What is a learning expedition?
   A quest for understanding

Learning expeditions are lived quests for knowledge.

Ronan students in Christa
Umphrey’s English class take notes
at the National Bison Range.

A learning expedition is an in-depth exploration of a topic. Expedition team members all research the same broad questions so they are all on the same quest, but their individual research questions may vary so they are individually accountable.

The goal is to find out what is in the library and then to go beyond that, gathering and constructing new knowledge. Expedition members begin in the library, and then they move out to bring new knowledge back to the community, based on interviews, observations, or experiments. To succeed, expedition members need to study and understand factual information, and they also need to learn and apply broad concepts and ideas.

A good learning expedition has several important characteristics:

  • It has a mission: to bring back new knowledge (starting with a question and a survey of existing knowledge).
  • It requires teamwork. It is both the mission and the group who undertake that mission (teams feature both cooperation and individual accountability).
  • It becomes a story (expedition members are protagonists in their own quest: facing problems, overcoming obstacles, experiencing good fortune, and reaching new insights).
  • It ends in a gift (research is often service, scholarship can be a gift to the community).

Expeditions are readily organized around the ALERT processes, but this acronym is not meant as a linear guide so much as a reminder of the processes involved in getting from one level of understanding to the next.

The written documents (essays, scripts, transcripts) that are created should be added to a public archives. Work that is archived should meet publication standards. Publication is the final step in the writing process, and the standard for publication is perfection (we don’t always meet the standard, but we don’t lower the standard because of that).

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Three levels of questions
   The right questions drive the quest

Learning expeditions are organized around three levels of questions: Essential questions, which point toward the large and enduring concerns of human life. Expedition questions, which are specific enough to be answered but broad enough to support extended research. And research questions, which are focused tightly, to allow teams or individuals to find answers.

Learning expeditions are organized around three levels of questions: Essential questions, which point toward the large and enduring concerns of human life. Expedition questions, which are specific enough to be answered but broad enough to support extended research. Research questions, which are focused tightly, to allow teams or individuals to find answers.

While planning expeditions, it’s helpful to think of three levels of questions:

  • essential questions
  • expedition questions
  • research questions


Essential Question: How are our lives shaped by roads and fences? Consider roads and fences metaphorically (routes and boundaries) as well as literally.

Expedition Question: How did changes in the transportation systems affect life in the Sun River Valley in the twentieth century?

Research Question: How were businesses in Simms affected when the highway was re-routed around town?

Essential Questions

Essential questions are important because they connect classroom work to the large and enduring issues that affect our lives. They are the links that make expeditions relevant, connecting the curriculum to actual concerns that young people face.

They also provide an invitation into critical thinking, providing chances to coach young people to think clearly, precisely, accurately, and reasonably about things that matter.

Essential questions are too broad to focus manageble research projects, however. They are best thought of as part of the reflection process. They should be discussed at the beginning of the unit to engage students in important issues, and then they should be brought up regularly as the expedition progresses, to keep students oriented to those important issues.

But before actual research can begin, more narrow and specific expedition questions will need to be formed.

Expedition Questions

Expedition questions are about the size of traditional unit questions. They should be specific enough to be researchable but broad enough to support several teams doing research for however long the expedition is planned to last. Several filters can be used to ensure a question will support an expedition.

Is the question specific enough to be answerable? A question such as “When should we rebel against authority?” is a good essential question in part because it cannot finally be answered. We have opinions about it, and these opinions may keep changing through our lives. But if a student tried to research such a broad question, he or she would probably feel lost in a sea of examples and opinions.

On the other hand, “Why did students in the sixties rebel against college administrators?” is manageable. Though there are many answers to the question, we can find those answers by reading what former student protestors have written or by finding former protestors to interview.

Is the question broad enough to support multiple researchers? A good expedition question ties the expedition members together, so that they are interested in what others are finding because it is related to their own work. Successful expeditions have focused on particular time periods, such 1910 or 1935 or 1968. Within a time period, research teams can tackle such subtopics as main street businesses, home life, school, and agriculture. One class did a study of the history and meaning of quilting in the community, with various teams interviewing individual quilters. Another studied water, examining it from the perspectives of irrigators, artists, Native Americans, and sportsmen.

Do we have access to the resources needed to answer the question? Many questions that are theoretically answerable turn out to be tough to answer because needed materials dont exist or arenҒt available locally. One teacher planned to research reasons why people moved to her town when it was founded. Her plan was to use land deed records to learn who built the first homes, then use obituaries to learn the names of family members, then locate descendents to inquire about letters, diaries or stories that have been passed down. When she began the unit, she was chagrined to learn that a courthouse fire had destroyed the relevant records.

Research Questions

Research questions are focused even more tightly than expedition questions. Though there is no right degree of focus for a successful research project, experience teaches that scholars more often have trouble because their focus is too broad than because it is too narrow. If the essential question is “What role have the Rocky Mountains played in the American psyche?” then an expedition question might ask “Why did people move to the Rocky Mountains in the 1960s?” and an individual research project might focus on asking specific questions of one person who did migrate to the Rocky Mountains in the 1960s.

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