Thinning the Walls, Building Permeable Schools

This post originally appeared on the Phi Delta Kappan blog, Change Agents, with the title, "Education Leader Robert Dillon Explains How He Turns the Community into a Classroom for Young Adults." The original can be found at:

PDK, PLT and FEA members are making a mark in education in a number of ways. We recently spoke with one of these “change agents” — Robert Dillon, the current Director of Technology and Innovation at the Affton School District. Here is how he is making a difference.

PDK:  You have developed a strong focus on expeditionary learning at your school. What is expeditionary learning? Please share details.

Dillon: It’s learning from the community around you. It’s about taking your students to the local chocolate factory to learn about the chemistry of making chocolate or bringing students to the local grocery store to learn about food labeling. It’s also taking kids to national parks and to research facilities. We’ve taken our eighth graders to Dauphin Island, Alabama to learn from oceanographers on a research vessel.

PDK: Why is this kind of learning important?

It gets students excited about learning and it strengthens the relationship between teachers and students. Once teachers have a deeper relationship with students, students are more willing to stick out their necks and ask questions, even in front of their peers. Remember, getting middle school kids to open up and ask questions and engage in learning is half the battle.

PDK: Say a school wants to try out expeditionary learning. What is the first step?

Simply take a look at your curricula and pull out something that you know students could learn better by doing the thing itself. For example, if your school has a unit on “rocks and gems” then take students to a place where they can take a rock hammer to rocks.

PDK: Can you share another example of expeditionary learning at your school?

Our 7th grade science teachers teach a simple machines unit. Students learn about fulcrums, pulleys, and mechanical advantage. We are fortunate to have an educational tree climber in our community and so we invite him to the wooded area outside our school. He gets our kids up in the trees with self-belaying tree harnesses and shows them how to belay down the trees. So our kids are 40 feet up in a tree, learning about simple machines and mechanical advantage! When they get to do something this cool and engaging, students remember what they’ve learned and they now have a shared learning experience that they can build from.

PDK: What else have you learned about how to engage students and motivate them?

Dillon: If we educators do a few key things, we can unleash some awesome stuff in our students. Those things are: giving students a choice and a voice in their own learning and giving them an opportunity to take what they’ve learned and apply it to a larger neighborhood or community project. Finally, we need to give students an authentic audience. That means that mayors and city council members and community organizations look at student projects and student work. If we do this, we can help our students become better citizens, as well as better students.