Kaiya Timmermeier is standing under a big oak tree in the parking lot of Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School. She is more than a little freaked out at the moment.
“It’s so scary,” she said in shaky voice. “OK, now what?”
Kaiya’s seventh grade science teacher, Bill Henske, an experienced climber, has just strapped her into a safety harness. Meanwhile 40 feet above, a couple of her classmates dangle from the branches.
“I go like that?” she asked, slipping her foot into a loop in the rope. She pushed down and moved up about six inches. “Now I’m going somewhere at least.”
“Now slide the knot up,” Henske said. “Tie another safety knot and I’ll come check on you.”
Kaiya takes a deep breath and inches her way toward the canopy of this stately of a 72-year-old tree that’s earned the nickname Oscar.
Henskee, wearing a hard hat with a sticker that reads “science rules” looks up and smiles. He says his interactions with Kaiya can pay off down the road.
“When it comes to test time, studying, hunkering down and focusing on something, you know you can count on that relationship because they trust that something good is going to come out of it,” he said.
What’s happening at the school is called expeditionary learning, which calls for classroom lessons to be reinforced by real world experiences. The teaching style has steadily gained traction across the country and administrators say it helps with everything from classroom performance to school behavior.
For example today’s lesson is about the rate of descent for objects with different masses. To be sure, Henskee could teach that straight out of a textbook. But he figured, why not also let students climb a really tall tree in the parking lot and then time how long it takes for objects — like a watermelon — to hit the ground.
“Our kids loving coming to school,” Henske said. “We have really good attendance.”
Expedition learning was first introduced at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School in the early 2000s, when the middle school’s academic struggles had landed it on state watch list. Since then, the school district — a small school system with roughly 2,500 students — has become one of the better performing districts in the state.
The middle school received a nearly perfect score of 97 percent on its report card from the state this year. That’s up from 76 percent two years ago. Administrators say aligning student expeditions to state learning standards helped account for the improvement.
“I’ve yet to meet a student who said, ‘Please, give me another worksheet,’” said Principal Mike Dittrich, looking at a group of students comparing data they collected during the day’s lesson. “These kids are having conversations, but it’s not about what they’re going to do this weekend. They’re having conversations about what they’re learning in the tree.”
Because the expeditions mean students have to work more closely together than they would during classroom-only lessons, it helps bridge social divides that can erupt into bad behavior. The school has reported only one fight in the last year and a half.
“When they’re doing things, there’s a lot of tactile things that are going on, a lot of kinesthetic learning and a lot of social learning where they’re discussing things that are happening,” Henske said. “A lot of the things that we’re doing here just work a lot better.”
There can be other benefits, too. Kaiya, the seventh grader who was nervous when she first strapped into a safety harness, reflects on her experience once she is back on the ground.
“It made me feel like I could things even though I think I can’t do them” she said smiling. “And it made me feel like if I had a really hard problem and if I worked really hard on it and just kept doing it over and over again, trying hard, I would be able to do it.”
Teaching the middle school mind
Administrators say the school is built on the idea of teaching to the middle school mind. Which begs the question, is there a deeper explanation for why teachers in Maplewood Richmond Heights say they’re having so much success with expeditionary learning?
Jessica Church-Lang, who heads the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Texas-Austin, said it’s hard to know for sure.
“We’re just starting to understand how the chemistry, and the neuroscience and the behavior are all interacting,” she said.
Fueled by so-called “big data” and brain imaging technology, Church-Lang is one of a growing number of neuroscientists trying to better understand how brain science can help unlock classroom success.
“We’re just scraping the surface,” she said.
Part of what makes the task so difficult for scientists is the seemingly endless number of interactions that influence adolescent brain development. Neurologically, the brain is trying to figure out what to do with all the connections it made in early childhood. Church-Lang compared it to a big, complicated spider web.
“The environment is pushing it around,” Church-Lang said. “Or causing certain connections to fade out while others get strengthened. It’s sensitive so impacts on any point of the brain ripple through and impact everywhere else.”
While the adolescent brain figures out what connections to keep, it’s being influenced by the rush of hormones and physical changes that come with puberty, she said. On top of that, the brain is especially sensitive to social pressures that start to ratchet up during middle school.
Church-Lang said it’s like the brain is driving a car with ever increasing horsepower, but unreliable steering. Meanwhile, all of your friends are in the backseat telling you what to do and making bunch of noise.
“By themselves, they’re probably quite capable of handling it,” Church-Lang said. “But when they’re distracted by their friends, that’s when poor decisions happen.”
Figuring out how all these potential interactions work together in the classroom is a new course of research called educational neuroscience. Even though it’s far too soon to give school leaders a checklist for best practices, Church-Lang said it makes sense that Maplewood Richmond Heights is having success. That’s because it harnesses the type of physical and social interactions that influence what kind of connections the brain will keep into adulthood.
The students are "kind of powering up into this adult figure and the brain is just catching up with that,” Church-Lang said. “And I think school systems that expose them to different opportunities to learn skill sets are really valuable opportunities to help them understand who they (will be) as an independent adult.”