October 4, 2018

Testing the Waters: How the Exploration Phase Serves Students

The Quest Forward Learning curriculum is divided into three phases: Foundation Phase, Exploration Phase, and Transition Phase. These phases reflect the learning and development that occurs during students’ secondary-school education. The curriculum begins with the Foundation Phase, which is where most 9th grade students start. The Foundation Phase introduces the principles of Quest Forward Learning and reinforces a foundation for the various subjects and skills the students will encounter through high school. The Foundation Phase also introduces students to the six essential habits that determine success in school and in life.  

After completing the Foundation Phase, students progress into the Exploration Phase, a two-year sequence of courses that provides them with both an opportunity to explore their interests more deeply and to develop their talents through a curriculum that will help them discover possible directions to pursue in college and beyond. Whereas the Foundation Phase provides a grounding in Quest Forward Learning, the Exploration Phase strengthens students’ conceptions of themselves as drivers of their own learning, in part by blurring the traditional boundaries between grades and courses.

The world around us doesn’t fall neatly into categories, so why should students learn as if it does?

The phrase above is the motto of the Exploration Phase. In the Exploration Phase, students encounter problems and questions that require strategies, skills, and concepts across conventional subjects, just like problems from the world outside the classroom. To unravel these questions, students have to dig in, identify what they need to know, and then draw upon the skills they are learning to find solutions. By giving students open-ended problems that support many different possible solutions, students have the opportunity to demonstrate their creativity and to discover ideas that extend beyond the curriculum.

With the Exploration Phase, courses are not structured as single-subject, year-long blocks, but are instead organized into eight-week, project-based interdisciplinary courses, organized around a major project that students will execute or a problem to which students will present a complete solution. Two examples will further illustrate this approach.

Bridges

The Bridges course immerses students in the architecture of everyday life, integrating the subjects of geometry, trigonometry, forces, vectors, and material science. Students begin by studying the history of bridges from the Roman days, learning the reasons for, and advantages of, different designs and materials: wooden platform bridges, stone arch bridges, steel truss and suspension bridges. Students then hone in on truss bridges, or bridges that derive their considerable strength from triangular construction (made popular in the 1800s and 1900s by the availability of steel and the requirements of trains). Students choose a material (toothpicks, straws, etc.), determine its compressive and tensile strength, and then use vectors, trig, and online simulators to design and build a bridge that will span a specific distance and support a specified load without breaking. In the Bridges course, everything students learn applies directly to a significant challenge. Whereas a traditional course might cover the same topics and present the applicability of concepts to a problem like designing a bridge, by emphasizing the larger problem students more easily come to understand not only the importance of the individual concepts, but also the function of the underlying skills.

Reason

This course focuses on argumentative skills in the context of the topic of reason. As students learn techniques of argument and analysis throughout the course, at its conclusion they will need to participate in an extended debate about whether it’s better to be guided by your head or your heart. The course begins with an examination of how rational we actually are, with questions spanning economics, major life choices, artificial intelligence, unreliable narrators, and elsewhere. Students examine different instances of appealing to emotion or reason as they gather evidence to support their side of the debate. In the final level, students dissect well and poorly argued positions and practice good methods, such as combining evidence and argument into a debate or paper. By keeping a spotlight on a single question throughout the course, students are provided with a lens that helps them focus on the diverse set of topics they explore—all the while developing their analytical and debate skills.

Progression and Transition

The experience of the Exploration Phase is characterized by these short, project-centered courses. As students work their way through the course of study, they develop their skills and discover their interests.  After two years of such courses, students will have a much clearer idea of what interests them and of the directions they wish to go when they leave high school. The Transition Phase, which will be a topic of a future article, provides students with the opportunity to refine these thoughts and shape their learning so that it flows naturally into the next stage of their lives.  

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