We feature three aspects of Explorations Academy in all our outreach materials. These stand as the most salient benefits of our school:
• We work to make education personally meaningful to each student.
• We provide young people with a healthy and respectful social environment.
• We incorporate current events and overseas experiences to help students become global citizens.
Of course, there is much more to our school than what these brief statements cover. In this, our 20th Anniversary year, we are working to help get the word out about what makes our school special. This essay is derived from a recent talk by our director, and offers a little more detail about the design principles that underlie the educational experiences at Explorations Academy. So here goes – ten things that set our school apart from institutional high schools:
First, we work to meet each kid’s needs. We treat students as individuals, reflecting a humane rather than institutional approach. This emphasis can be seen in advisor-advisee relationships, in customized assignments, and self-directed study. For example, one of our students was a dancer, and instead of writing a term paper, she developed an interpretive dance for which she worked very hard and delivered a compelling performance.
Second, we emphasize a tough love approach. We describe our school as having a culture of appreciation – meaning we value every kid – coupled with a culture of accountability – meaning we ask the best of every kid. We hold students to high expectations knowing that when we ask a lot of them, they will rise to the occasion. We often will give a student back a good paper, challenging her to make it an excellent paper.
A third feature is the emphasis on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. Forgive the jargon, but the distinction is important. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, and kids work hard because it is important to them. Motivation comes from a sense of ownership, from curiosity, or from the drive for personal achievement. This is very different from working for a grade, or to look good. Life long learning, a buzzword for many schools, takes place only through intrinsic motivation, which many schools don’t support.
Fourth (more jargon here, sorry) we use a heuristic or discovery approach rather than a predictable, linear approach. This means kids – and often teachers – are finding things out for themselves rather than just consulting a resource. For example, our water quality chemistry class gives kids a jug of dirty water, and their job is to figure out what’s in it and how to make it drinkable by term end.
Perhaps one of the more obvious features of our school is our experiential methodology. Instead of giving kids a passive, mediated education, we bring them to the forefront of their own learning through active immediate experience, including (on average) one day per week outside the building. For example, during a trip last week to a print shop, art students talked with the artist/owner and could see what it actually means to run a small arts business.
We also work to craft interdisciplinary curriculum that reflects the complexity of the world. Our cluster approach ties together different academic subjects and helps students see how topics are linked. Student understanding and retention of material is enhanced by seeing the scientific, literary, and social implications of an interwoven concept like “crime and punishment.”
Seventh, our use of authentic assessment tools, rather than simple and arbitrary measures like standardized tests, allow us to evaluate individual students’ learning. Portfolios, narrative evaluations, and self-assessments all bring the student’s unique strengths into the forefront instead of putting them through traditional tests and worksheets.
Eighth, we intentionally place students in mixed-age and ability classrooms. Since kids don’t grow in predictable, linear ways, this allows us to honor strengths that aren’t apparent when they are grouped only with those of their same age. Eliminiating labels like “freshmen” and “juniors” also helps build a respectful community, since kids are seen more for themselves than their labels.
Ninth, we incorporate an emergent curriculum. This process begins with course and cluster design, where teachers author the curriculum and create courses like “Arab Spring” that help keep students on top of current world events. We also allow within each syllabus the space for emergent issues to be added that reflect current events or things that students identify as topics they want to explore in more depth.
Tenth, we work to empower kids to become change agents, not just working to support their individual achievement, but helping them see the impact that they can and hopefully will have upon the world. This goal serves to help them increase their individual capacity. It also recognizes that education takes place in context, and our global context is in great need of change agents!
There are a lot of other principles and ideas that we could go into, but this covers a number of the strategies that we use at Explorations Academy to deliver a cutting-edge education. Thanks for your time reading through this and thanks for your interest in our wonderful school!