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Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

April 6, 2005

Greg Farrell ’57

Greg Farrell ’57 helps schools reinvent their curricula and cultures.

A new educational model
Greg Farrell ’57 structures schools around learning expeditions

To get a sense of what Greg Farrell ’57 has been doing for the past five decades, you have to go back to school: to Grass Valley Charter School in Grass Valley, Calif., or to King Middle School in Portland, Maine, or to Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, N.Y., where Claire, a fourth-grader leading a tour of the building, describes how students are expected “to cooperate, to respect each other, to solve problems together, and to get the work done and not goof off.” She pauses like a seasoned orator. “We are crew, not passengers,” she says.

That phrase is a mantra of Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound (ELOB), whose approach to teaching was adopted by Claire’s elementary school when it opened four years ago. Started in 1992 under Farrell’s direction, ELOB contracts with 137 public, private, and charter schools nationwide, helping them reinvent their curricula and culture according to 10 design principles. The principles, which fall under headings like “the primacy of self-discovery,” “success and failure,” and “service and compassion,” are adapted from tenets that guide ELOB’s parent organization, Outward Bound USA, the nonprofit known for the wilderness adventures it has led for the past 40 years.

A cornerstone of an ELOB school is the idea of learning expeditions — opportunities to “learn by doing,” says Farrell. Each expedition centers around a discrete topic, lasts from eight to 10 weeks, and incorporates field study, relevant literature, community service, and a performance or presentation component “so that you’re not just doing it for Mrs. Higgins,” quips Farrell, who majored in English at Princeton.

Although Farrell’s first job after college was teaching high school in Hawaii for two years, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s, after he had served in the Army and worked at Princeton in the admission office, that he formulated his own vision of what education should look like. In 1964 he was working as an education reporter for the Times of Trenton when he took a month off to complete an Outward Bound instructor’s course in Colorado. “I came down off the mountain and was very deep into the core of the elements,” says Farrell, “and I thought, ‘This is the way school ought to be.’”

He returned to Trenton and started a school-within-a-school called Action Bound. The program closed after five years, but it provided Farrell with what he deemed a valuable opportunity to fail and, later, after 20 years as executive director of the Fund for the City of New York, he applied the wisdom gained to what would become ELOB’s success.

That success has led to a recent grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that will fund 20 new small high schools to be run by ELOB, which will find the buildings, hire the teachers, recruit the students, and develop the curriculum. The ability to create something from scratch excites Farrell, who ultimately hopes that ELOB’s way of teaching and learning is adopted so universally that it just “becomes school.”

By Jessica Dheere ’93

Jessica Dheere ’93 is a freelance writer in New York City.