centre
  • Created information boards for four parks in Doncaster about the importance of ecology
  • Created a young person’s field guide to Potteric Carr, a local wetland reserve
  • Published a book of reflections on what makes a successful community
  • Designed and published a booklet that analyses the science and history behind the Viking artefacts on display at the Yorkshire Museum, and presented their work to the general public at the Viking Festival in York

Chief Academic Officer, Andy Sprakes is justifiably proud of what staff and students have achieved: 'Through our learning expeditions our students not only gain the knowledge to pass exams, not just the cultural capital of knowing the world around them, but also the powerful knowledge to positively change the world they will adopt when they leave school.'

Sign up now for The Lessons of Covid-19 – Are New Pedagogies Needed? on November 3rd at 4.30 EVENTBRITE