Expeditionary Learning

We are an Expeditionary Learning Inspired School

La Tierra has strong roots in Expeditionary Learning. When we began our journey, La Tierra Community School was affiliated with both Expeditionary Learning Schools and Prescott College. While we have revised our instructional approach over the years, our school remains committed to delivering the best that EL has to offer.

Expeditionary Inspired Learning provides a framework for engaged teaching and learning.

We invest in the growth of both new and veteran teachers, helping them transform their classrooms into rigorous and stimulating learning environments. Our model challenges students to think critically and take active roles in their classrooms and communities. This results in higher achievement and greater engagement in school. EL schools are characterized by:

  • Active instructional practices that build academic skills and student motivation
  • Rigorous projects that meet state standards and are connected to real-world needs
  • School cultures of kindness, respect, and responsibility for learning
  • Shared leadership for school improvement
  • School-wide commitment to improved teaching and leadership practice

La Tierra Community School is committed to the Expeditionary Learning principle that the quality of a school lies in its culture. Expeditionary Learning affects standards, curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and school organization. At a La Tierra Community School, teachers, parents, staff, and students work together to create a school culture of collaboration, respect, and high expectations.

At La Tierra Community School:

Learning is Active:


Students are scientists, urban planners, historians, and activists. They investigate real community problems and collaborate with peers to develop creative, actionable solutions. Students learn by conducting  “learning expeditions” rather than being taught one subject at a time. 

Learning is Challenging:

Students at all levels are pushed and supported to do more than they think they can. Excellence is expected in the quality of their work and thinking.

Learning is Meaningful:

Students apply their skills and knowledge to real-world issues and make positive change in their communities. They see the relevance of their learning and are motivated by understanding that learning has purpose.

Learning is Public:

Through formal structures of presentation, exhibition, critique, and data analysis, students and teachers build a shared vision of pathways to achievement.

Learning is Collaborative:


School leaders, teachers, students, and families share rigorous expectations for quality work, achievement, and behavior. Trust, respect, responsibility, and joy in learning permeate the school culture.

What is Expeditionary Learning?

 The Expeditionary Learning system is based on ten design principles. Those principles grew in large part out of the experience of Outward Bound. The preface to the design principles sums up the Expeditionary Learning approach to learning:

Learning is an expedition into the unknown. Expeditions draw together personal experience and intellectual growth to promote self-discovery and the construction of knowledge. We believe that adults should guide students along this journey with care, compassion, and respect for their diverse learning styles, backgrounds, and needs. Addressing individual differences profoundly increases the potential for learning and creativity of each student.

Given fundamental levels of health, safety and encouragement, all people can and want to learn. We believe Expeditionary Learning harnesses the natural passion to learn and is a powerful method for developing the curiosity, skills, knowledge and courage needed to imagine a better world and work toward realizing it.

The Expeditionary Learning design principles inform all aspects of our program — from how furniture is arranged in the classrooms to how student learning is evaluated. The principles were used to create specific educational guidelines labelled “Core Practices.” La Tierra continues to draw from these Core Practices to provide direction in our instructional approach. 

Expeditionary Learning creates a structure for schools that promotes engagement, character building, and academic rigor. The Core Practices of EL are:

  • Learning Expeditions (these are in-depth, multi-subject/cross curricular, semester-long studies of a rich topic)
  • Active Pedagogy (this is how teachers facilitate learning by keeping all students active, involved, and inspired)
  • Culture & Character (positive behavior and citizenship traits are emphasized, enabling a safe, nurturing environment)
  • Structures (daily, weekly, and year-long schedules are considered to foster highest quality learning for both students and faculty)
  • Leadership & School Improvement (collaborative leadership is fostered and individuals are empowered to effect change making the school and world  better)
What is a typical school day like?

For all or most of the day, students and teachers are engaged in challenging learning expeditions. They explore a broad topic or theme in depth by working on projects that call for intellectual inquiry, physical exploration, and community service.

On a given day, their explorations may take them outside the school building to do scientific research in natural areas, conduct interviews in local businesses, or carry out a range of other fieldwork assignments. 

Each year, students and family chaperones attend at least one overnight adventure. Trips range from one night exploring a local treasure to multi day adventures throughout the Southwest. In the past our younger children have explored areas such as Lynx Lake, Palatki Heritage Site near Sedona, and Mingus Mountain (with trips up into the fire lookout tower and visits from Smokey Bear). Older grades have gone on multiple day adventures rafting down the Colorado River, experiencing the majesty of Zion National Park, learning about ancient cultures of the Southwest in Grand Canyon National Park, and even studying marine life at Prescott College’s Global Campus, the Kino Bay Center, in Sonora Mexico!

Our school uses the Conscious Discipline approach to classroom management.Conscious Discipline creates a compassionate culture and facilitates an intentional shift in adult understanding of behavior. It then provides specific brain-friendly, research-backed strategies for responding to each child’s individual needs with wisdom. This award-winning, highly effective approach is proven to increase self-regulation, sense of safety, connection, empathy, and intrinsic motivation in both children and adults. 

What is a "Learning Expedition"?

At La Tierra, students engage in STREAM driven learning under the umbrella of a broad topic. They spend most of their time engaged in purposeful, rigorous “learning expeditions.” These special expeditions are the core of the curriculum. Past expeditions include “Ancient China”, “How the Old World Became the New”, “What is Alive?”, “Zooming In: A Look Around Our World”, “Our Families are Home”, “Reducing Our Carbon Footprint,” “Rocks Rock!”,  and many more! Although learning expeditions often take students outside of school, unlike the familiar “field trip” or outing, these expeditions are in-depth studies of a single theme or topic. They are very carefully planned to have a clear set of learning goals built around a compelling topic and learning targets. Compelling expedition topics take content standards and shape and organize them to make them engaging and accessible to students.  They motivate students to become experts, to generalize to big ideas, and to experience how depth leads to breadth. For example, when students study Geology (Rocks Rock!), they will study and create Geology themed art, music, science projects, literature, math concepts, etc..

How do we assess the performance of our students?

Assessment is also embedded in an Expeditionary Learning school’s curriculum and instruction. Our instructional program nurtures a culture of continuous reflection, revision, and improvement.  Our teachers make explicit the criteria they apply to judge student performance, and they expect students to work hard until they have achieved their best work. La Tierra strives to avoid setting assessment apart as an isolated, dreaded event. Instead, we make assessment indistinguishable from quality instruction. As a Title I public charter school, La Tierra facilitates multiple benchmark assessments throughout the year to ensure our teachers deliver meaningful,  individualized instruction. 

La Tierra recognizes that effective assessment is impossible unless one has clearly defined standards. As a public charter school, we require students to meet skill and content requirements identified in the Arizona State standards. At the end of each school year students present their portfolios for evaluation by a panel of people who represent the community, and then discuss their work in terms of effective communication, deep knowledge and higher order thinking. This demonstration of understanding is meant to further uncover student skill and knowledge. 

How does our learning model shape our teachers?

Teachers are the key to La Tierra’s success. As designers of Expeditionary Learning curricula and guides of learning expeditions, teachers must be engaged in their own learning process as well as that of their students.

Instead of working in isolation behind closed classroom doors, teachers collaborate closely with colleagues, family and community members. This openness and collaboration ensures rich and high quality learning experiences for students, and significant professional growth and renewal for teachers.

We invite you to join us on our expedition into the unknown!