The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: The EL Education Model
This article was originally published on the CACE Blog on July 14, 2020.
In this series, we spotlight six particular approaches, or design models, used to implement Christian Deeper Learning. For each, we will ask four questions to school leaders implementing the featured model:
What was the reason you adopted this design model?
How does this model promote Deeper Learning?
How has this model helped you meet your mission as a Christian school?
What impacts have you seen on students, teachers, and community?
EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) builds on the belief that when students and teachers are engaged in work that is challenging, adventurous, and meaningful, learning and achievement flourish. EL’s mission is to create classrooms where teachers can fulfill their highest aspirations, and where students achieve more than they think possible, becoming active contributors to building a better world.
EL focuses on student achievement in three core areas: Mastery of Knowledge and Skills, Character, and High-Quality Student Work. EL partners with schools both within and beyond the EL Education network, providing educational resources for teachers nationwide.
Connection to Deeper Learning
Many of us involved in the Christian Deeper Learning network first met at an EL national conference in Boston in 2014. Christian educators from around the US and Canada were inspired by instructional practices of the EL design that promoted student engagement, curriculum centered in authentic projects that served the community, and assessment methods that supported students becoming leaders of their own learning. Many Christian schools have made good use of the resources EL offers in service of their own missions. I was a school designer for EL from its infancy in 1994 to 2016, when I left to work with Christian schools.
I had the opportunity to talk with Megan Adams, Instructional Coach at Doulos Discovery School, serving grades pre-K-12 in the Dominican Republic. Doulos has been using EL practices for over ten years. I also visited with Deb Roberts, principal of Annunciation Catholic School in Denver, a K-8 official EL school partner, for five years.
Why did you adopt the EL model?
According to Deb, Annunciation was operating like a “mid-century school”: “There was a lack of rigor and a lack of joy.” She heard about EL from teacher friends and looked into the design.
The first thing that attracted her was an emphasis on community and on building a vibrant school culture. EL creates this culture through a structure they call “crew.” The structure of crew allows for relationship building, academic progress monitoring, and character development. She was also inspired by the engaging instructional practices and in-depth projects called “expeditions,” especially ones that were designed for social justice (see examples here). Annunciation embraced EL’s three dimensions of learning–Mastery of Content and Skills, Character, and High-Quality Student Work–and added a fourth in line with Annunciation’s mission: social justice.
For Megan, EL was a natural fit for Doulos Discovery, whose mission is “educating and equipping servant leaders through Christian discipleship and expeditionary learning to impact the Dominican Republic.”The school was founded in 2002 by Chad and Krista Wallace with EL practices in mind. They were attracted to expeditions, which combined academic achievement, physical challenge, and community work. Megan appreciates the emphasis on beautiful, authentic work where students are invited to solve real-world problems and develop the heart and character to love and serve God. Doulos has developed its own planning template adapted from the EL expedition model.
How does EL promote Deeper Learning?
EL provides clear structures and processes for designing expeditions, for engaging instructional practices, for facilitating student-led assessment, and for developing character.
Megan explained how EL practices teach students to be thinkers and discoverers: “It pushes them to higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy… Doing fieldwork, real work for real people, is at the heart of it. [Students’] work in the community shapes them. We make it Kingdom-focused! We follow the EL structures and protocols but ground them in the Word and spiritual practices.”
For Deb, the benefit of adopting EL was the structure it provided. Annunciation teachers had the desire to engage all students but didn’t always know how to do it. She explains, “EL provides structures for lesson design, like starting with learning targets. When students have those same structures from kindergarten to 8th grade, it makes a difference in their lives.”
EL also provides structures for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) through organizing crew: “It provides a safe place to be vulnerable together, to pray together in small groups over multiple years. EL offers structures for fieldwork, getting into the community, serving our neighbors. We go way beyond worksheets. Our students have to speak to experts, learn while serving, tell our story, and actually live it!”
Despite the socio-economic challenges of the school’s families, Annunciation students outperform their neighborhood peers on achievement tests by 20% in reading and math. Deb says that EL’s literacy curriculum and math instructional strategies were responsible for the students’ outstanding progress.
What is the impact on students, teachers, parents, community?
The first thing Deb noticed was that kids began to look on their own for opportunities to serve their community, especially those who were typically less engaged with academic classroom work (the “high-flyers,” as Deb referred to them). A small group of high-flyers who met with Deb regularly (not by choice!) noticed an excess of garbage in their neighborhood and told her, “We have to do something about this!” They designed an expedition on trash and are still committed to it three years later!
Megan described how the EL motto of “We are crew, not passengers” permeated the school community from top to bottom. The security guard greets the kids as they arrive. He started a kids’ club in order to make a difference in his own neighborhood. The guard explained, “I could move to a nicer neighborhood, but my duty is to my community.” A family in the school opened a family center with a gym and a coffee shop to disciple others. Everyone in the school community has a mindset of being agents of change.
Annunciation has a reputation in the community as a “place that helps solve community problems.” A neighbor came into the office one day and asked Deb to speak at a city council meeting about a corner (nicknamed “Murder Corner”) near the school taken over by drug dealers. Some of Deb’s “high-flyers” were in the room and opened up about what they knew. Each one knew somebody who was injured or killed there. They ended up writing a letter to the city council and were invited to be part of the task force to study the issue of drugs and crime in their neighborhood!
Deb: “EL helps us to live out our Corporal Acts of Mercy. At our Catholic EL school, students are transformed from passive recipients of knowledge about the world to active agents within it. They use their learning in the classroom to do good work beyond it. Through their work and their prayer, their triumphs and their failures, their active collaboration and their reflective silence, they will come to a greater knowledge of and love for themselves, our world, and our God.”
Megan: “Our teaching about God is not always direct or explicit. It’s more like the parables that Jesus told. They will know we belong to Jesus by the way we love one another. I don’t think we could bring any change to the DR by EL alone, but when merged with our faith and prayer, it has power to transform.”
Note: This article is part of a series on different paths to Christian Deeper Learning. You can read the introduction to the series here: The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: An Introduction