A few weeks ago I received a private message from a follower on Instagram asking me where she could find my project-based learning resource, "Plan a Trip Around the World". I knew that she homeschooled her preschooler. This particular TpT resource, like all of my resources, is geared toward high schoolers. My follower was confused, understandably, because the cover photo of this product is a picture of my toddler daughter observing a massive globe, not a teenager. I messaged her back to tell her that the product as is wouldn't be a good resource for a preschooler, but could be modified to work for younger audiences by simply changing the language and level of guidance. I would make it my personal mission to adapt it to work for a 5-year-old. And I did. I knew it could be done because it's project-based learning, and PBL works for everyone!
Every learner is their own person. I have found project-based learning to not only be the most effective way to accommodate for the unique qualities of every child, age and skill level included, but to celebrate those unique qualities.
(scroll to the bottom to check out my preschoolers trip around the world.)
Who Can Benefit From Project-Based Learning?
The beauty of project-based learning is that it's not designed for or exclusive to any particular learner. I often get comments about my resources and how wonderful they would be for the "gifted and talented". I don't doubt that, but they are certainly not limited to "gifted and talented" students.
Project-based learning ALSO works for learners that are behind because of personal setbacks along the road. It works well for learners in large classrooms and small, in traditional and alternative learning environments, for those learning from home, and for those outschooling, unschooling, and worldschooling! Project-based learning works for the young, the old, the artistic, the scientific, English language learners, the introverts, the extroverts, the kinesthetic, the visual, the dreamers and idealists, the concrete thinkers, the abstract thinkers, those that have experienced trauma, and so on and so on. This is true when the projects are student-directed; when learners have choice.
How Does Project-Based Learning Accommodate All Learners?
When I say project-based learning "works for" all learners, what I mean is that project-based learning effectively promotes deeper learning of content, independent thinking, and the development of 21st-century skills for all. The result of project-based learning is passionate, lifelong learners. All children have access to the same learning opportunities. The difference is in how each student develops the skills and knowledge. Learning experiences, or projects in this case, are designed by each individual student to accommodate their unique needs and qualities.
This is how it works:
Project-based learning, when child-directed, allows learners to design projects around their interests, learning styles, skill levels, strengths, goals, and more. The elements of project-based learning include a driving question, research sub-categories or questions, the use of community experts, an innovative final product, and authentic presentations. Some project-based instructors also have their students create their own rubrics (see my student-generated rubric and criteria word bank).
Each of these elements presents a new opportunity for student choice. Each student can choose their experts, their research method, their final product, and who they will share it with. If one student prefers hands-on learning experiences, for example, they may gather information on their topic through interviews and shadowing experiences. Another student may really like to read, so may research their topic by perusing publications. One student may love to draw and may choose to demonstrate knowledge by illustrating a children's book. Another student may have set a goal of improving their writing, so may choose to demonstrate an understanding of the same concept by writing a research paper.
The elements of project-based learning make adapting and modifying curriculum to fit the needs of each unique learner seamless. As a bonus, the learning experiences are fun for the students because the students have a role in creating those experiences.
***I highly recommend going back through posts from my project-based learning series to learn more about PBL if you haven't already or are not that familiar with how it works.
How Do I Implement Authentic, Student-Directed PBL?
My advisory students do something similar to "passion projects" throughout the year - independent, student-directed, project-based learning. Each student determines their own project topic based on interests, they choose their own experts, decide their outcomes, and many even design their own assessments.
This type of project-based learning is useful and common in homeschool environments, project-based schools, advisory programs, alternative schools, elementary classrooms, and even large traditional learning environments where educators are given the support and flexibility to be creative with their teaching.
How Do I Implement PBL in a Subject-Specific Learning Environment?
I also teach subject-specific seminars, which are also project-based. That type of project-based learning would be facilitated by educators that teach subject units, such as a high school history or biology teacher. To accommodate all learners in this scenario, where you have specific topics and learning objectives in mind, you present the topic or driving question, and your students design their own projects around that theme. They would have choice in some or all of the other PBL elements - how to gather information, which experts to use, how they will demonstrate learning, and who they will share their final product with.
Some teachers will deliver "project-based learning" in a way that doesn't give students choice. The teacher chooses the experts and makes all of the arrangements. The teacher assigns a specific final product, such as a research paper, to ALL students. This is technically still project-based learning, but this approach does not accommodate the needs of diverse learners. It also puts a lot on you. Student-directed PBL takes all learners into consideration. Without student choice, project-based learning is just more teacher-centered pedagogy, which is fine if you're not interested in modifying curriculum to fit the needs of all students. I assume you are interested in that, however, if you're reading this post.
Trip Around the World Project by C.S. (5-year-old)
As I said earlier, I have a follower who was hoping one of my high school resources would work well for her preschooler - planning a trip around the world. By adjusting the expectations, modifying the level of guidance, and offering the 5-year-old choice (in this case my son), this mission was accomplished! Check it out:
The first strip of photos below shows my 5-year-old son doing a modified version of my "Plan a Trip Around the World" PBL project. The photo strip below that one is the same project, the one in my TpT store, completed by older students.
My child gained so much from this project. The project integrated content, helped my child develop essential skills appropriate for him at this time in his life, gave him voice and choice, and pumped him up because the project was designed around his unique needs and interests.
For student-directed project-based learning resources, check out my TpT store, 25% on all products today only. If you are a beginner, start with my PBL Bundle and Implementation Guide. For templates that guide through the student-directed project-based learning process on ANY topic, check out my Project-Based Learning Tool Kit.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
I almost failed out of my freshman year of college. I struggled to stay afloat academically, with grades that nearly put me on academic probation. I did well in high school, so why were the same efforts inadequate in college? I studied for my college exams, wrote the papers, prepared for debates. I did everything I thought I was supposed to do. Something was amiss, and I wasn't sure what that thing was.
One day I got a test back from my conservation bio teacher, one that I was certain I aced. This class WAS my major after all. I failed the test miserably. But why? I studied all night for this test. I went to talk with my professor about my score. She told me that I would never make it in the field of biology if I didn't change my approach. My answers to the questions on her test were not what she was looking for. She wanted me to be able to show her that I understood the material by applying the concepts to real-world situations. I needed the skills to be able to look deeper than theory alone, and apply theory to real conservation issues. It wasn't enough to memorize facts and regurgitate them on a test. I needed to know the content, as well as be able to problem solve in an unpredictable environment, to think critically and creatively, to be able to locate information when the answer wasn't right in front of me, and be able to adjust my thinking when thrown a bogie, because that is the reality of this career and life in general.
I developed some of the skills I needed as I went through college and was thus able to pull myself out of my college rut. I did this through trial and error, a lot of hard work, mentorships with professors, asking a lot of questions, reading books about my field outside of the required readings, and taking on independent studies and research experiences that were not required for my degree. I had to seek out these learning opportunities, they weren't handed to me, which is an important skill in itself. I resented my college professor for a long time for suggesting that I might not make it in the field of conservation. Now I thank her. She changed my path and my life in the best possible way.
My story is almost 20 years old, and it still applies. Today more than ever, in fact, in a rapidly evolving world where information is readily accessible, skills are as essential as content, arguably more. Twenty first century learners need a combination of content knowledge and skills. People often ask if my students, experiential learners, go off to succeed in college and their careers. The answer is a resounding yes, because our curriculum is heavily skills focused. They problem-solve their way through tough college assignments and exams. They are resourceful and observant. They know how to identify problems, brainstorm solutions, and find information. They know HOW to learn. They have developed the skills to persevere through the realities of college, their careers, and their lives in general.
The skills I am referring to are often called soft skills, the 4 C's, 21st-century skills, or at my school, transformational outcomes. These transformational outcomes are at the forefront of our mission, teaching philosophy, and even every activity. The good news is that there are a lot of learning activities that organically foster skill development. You can also make those "skills" part of your daily lexicon. Give these skills whatever term you desire, 21st-century skills, for example, and bring attention to them often, before every activity, in the goal-making process, throughout learning experiences, and at the reflection and assessment phase. Create learning activities AROUND the skills, and the content knowledge will naturally follow.
For more details on the benefits and value of 21st-century skill building, check out some past posts by clicking the "21st-Century Skills" category to your right.
How to Add 21st-Century Skills to Your Curriculum
Bring skill-building to light right from the start. Educators can and should make goals part of the process for any learning activity. My project-based learning resources, particularly my Tool Kit and PBL bundle, include goal writing in the project-development phase. Encourage students to create at least one goal per activity that is skills-based.
Ex: I will work on communication and collaboration skills by contacting at least one community expert for this project to shadow or interview.
2) Learning Experiences:
Growing in 21st-century skills is far less likely to occur as a result of lecture, worksheets, packets, and other teacher-centered learning activities. I talked with a parent the other day that defended worksheets with repetitive math problems. He said, “well it’s practice right?” My answer was that that depends on what it is he would like his son practicing? What he would be practicing is rote memorization, a strategy that might result in the "correct" answers, but not necessarily an understanding of the concepts. Rote memorization is unnecessary and ineffective if deep learning is dominant objective.
There is a plethora of teaching methods and learning activities out there that emphasize content AND promote 21st-century skill building, an ideal combination of outcomes. You don't need to choose content or skill building. Take them both on by trying some of these tactics.
My TpT store is loaded with resources that promote 21st-century skill building through student-directed, experiential learning. These resources are designed to make sense in any learning environment - the classroom, at home, in your backyard, or traveling around the globe.
Work 21st-century skills into any assessment. Rubrics are great assessment tools that can include relevant skills as an assessment category such as public speaking, use of new tech, creativity, etc. My generic project-based learning rubric includes skills categories as well as content. My student-generated project-based rubric leaves room for self-directed learners to add their own assessment criteria. Students would consider their goals made in the design phase of the project as a category in their self-generated rubric.
Reflecting is an essential part of the experiential learning process. If students are making goals about 21st-century skills, those goals aren’t relevant unless they’re revisited and reflected upon. Include reflection opportunities in as many learning experiences as you can, experiential or not. All of my resources have a reflection piece.
There are many ways to build 21st-century skills. Life in itself is the best learning tool, which is clear from my personal story above. Because I wasn’t given the opportunities in high school to build these important transformational skills, I had to figure out how to so on my own. Give learners an advantage, a head start, by making 21st-century skill building the norm in your curriculum. Help students build the skills they need to succeed in their academic, career, and personal lives as they relate to the 21st-century. This is not the same world that it was 100, 50, or even 20 years ago. Give them the tools to adapt as the world continues to evolve.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
I talk about experiential learning a lot in my life. It's in the name of my blog and my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I consider "experiential educator" to be my job title and path of focus. "Experiential learning" is strongly built into my daily lexicon and philosophy of education. I get a lot of inquiries about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum, especially in a traditional learning environment. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components. There isn't really any bad news other than there are some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
The Instagram hashtag, #experientiallearning, is loaded with photos of company team- building retreats, groups hiking, traveling, or digging around in the dirt. One common misconception is that experiential learning has to happen outdoors. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be. Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors.
I worked at an experiential high school for almost 10 years. Although we had a travel program and provided daily authentic experiences for students, 90% of my time was spent in the building, in my classroom. Don't use the fact that you're confined to your classroom as an excuse for not providing experiential learning opportunities to your learners. If you're a homeschooler, you have no excuses! ;)
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term experiential learning is in association with corporate team building activities. Experiential learning in the world of education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can do experiential learning starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Components of Experiential Learning
1. Students are actively involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as a science lab that includes a recipe to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean they are involved in the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student, that learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, and embrace failure and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-led.
2. Students have the freedom and support to make mistakes, and outright fail at times:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners. STEM, STEAM, and maker education, among others, are experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these activities can be implemented in any learning environment, inside and out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting and alternative setting.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges for an experiential learning resource that welcomes mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The experience is personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student.
Student-led project-based learning encompasses every element of experiential learning when implemented correctly, but it's also the easiest way to make learning personalized in my opinion. Check out past posts on project-based learning here if you missed them. If you want to incorporate experiential learning into your curriculum, especially if you are confined to a classroom, project-based learning is a great place to start. Check out some of my PBL resources here.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my PBL Bundle and Implementation guide. If you're ready to dive right into student-directed PBL, I would recommend my PBL Tool Kit.
4. Students see a connection between content and the real world:
Connecting an activity with real-world context helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what their learning applies to life. That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help learners develop the skills that are pertinent to life in the 21st-century.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. It can also be done beyond the walls of the classroom, in the community, or right in the classroom. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students can see purpose in the activity:
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The experience is student-directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Check out my student-directed learning series for more info.
All of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies.
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning. They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
Bonus: Use the community as a resource:
Community outreach is a huge plus when it comes to experiential learning. It might mean bringing students out of the classroom to utilize a community resource, or inviting community experts into your classroom. You could bring community members in as speakers, helpers, or teachers. Utilizing community experts in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Experiential Learning in the Classroom and Beyond
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for.
Go through the checklist with a favorite activity to see if it's experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential. The outcome is learners that have a lifelong passion for learning and actually understand and absorb the content.
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences. Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences. But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners.
Start with any student-directed learning activity. All of my resources are child-led and are designed in a way that makes implementation seamless. Personalization, authentic/real-world connections, purpose, student choice, and reflections are all a part of each experience.
Good luck to you as you launch into the new school year!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
Hey all! I will be holding a storewide "back to school" sale at my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, on August 6th and 7th. Everything in my store will be 20% off. Take advantage of this sale to get a deal on my student-directed learning resources (project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, maker education, freebies and more). Snag my tool kits and project-based learning bundle to start the year off right! All of my products are student-directed, which makes them low-prep by nature. There is a lot to be said for student-directed learning. If you're not sure what that entails, click on the "student-directed learning" category to your right and peruse through some of my posts.
I recently added a few items to my store that are worth checking out, especially science teachers! I've spent the past year developing generic, student-directed resources that can be used in any learning environment, but have focused more of my energy lately on student-centered life science curriculum.
Note: Most of my product are geared toward high school students.
Enjoy the rest of the summer and I hope for an inspiring, exciting, and productive learning year ahead.
If you follow my blog you know my philosophy by now. Every topic I discuss here from student-directed learning to learning through travel leads back to one goal - that all of my students have a passion for learning. My dream as an educator is that all learners LOVE to learn. Janie Scheffer is on that mission with her own students, to ignite a passion for reading and writing specifically. She does this with conferring. Check it out.
Janie is a former classroom teacher and current freelance writer in Minnesota. She has taught in various classrooms K-12. Her love for all things reading and writing encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree in literacy. When she is not reading or writing, you can find her sipping coffee, enjoying the outdoors with her husband, or taking her sweet puppy Mabel Jo for a walk.
Conferring Creates Conversation, Collaboration, and Camaraderie
Would you like to better connect with your students as unique readers and writers? Do you feel the demand of state standards and numerical data collection pressing down on your shoulders? Do you wonder how to manage it while still fostering a love for reading and writing within your classroom?
You’re not alone. I’ve been there. The summer of 2017 I was grappling with my literacy instruction in my first grade classroom. For three years previous, I had continuously refined my practices and felt as though I had a pretty good grip on my guided reading groups and writer’s workshop. Collectively, mini lessons fueled by learning targets, independent practice at each student’s level, and literacy materials that supported the needs of my students proved to be overall effective. In many ways, my literacy instruction was shaping into what I had imagined – targeted literacy instruction for each student, driven by data collection.
Yet, I knew something was missing. Sure, as a class we enjoyed stories together and wrote stories together. We discussed authors that we liked and tried writing like them. But I had to face the harsh reality that most of my energy and focus revolved around helping my students meet the following: 80 words correct per minute benchmark, achieve sufficient comprehension levels, write across the pages in narrative, opinion, and informational formats, and so forth. Data meetings provided beneficial focus and analyzation of each of my readers and writers, propelling me forward in meeting the needs of my students even more. The scale, though, had tipped. My classroom instruction was out of balance. The demands of literacy benchmarks overpowered what I wanted to be the true heartbeat of my literacy classroom: a genuine love for reading and writing.
Thankfully, during the summer of 2017 I was approaching my final semester of graduate school and was needing to hone in on a final action research project and paper. My predicament with my literacy instruction provided the answer for my wondering of what to research and pursue. I quickly came across the work of Patrick Allen and Lucy Calkins, experts on literacy conferring. Their books opened up a whole new perspective for me and literally shaped my action research and current literacy instruction:
Patrick Allen – Conferring with Readers
Lucy Calkins – Conferring with Writers
The practice of conferring, I believed, would bring back the JOY of reading and writing in my classroom, through human connection. At the basis of conferring, a teacher sits with one student at a time during reader’s and writer’s workshop to engage in a student led conversation about the student’s reading or writing.
Patrick Allen states: “Sitting next to a child while you confer guarantees that those few minutes will begin and end with the child.” This resonated with me immediately. I wanted my interactions regarding literacy with my students to revolve around them, NOT how they measured up against certain benchmarks.
I was over the moon to find out how systematic conferring is. Raise your hand if you’re a type A personality like me? Most teachers are, let’s be honest! Systematic, in that the teacher plans these short student led conversations weekly, and so conferring becomes a routine for the teacher and the students. Even more, because this is a systematic practice, conferring becomes a powerful tool within a classroom community.
Lucy Calkins argues: “Conferring can give us the force that makes our minilessons and curriculum development and assessment and everything else more powerful. It gives us an endless resource of teacher wisdom, an endless source of accountability, a system of checks and balances. And, it gives us laughter and human connection – the understanding of our children that gives spirit to our teaching.” BINGO. Human connection and spirit to my teaching was lacking as I solely chased numerical data. I knew I had to give this conferring a fair shake.
As the new school year approached, I excitedly planned for my conferring action research in my first grade classroom. The following was my initial focus for implementation:
Human connection paved the way for authentic learning and growing. Through conversation, collaboration, and camaraderie, I was able to connect more meaningfully with my students than ever before.
It didn’t take long before a simple “What are you reading/writing today?” sparked the 5-10 minute conference. As the teacher, I was careful to ensure that the student’s voice commanded each conversation. And, I’ll be honest, this was easier with some students than others. But what I found was patience and allowing ‘think time’ communicated to the student that I’m not pushing, this is not a high-stress situation, and I’m here whenever the student is ready. For a few of my students, it took until December for them to embrace conferring, especially leading the conversation.
With my more reluctant learners, the collaboration aspect of conferring was key. Again, driven by casual conversation, conferring should be a low-risk situation for all students. Therefore, when I talked about conferring with my students, I presented myself as the ‘coach’ coming alongside them. Often, I’d say things like “We are a team when we confer!” just so that the idea that I’m an evaluator within the conference diminished.
And finally, camaraderie was established. By spring of 2018, there was a level of trust and rapport with each of my students that I had never achieved before. With camaraderie, our 5-10 minute conversations evolved into deeper learning. Students were choosing to share with me incredible nuggets of information that got at the heart of why they were the readers/writers and even humans that they were. While getting a clear understanding of who they were as readers and writers, I also got glimpses into their hearts as humans. Priceless.
Which brings me to my last point… data collection. It took me a while to determine my data collection methods during conferring. And truthfully, I was overwhelmed to think about another collection of data. But all those incredible nuggets of information practically wrote themselves down, as important as they were, I found that data collection was easy – yes EASY! – because it didn’t revolve around numerical data or word lists or timed tests. In fact, I came up with a simple electronic record on my iPad that allowed me to quickly type up the data at the closing of each reading/writing conference. See below for a snapshot of it:
The overarching theme of my conferring data was the reading and writing behaviors of my students. In other words, I now had a living document of what my students DO as readers and writers. Knowing their habits, their strengths and areas for improvement, and their processing/thinking while reading and writing was so beneficial. In reviewing my data collection, I was able to provide one TP (teaching point) for individualized instruction for each conference. Often, the TP would align with the reading/writing learning target of that day or week, but not always. And that is the true advantage of conferring; there is flexibility and opportunity for you as the teacher to determine what’s important for the student you are sitting alongside on that particular day.
I’m going to leave you with words from Patrick Allen that I can confirm are true:
“Coming to know conferring has been a journey, but when you spend time and intention on an instructional practice, the benefits are well worth the effort.”
If you’re feeling stuck, weighed down, and ready for the LOVE of reading and writing to ignite within your classroom, I’d say start with conferring. Don’t just dabble, commit. It will prove to be worthy of your time and your students' time. It is NOT 'just another thing to do' on our never ending ‘To Do’ lists as teachers. YOU CAN DO IT. Happy conferring!
Interest-Led Learning: It All Starts With a Question
It all starts with a question. How does cheese turn into milk? What is the distribution of Malaria around the world? How do you raise chickens? How do I reduce the number of mosquitos in my backyard? Student-directed learning starts with a driving question that is interest-led. The student asks and investigates the question, while you, the teacher or parent facilitates the experience. This applies to a variety teaching methods including project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry, maker ed, STEM, STEAM, and the list goes on. You can really take any approach and make it student-directed simply by giving students the freedom to lead the experience starting with a question that they themselves have an interest in investigating.
This idea, student-directed, interest-led learning, applies to ALL learners from all backgrounds, skill levels, and age groups, and is even effective in all learning environments, whether that be in the classroom, home, or out in the world. Deeper learning occurs when you allow students choice in topic, process, and outcome because they are intrinsically motivated to learn.
For the past few months I've been hyper-focused on project-based learning here on this blog. I've been through the details of each element and how to implement PBL in your current teaching environment. Click here to peruse those posts. I have a project-based teaching tool kit for student-directed, interest-led PBL experiences, which includes all of the necessary templates to execute PBL from start to finish.
One of those templates is a project-proposal. All PBL projects start with a proposal, which is a document used to guide learners in student-directed project-design. Students plan the entirety of their project on this one-page organizer. That proposal starts with a learner-asked question. Let's go through what this might look like...
A few weeks ago my children and I went to visit my parents' home that sits in the woods overlooking a lake. My son and I were sitting on their deck that is so high that we were positioned in a forest canopy. There is about 30 feet of forest in front of us which then opens up to a freshwater lagoon. Beautiful, but a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It was evening and we began noticing bats in the trees. My son was instantly intrigued.
"Where do bats go during the day?", he asked. This simple question launched my 5-year-old son into a three week project on bat habitat and behavior that resulted in the construction of a bat house to place on my parents' property as a mechanism for bug control.
Interest-Led Project-Based Learning Design Process
Student-directed project-based educators are facilitators of the experience. Part of the role of facilitator is to inspire project ideas and make suggestions that challenge learners. I have several free resources in my store that help educators and learners through the project- design process. I meet one-on-one with students to help them turn a great question into a great project. This is my process:
1. What is Your Driving Question?
The question my son originally asked, "Where do bats go during the day?", became more of a question about habitat. "What is the habitat of a bat? What environment do they require to live?" This is an umbrella question with many sub-questions to explore. Where a species resides is dependent on available food, shelter, proximity to water, foraging behaviors, nesting/resting behaviors, predators to avoid and how they avoid them, etc.
2. What Is Your Final Product?
I showed my son pictures of several bat house designs from Pinterest, many of which had the Batman emblem painted on the front. He decided (mostly because of the Batman symbol) that he wanted to make a bat house to put out near the front porch. Making a functional, successful bat house requires an understanding of bat habitat and behavior.
Note: Showing my son a bat house makes it no less child-led. He had no idea what a bat house was, he had never seen one. Part of the role of the facilitator is to guide the learning experience by providing insight, community connections, suggestions, learning opportunities, and even structure.
3. What Questions Will You Research?
For my son to understand the habitat of a bat there was other questions he needed to ask and examine such as what species of bat he would make a house for, their size, their range, what they eat, their mating requirements, how large they are, how they sleep, their predators. He needed to figure out where the bat house would be placed, in what direction it needed to face, and how high up it needed to be. He found out what building materials are safe for bats, discovering that the wood and any paint we used had to be untreated and non-toxic as well as withstand the harsh weather conditions. He even asked questions about tools and how to use them. Project-based learners map out these questions in the design process and continue developing questions as their projects unfold.
4. What Community Experts Could You Use?
My high school project-based learners, with my help, brainstorm potential community experts and add those individuals to their project proposals. They may happen upon more as they work on their projects, and that's great!
My son and I went out into the community to gather information about bat habitat so that we could create the best shelter possible. I took him to a library to check out a variety of bat books. We went to a local nature center where he was able to speak with a naturalist. She led us on a short tour to see the bat boxes they had on their property. She could have easily been invited to us, but visiting the area gave us a better picture of what to create.
5. How Will You Present Your Work Authentically?
I talk about this piece often on my blog because I think it is such a valuable component of any learning experience. Project-based learning is authentic by nature, so it is only natural that we would present our final product and information to an authentic audience, one that is relevant and can benefit from the project. Learners should have a general idea of their audience before they start their projects. The authentic presentation will determine the direction the learner takes with the project.
My son has his bat box hanging on a tall tree in front of my parents' porch. The final product makes an impact. Visitors can watch the bats from the porch, which is cool in itself, but the bat house also provides a form of bug control for the local residents.
A project like this is highly modifiable. Learner-led project-based learning is personalized, so projects should organically fit the needs, goals, interests, and abilities of the student in question. A project like this one could be adapted to any learner. The amount of guidance would depend on the student, their age, their abilities, and so on. Younger students, like my son, need a lot more guidance than would a high school student.
Conservation is the best way to determine a student's interests. Download my free interest survey from more store to scaffold those conversations.
As a science teacher, I love this project because it brings those life science standards to life. Students learn about ecosystems through hands-on, student-led inquiry. On top of that they build skills such as creative design, collaboration, networking, finding credible information. They begin to understand their local communities and what they need. Student-directed project-based learning is multidisciplinary and the results are mind-blowing.
I recently added a PBL maker challenge to my store that parallels my son's project - Build a Wildlife Shelter. Students choose a local native species of interest, learn about their behaviors and natural history, and build a shelter for that species to place in the community.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education. You can also check out my TpT store for more experiential learning resources such as problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning.
I have been on a project-based learning posting spree this summer in hopes of inspiring some movement in that direction. Up to this point I've written a post on each specific component of PBL, the benefits, tips and trick and now the "how to". For those of you gearing up for the upcoming school year, consider adding project-based learning to your curriculum. Start strong right away in the fall! For those of you that do year-round school, unschooling, world schooling, outschooling, and every other type of "schooling" it's never too late to start PBL. All you need is the right tools and the confidence. This post will give you that confidence, as will time, consistent reflection, and willingness to adapt and modify as you go.
Not long ago my children and I got on a cheese-making kick. It all started from a simple question: "Where does cheese come from, Mom?" We hit up the library, took a look at children's books on the subject, checked out some cheese-making cookbooks, met with a cattle farmer, visited a creamery, and even got to meet a one-day-old calf. My son learned about the process of turning milk into cheese. He learned about the properties of milk and how heat and time impact the outcome of the cheese. The number of concepts involved in an activity like this is endless and could be modified for all learners of all ages and skill levels if PBL is the approach. After gathering information we made cheese, failed, adjusted, and made more cheese, a learning experience in itself. My daughter and I used the cheese that we made to make cannolis and pizza, which we served at a community gathering.
This is project-based learning - asking a question, learning through experience, creating an authentic final product and sharing that information with a real-world, relevant audience. A simple question led to a full blown PBL experience for a 5 and 2-year-old. I have spent the past 10 years applying this same concept with middle and high school students. Project-based learning works for everyone. That is one reason I stand by it. I am an advocate for integrated, community-based, authentic, experiential learning opportunities for all. Project-based learning encompasses all four.
Introducing Student-Led Project-Based Learning
If you are homeschooler, a teacher doing an entire course on passion projects, an authentic project-based educator, etc., where you have flexibility to give your students choice in subject and topic, your first step will be to begin to understand EACH student and who they are as individuals - their interests, goals, long-term pathway, skills, strengths, hopes and dreams, etc. - to help them develop and design personalized projects. Students ask the question and design their own projects based on their interests.
You can learn about your students in a variety of ways. I have each of my students do a personal learning plan that includes goals, interests, project-ideas, etc. You can also have students start with an interest survey. Check out my free download here. After students have shared interests and brainstormed project topic ideas, move onto the steps written below.
For subject-based instructors that do not have the flexibility to allow students to choose their own topics, you can choose the main ideas for them. Students design their projects around that given topic. I teach seminars throughout the year on specific subjects. These content specific seminars are still project-based. I choose the project topics, my students choose how they will gather information, demonstrate learning, and share new skills and knowledge. This allows students to take something that is subject-specific and make it multidisciplinary. Once a topic has been established, your students will go through the following steps, and you will facilitate the process.
Project-Based Learning in 7 Steps
Once students have a project topic, whether determined by the teacher or the student, continue on with the following steps. An important thing to note is that these steps don't necessarily have to go in this order. Step one is an important first step, but the others may overlap.
Step 1: Project Design
My own children went to storytime at the local library. One of the books was about how cheese comes from milk. My son wondered how to make cheese from cow's milk, the driving question, and a project was born.
At this time students will complete a project proposal which includes a driving question, research categories or questions, a final product plan, a community expert plan, and an authentic presentation plan. You can all of this and more from my Project-Based Learning Toolkit. This kit includes all templates essential for implementing project-based learning on any topic.
If you choose to have students create their own assessments, this is a great time for them to do that. Check out last week's post on student-led assessments.
Take a look at PBL rubrics available in my store including self-generated.
Step 2: Research, Collaborations, and Learning Activities
After making a project plan we (me mostly, as my son is 5) researched how to make cheese from cow's milk. We went to the library to check out more books and took home some cookbooks with cheese recipes. We attended a community event for children where he was able to talk directly with a farmer AND meet her one-day old calves. He talked with several chefs about different kinds of cheese and how the cooking process differs among them. Finally, we made several rounds of cheese together.
Once students have a project proposal completed and approved by you or an approval committee they can begin their research. An approval committee is a small group of teachers/students/community members, etc. that approves projects. The purpose of this is a greater flow of ideas from various perspectives.
Project research will be on the driving question and categories and/or questions written in student project proposals. Set aside PBL time for students to work freely on this research.
At this time, student-led project-based learners and you, the facilitator, will find and contact community experts and arrange for interviews, meetings, shadowing experiences, etc. Learners would work with their community experts in any number of ways either inviting those experts into the classroom or meeting with those experts outside of the school walls or home. If you are able to bring your students to the source, wonderful. If not, bring the source to you!
Students will also take this time to review a variety primary resources such as books, publications, articles, and more, as well as participate in community events or activities that would deepen understanding of the topic. One of the major roles of a project-based educator is to organize authentic learning experiences relevant to the project topic at hand.
For tips and tricks on using the community as a resource in PBL, go back to this post.
Step 3: Progress Evaluations
Throughout the project process students will self-assess and peer-assess using a generic project assessment or the student-generated assessment. As I said earlier, I typically stick with rubrics. You can organize this process in a variety of ways. One option is to outline checkpoints, times at which students will self and/or peer assess. You could also have regular project circles, which is when the whole group gets together to share progress and offer feedback and suggestions to each other.
You can also ask that community experts involved in the project assess student progress periodically. Invite them to walk the room during designated PBL time. They offer an authentic lens. You can also organize student/teacher check-ins throughout the project process as well.
Step 4: Authentic Final Product Assembly
Making cheese and creating a video tutorial on the experience will take more time and effort than putting together a poster board on how to make cheese. Students would have to actually make the cheese, get it on video, edit the footage, and make a professional final product to be shared with the community. Give students ample class time to work on creating high quality final products. Peruse the room offering consistent feedback as they work. My children and I made cheese, several rounds of it because we didn't get ideal results the first few times. We also made recipes with our cheese, pizza and cannolis, and assembled platters for serving samples.
If you go back to earlier posts in my project-based learning series you will find several that mention authentic final products. This is how students assemble information and demonstrate learning. It might be a blog, an advertisement, a documentary, photojournal, etc. For more details on final products check out Key Elements to Project-Based Learning. You can also check out my post 100 Final Product Ideas for Project-Based Learners for final product ideas.
Students can begin creating their final products at any point in the project process. If the final product is authentic, which it should be in order to be considered project-based, creating the final product will take some time.
Step 5: Authentic Presentations
My children shared their cheese making experience, along with samples of the cheese that they made and recipes they made using their cheese, at a neighborhood event.
One element of project-based learning that separates it from other teaching approaches is the authentic presentation piece. In short, an authentic presentation is one where students share their new skills and knowledge with an audience that is relevant and can benefit in some way from the information or the final product itself. For details on this go back to my post on Authentic Learning.
Once students have completed their projects and assembled their final products, they can share that product or information with their authentic audience.
Step 6: Reflections
After students give their authentic presentation they will write a final reflection. The reflection piece is critical. They will not only look back on the content and what they've learned, but the experience in itself. They will analyze their own strengths and weaknesses throughout the process and build on that moving forward.
My project-based learning bundle and toolkit both include a reflection template. Scroll down for links.
Step 7: Final Evaluations
Once students have completed projects, presented to an authentic audience, and reflected on the experience, they will present to you, the class, and if you wish, their community experts. Audience members can provide feedback and if you wish, you may complete their final rubric at this time.
I prefer to meet separately with each student after their presentations to go over their rubrics one-on-one. The students bring a self-evaluated rubric and their reflection to the meeting. We go over it together, determine credit, and make goals for the next project.
Project-Based Learning Resources
In the future I hope to start an online professional development course on student-led project-based learning. If you are interested in something like that now, I'd love to hear from you. I'd also love to hear updates from those of you that decide to give PBL a shot either this upcoming school year or with your own children at home.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
I spend a significant portion of this post talking about the purpose and advantages of learner-led assessments. If you are already determined to add learner-led assessments to your routine and already know how awesome this approach is, scroll down to get directly to student-directed assessment strategies.
I have two wonderful children, a two-year-old daughter, and a 4-year-old son. When I was pregnant with my daughter, my second child, I thought she would be effortless. I’ve done this child-raising thing before after-all, I thought. I’d already been through the infancy experience, the teething, the tantrums, the separation anxiety phase. I’d been there, done that, and thought my second child would fall right in line. I would know exactly how to respond when similar challenges, questions about life, and milestones inevitably arose.
I’m not sure why this was my thinking. As a teacher at a school that is personalized in nature, I am very aware of the importance of individuality. Children vary in their interests, learning styles, backgrounds, skills, and abilities. My children couldn’t be more opposite from each other. I came to the realization that each one of my children, just like my students, will have to be raised differently, with some distinctive approaches and expectations. Putting an umbrella over my children, asking them to perform the same activities, master the same competencies, in the same way, and under the same time-frame would be disastrous. This goes for children in school learning environments as well.
How then can we provide a learning environment for our children where individualism is not only recognized but celebrated? We can accommodate for student differences by setting the stage for student-directed learning. Students take ownership of their education in a student-directed learning environment (back track to posts from my student-directed learning series).
In a student-directed learning environment, learning is active rather than passive. The instructor acts as a guide and facilitator of learning. Students initiate and design projects that are based on interest and relevance. Learners write their own goals and methods of accomplishing those goals. Learners create their own assessments based on their goals for the future, competencies needing growth, skill level, pace, learning styles, and more. They self-assess often and reflect on their work. They go back and revise and improve. They lead evaluation meetings with their teachers and an evaluation committee, and conduct parent/teacher conferences using a student-created conference assessment.
Self-assessments are key components to student-directed learning. Not only do students create their own assessments, but they also evaluate their progress using said assessment throughout the course of the learning activity. The student-created assessments that I implement in my classroom are typically project-based learning rubrics. I provide a blank rubric template to be produced by each student according to their project goals. I include word banks with categories and levels of mastery to assist students with the process as they become more confident student-directed learners. That rubric template is available in my store. Scroll down for the link.
Student-generated rubrics allow students to improve in areas specific to their needs in addition to content knowledge. Some students may want to work on organization, others may have already mastered that skill. Some may want to practice and improve on presentation skills, others may not find that relevant. Categories can be across the board from content to social-emotional skills, to career and life skills. Not only are student-created rubrics personalized, they also give learners the chance to have some authority over their education. Some may not see that as a good thing. I see it as imperative for success in a rapidly evolving society. One size does not fit all. This is true now more than ever before, so we shouldn’t be assessing in such a way.
There are a variety of advantages to child-led assessments. The greatest advantage is the intrinsic motivation to learn. When you give student’s choice and voice, they organically invest in the outcome. Learners develop a strong self-concept, intrapersonal intelligence, the skills to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and the wherewithal to grow and adapt. That in itself invaluable for lifelong learners.
Another result in favor of student-directed assessments is the development of competencies that are relevant to life outside of the classroom. A traditional assessment, whether it be a multiple choice test or a teacher-created rubric, doesn’t always address critical life skills, emotional and social awareness, or technical abilities, for example. They are generally intended to assess content knowledge only. Learning important subject concepts isn’t a bad thing. The trouble comes when the assessment ONLY targets content knowledge, and it’s the instructor determining the measurements for all students, not individuals.
Student-generated assessments along with consistent self-reflection and meetings with the facilitator/teacher throughout the learning process gives students indispensable feedback. Students go back and revise and improve their work. That in itself, the motivation to improve, is a skill often lost in teacher-centered classrooms with teacher-created assessments. The result of creating one’s own assessment, having voice and choice in one’s learning and outcomes, and aiming to improve, is passionate, life-long learners. Putting personal opinions about education aside, isn’t that a solid accomplishment and desire of all educators?
I use the following assessments strategies with my project-based learners. If it seems like a bit much, try a few things at a time or attempt to introduce some of the ideas gradually. At some point in your journey to a project-based learning environment you will be able to implement all of these strategies seamlessly because they are building blocks. They work off of each other. Good luck!
Project-Based Learning Assessment Strategies
At the beginning of a session or project have students write personal and academic goals. You are setting students up to be able to design their own assessments based on their vision, needs, and learning goals. Each of my students has a personal learning plan (PLP) that they create with me at the beginning of the school year. This is where they record their strengths, interests, and short and long-term goals. They return to their PLP periodically throughout the course of the year to reflect and adjust their plans. You may also consider asking students to write goals specific to a given project. They can create a few goals before they start.
I use PLP's for goal-making, I have students make project goals before each project, and I also have students do my "goals maker PBL challenge" at the beginning of the year. I guide students in the goal-making process. There is no specific system . Do what works well for you.
2. Student-Generated Assessments :
PBL projects are typically assessed using rubrics. I use a generic rubric for my beginner project-based learners. Eventually students can begin to create their own rubrics where they determine criteria to be evaluated. Criteria might relate to goals, strengths that they would like to build on, interests, skill level, and even the nature of the project. This idea could apply to any assessment style, not just rubrics. You could even have students design formative assessments throughout the course of the project.
For example, if your students are doing a neurology project and they're learning about neurotransmission, allow students to decide how they will demonstrate their understanding of that concept. They might create a moving model, an animation, a poem, etc. The list goes on. Check out my previous post on 100 Ways to Demonstrate Learning.
PBL Formative Assessments
Generic Project-Based Learning Rubric
Student-Generated Rubric with Word Banks
An important life skill is the ability to reflect on one's work, identify areas that could use improvement, and make adjustments. Teachers have to do this every day - reflect and adapt. Ask students to self-evaluate periodically throughout the course of the project and again before their final project evaluation with you (facilitator/teacher). My students fill in their generic or self-generated rubrics as their self-assessments. We often have work days where students work on their projects while I meet with students one-on-one to take a peek at their progress and go over their self-assessments.
A critical element of project-based learning is feedback, and another important life skill is the ability to accept constructive feedback and make improvements. This isn't a skill that everyone innately has. Students often revolt when asked to pump up the quality of a project or go back and try this or that. Establishing high standards of student work starts with feedback and the chance, and expectation, to improve. The end goal is for students to want to improve, or get excited about the prospect.
Foster as many opportunities for feedback as possible. One way to do this is through peer-evaluations. Have students share their work with each other, offer suggestions, and the chance to go back and make improvements. You can ask them to develop partnerships for a specific project - a project buddy. You can have them do project circles where students get together every so often to share their progress with the group. Students can then ask questions, give suggestions, and offer insightful feedback.
5. Community Expert Evaluations
The same idea applies here as with peer-evaluations except community experts have an authentic perspective. In project-based learning students connect with community experts (look back a couple weeks for a post on this concept). If learners are doing a project on puma habitat, for example, they might connect with a local zoologist, conservationist, or ecologist. If their final product is creating a documentary they might bring in a film-maker from the community to help with formatting and editing. Students can maintain consistent communication with these community members throughout the project process and ask that those experts evaluate their progress as they go. These community experts can also attend final presentations and play a role in final evaluations.
6. Student-Led Final Evaluations with Instructor and/or Evaluation Committee
After students have presented their final products to the class/teacher AND their authentic audience (see last weeks post on authentic presentations) I meet with them one-on-one to go over their rubrics (generic and/or self-created). They bring a self-assessed rubric to this meeting. The student justifies their self-evaluation, I give them my feedback, determine credit, we talk about future goals, and move onto the next project.
This process can - and should if you can make it work - be done using an evaluation committee. An evaluation committee is a small group put together to evaluate student projects. The group might consist of another staff member, students, community experts relevant to the project, and you, the instructor. This limits subjectivity when assigning a final grade or credit and offers students feedback from a variety of perspectives.
If you're interested in implementing any or all of these strategies, consider checking out Getting Started with Project-Based Learning Package from my store that includes 20 integrated PBL projects, an implementation manual, and all of the templates necessary for seamless execution of PBL, such as a personal learning plan.
Students from all backgrounds, skill levels, age groups, and instructional environments can take an active role in their education by simply having the chance to create and manage their own measurements of success. Every student is able to create their own assessments, and they will take pride and ownership in the outcome.
"Authentic" is a buzzword in the project-based learning world. Authenticity is the foundation of PBL and plays a role in every step of the process from project design to final evaluation. That is one feature that separates project-based learning from other teaching methods. The learning experiences, final product, resources, presentation, assessment, reflection, etc. should all be authentic - they should be relevant, real, have meaning and purpose in the lives of learners.
For example, an authentic learning experience would be one in which a student interviews an oncologist vs. reads about cancer on Wikipedia. An authentic final product might be a mini-documentary that follows the experience of a cancer survivor vs. a poster board with tidbits of information about cancer. An authentic presentation would be hosting a community screening of the mini-documentary vs. a presentation to the class.
This post is specifically about that authentic presentations.
Backtrack a few weeks to posts from my project-based learning series for more details on PBL.
What is an authentic presentation?
An authentic presentation is the demonstration of new skills and knowledge to a relevant audience in the community. The idea is that the information or the final product reaches an audience that could use the final product or benefit from the material in some way, where the learner can experience and visualize their new understanding of a concept or skill at play in real life. A presentation that is not authentic would be one given to the class followed by the final product getting tossed in the trash, never to be thought of again. An authentic presentation would leave a mark on the community, and depending on the nature of the presentation, possibly make a profound long-term impact (check out my community action projects, a type of project-based learning that leaves a lasting impact on the local or global community).
Why bother with authentic presentations?
One reason to incorporate authentic presentations is quality. When students know their final product will be seen by more than the teacher they up their game a bit. Other benefits include encouraging community collaboration, building communication and networking skills, promoting citizenship, enhancing students' worldview, understanding their local and gobal communities, and more. The result is deeper learning, learning that goes beyond content knowledge. This is true because learners construct meaning through real-life experiences. They see relevance and purpose as it relates to their lives.
Authentic Presentation Ideas
Reaching a relevant audience and making an impact on the community doesn't mean your students have to do public speeches everyday. Speaking to a community audience, such as performing an original skit on bullying to a local elementary assembly, is one way to deliver new skills and knowledge in an authentic way. There are other ways for those educators and learners that are confined to the classroom. Other options include publishing work on digital media such as a blog, submitting work to an online publication or contest, displaying student work in the community, and even bringing the audience to you.
One way of bringing an authentic audience to your students is to host exhibition or presentation events at the school or at your home (if you are a home educator). This gives students the chance to showcase their work to the community. Invite relevant community members, family members, friends, and experts utilized in student projects. The cover photo is of one such exhibition night that my school hosts quarterly.
Check out the graphic organizer below for more authentic presentation ideas. My students use this organizer when designing their projects. Feel free to do the same with your students. A free printable version can be found at Experiential Learning Depot.
Example of an Authentic Presentation in Project-Based Learning:
You assign a PBL project to your life science class. They are to do a project on symbiotic relationships. Each student designs their own project around this topic. Each student chooses how they will find the information, which experts to connect with, how they would like to demonstrate learning, how they would like to present it and who will be their audience (other than the teacher and class). This is what the PBL process looks like in my seminars. I give the topic and the learners direct the learning experience (with my guidance). I will be doing a post in the near future on the steps involved in student-directed project-based learning. Stay-tuned for that. In the meantime, I highly recommend reading Passion for Learning by Ronald Newell.
One student decides to create an infographic on the different types of symbiotic relationships (authentic final product). She collaborates with an ecology professor from a nearby university and a graphic designer in the area (authentic learning experiences). They work together to create a professional quality infographic with solid, accurate information. The student then needs to determine how she will share her learning experience with a relevant audience that will benefit from the information and/or the final product itself (authentic presentation).
Examples of Authentic Presentation Options for this Project Using the Graphic Organizer Above:
1) Distribute Final Product to a Relevant Audience in the Community:
2) Display Final Product to a Relevant Audience in the Community:
3) Present Final Product to a Relevant Audience in the Community:
4) Publish the Final Product:
5) Share your Final Product Digitally:
Good luck! If you're overwhelmed by the possibilities, utilize some of the organizational templates provided in my store, including the one above. Many of them are free. Implementing authentic experiences in your curriculum does not have to be chaotic. Even student-directed learning can have structure and SHOULD be teacher facilitated. I am a firm advocate for authentic learning and love to talk about it. If you have questions or are seeking out advice or tips, please reach out. I would be ecstatic to help out!
My TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, is filled with PBL learning resources. Check them out if you think project-based learning is something you might love to try with your students.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education.
A couple weeks ago I took my two young children to the zoo. On our way home my four-year-old said "did you know that jellyfish can grow their bodies back when they get chopped up?" In other words, they can regenerate when, say, they have a close call with a sea turtle. My son learned this from chattin' it up with a zoo volunteer. He practiced communication skills, asked questions, took a social risk, and gathered information from an expert on a topic of interest.
I often talk about project-based learning on this blog because it's what I know and use in teaching. An overarching theme of project-based learning is community, from generating projects ideas to the final assessment. Students use community experts to gather information on their project topics, create innovative final products that impact the community, and present their projects to an authentic audience, one that is relevant and often public. All of the PBL components just mentioned involve the community in some way or another.
Before I get into any details on specific ways to use the community as a resource in project-based learning, let's first talk about why you would do this in the first place? Sounds like a lot of work, an extra task or thing to organize, or time away from teaching content. It can be an extra task if you let it. But you could also put some of the responsibility on your students. They can certainly and should be tracking down their own community experts and authentic audience. Community experts also deliver much of the content you would have to otherwise. It also doesn't mean you have to leave the building. As an experiential learning educator I strongly advocate for doing so, but that is not an option for everyone. If it's not an option in your situation, then bring the community to you! And your students can do the same. I'll get to some options soon, but first, why bother to use the community as a resource?
Benefits of Utilizing the Community in Project-Based Learning:
1) Development of 21st-century Skills - students learn a variety of important life skills such as resourcefulness, communication, and collaboration.
2) Real-world application of content - students make meaningful connections when they can see and experience concepts first-hand. For example, shadowing a genetics counselor would allow students to experience genetics concepts in the context of real-life.
3) Building a professional and personal network - students develop a hefty network that could lead to future references, job offers, lifelong mentorships and even friendships.
4) Strengthening the community - community collaboration puts students in a position to actively work at breaking down walls between students and community members that may have developed due to misunderstandings or stereotypes. There is so much to be learned from others, and not just from their expertise, but from their stories.
5) Access to resources you may not be able to offer - I took a graduate class with the biotechnology department at the University of Minnesota several years ago. They offer up their equipment to educators and their students, which I have taken advantage of many times. There have been a variety of scenarios where my students have needed a resource that our school couldn't provide, from actual materials to expertise or skill.
How to Use the Community as a Resource in Project-Based Learning:
The following are ideas or ways that I have personally used or have seen coworkers use the community as an element of learning experiences. You do not have to be doing project-based learning to include community resources in your curriculum. Use some of the suggestions below and adapt them in a way that works for you and your learners.
These are only a few options of many. When planning community involvement in your curriculum, consider the topic of study. Take constraints such as time, your own skills, equipment and space into account. Think about your needs and how a community member might be able to fill that role or provide that resource. It may seem like an additional task to an already demanding load. But if you plan well and put some of the responsibility on your students, it may actually feel like you're saving time, and the end result is worth it. The benefits are worth it.
What are some ways you currently use the community your curriculum? I would love to hear more examples. If you don't currently, what is keeping you? What obstacles do you face and how could you work around them or work through them?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.