If you've been following Experiential Learning Depot for a while, you know that my experience and passion lies in self-directed project-based learning, particularly when it comes to science topics (I'm a life science teacher). True student-directed learning encourages and offers ample opportunity for student choice. That includes students determining their own project topics and driving questions.
When students have the flexibility to choose project topics and driving questions for ALL of their projects over the course of a session (see self-directed learning series for details), they can get overwhelmed with possibilites. This is especially true if you are not beside them in a face-to-face learning environment.
If you're distance learning this fall, create a system for developing and organizing project topics. That system can include a digital brainstorming activity (FREE at ELD on TPT) that can be shared via Google Classroom. Another piece of this system is having students log or list project topics of interest that they can return to over the course of the session when in need of project inspiration. Once students have project ideas, they can list them out and design their projects using my digital personalized project-based learning bundle (personal learning plan and PBL tool kit). As they complete projects, they can showcase their work in my PBL assessment e-Portfolio, FREE when you subscribe to my mailing list.
True self-directed project-based learning is much easier done in flexible learning environments such as those that have support from the district, those teaching an entire course on PBL or passion projects, advisories, home schools/coops. If this is not you, PBL can still be self-directed, there just wouldn't be a need for topic brainstorming because you would be assigning a general topic for students to cover. However, students can still choose a subtopic around a broader theme, determine how they will demonstrate learning, how they will share their final product with an authentic audience, etc. Check out my guided, themed PBL resources.
If you are in a position to offer true self-directed project-based learning, check out how you can help learners brainstorm project-topics virtually!
Project-Based Learning Topic Brainstorming Activities for Distance Learning
Because self-directed project-based learning is personalized, you need to start by building a relationship with every individual student. Get to know them. That can be a little more difficult when learning is taking place virtually. Before moving onto the following virtual brainstorming activities, grab my personal learning plan. This is a great way to begin to get to know your students.
1. Look at Interests
Self-directed project-based learning is personalized, and part of that is identifying learners' interests. What do they enjoy? What are their strengths? What are their hobbies? The result of students developing projects around their interests is an intrinsic motivation to learn and a passion for learning.
How do that? Start with an interest survey, especially if you are just beginning to know your students. Check out my free interest survey that can be shared digitally via Google Classroom.
2. One-On-One Conversation
When working face-to-face with students, casual chat between us is the most effective way to determine a project topic. I go over their interest surveys with them, and/or their personal learning plan, ask them questions about their answers to those activities, and more. This almost always leads to a project topic that they can get excited about simply by allowing them to talk about themselves. But what about virtually?
I highly recommend making time to meet with students via Google Meet, Zoom, or some other video conference tool, to have this conversation. You can also provide feedback directly to their Google Slides personal learning plan and/or interest survey, as they are both shareable with Google Classroom.
3. Project "Circle"/Group Share
When we were in a classroom, my group had regular project circles, which is basically an opportunity for peer input. We would gather in a literal circle, go around and talk about projects that they are currently working on, what they may want to do next, lack of motivation and/or inspiration to start a new project, etc. The purpose of this is to get other students to add their input. It's a great big think tank rather than each student's only source of feedback coming from me. Virtually, though?
Zoom! I know Zoom is getting old. But if you're distance learning, make time for it. I suggest a project circle at least once per week, ideally more. You could also start a class forum or discussion on Google Classroom where they can offer their ideas in text format. One student might need credit in economics and is having a hard time settling on a project topic around those standards. Other students can chime in with their experiences or ideas.
Just because projects are student-led and they get to choose their topics, it is a reality that most students are required to meet specific standards/benchmarks or complete specific courses to graduate. This was the case at my school. So our students, in part, chose topics and designed their projects around standards that they need to meet. If a student needs to hit a benchmark in ecology, specifically as it relates to food webs, and they enjoy surfing, they may consider designing a project around the important role that sharks play as tertiary consumers.
Have students pull up a new Google Doc. They can add a table with two columns, one with standards that they need to meet, and the other with project topics that would help them meet those standards. The personal learning plan available in my store includes this type of organizing tool, which is also editable to fit specific needs.
This is my favorite way to inspire project topics. A "spark" is a word coined by my boss that is essentially a learning activity that gets students excited about a topic or question. Part of my job as an experiential educator at an experiential school was to plan and organize these sparks. Examples include field trips such as a visit to a museum, local park, a nearby factory, a farm, etc. The purpose is to get students asking questions that can become driving questions for a project-based learning experience. But there are many other ways to spark project topics than going on field trips, thankfully, since we are currently not in a position to be going on any.
So how can you provide sparks virtually or remotely?
There are many other options for sparks, you just have to keep your eyes and your ears open! My free project topic brainstorming activity mentioned above is all basically sparks compiled onto one document.
Let's summarize. What can you do to start self-directed project-based distance/remote learning today?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
Distance learning is a challenge in itself, as is differentiated learning, even in a classroom setting when you are face-to-face with students on a daily basis. But differentiating learning from a distance significantly adds to the challenge. How do you engage high school learners in content and skill building while also considering and applying each student's unique qualities and circumstances?
Project-based learning is an awesome tool for differentiated learning, especially when projects are self-directed. My students self-direct every PBL project while I facilitate, meaning they have choice in driving question, project topic, how they will demonstrate learning, who they will share their new skills and knowledge with, etc. Students all gain the same skills and learn whatever content you assign them, but they learn it in a way that works for them. Projects are designed and catered to each unique student to ensure success for all. Click here for posts on self-directed learning for more details.
So how do you apply individuality to project design when you can't be face-to-face? It will take several posts to answer this question to its entirety, so I'm going to start with talking about creating digital personal learning plans. A personal learning plan is a document developed by each student in collaboration with their instructor. A personal learning plan includes a variety of features such as interests, learning challenges, learning styles, goals, etc. That info is then used to develop a learning plan specific to each student. Part of that learning plan includes a list of self-directed PBL projects and desired outcomes.
I have a digital personal learning plan in my store. It is a Google Slides and it is editable for YOU to include whatever features you find important for understanding your students. You will use this digital PLP to help students develop self-directed PBL projects that suit their needs, interests, etc. You do not need my resource to do personal learning plans with your students. This resource simply saves you time in having to create a template yourself. The following is a list of what my digital PLP includes. Have students develop a personal learning plan right away when they head "back to school" this fall. Get to know your students right away to ensure successful project-based distance learning for the rest of the year.
Differentiate Distance Learning with Digital Personal Learning Plans
My Digital Personal Learning Plan Includes:
Using a PLP to Design Self-Directed PBL Projects:
This is one way to differentiate learning with high schoolers, but one very powerful way. I stick with self-directed project-based learning for a reason.
If you have not already, subscribe to my email list to get your free project-based learning assessment portfolio (also Google Slides). You should have seen a subscribe pop up upon entering this site. Combine that with my self-directed project-based learning tool kit, and you and your students will be set for the year. Check back next week for virtual project topic brainstorming activities.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
Project-based learning is the perfect approach for distance learning, especially when it comes to high school students. You want them to be able to work productively and independently from home, and rest assured that they are engaged in the content and the experience. Project-based learning is a great way to check all of those boxes.
But how can student-directed, project-based learning be done from home? So much of PBL is community-based. As I said before in previous posts, PBL is not just doing poster board projects. With project-based learning, students incorporate the community into the experience, learn from community experts, engage in authentic learning experiences, present their work to relevant and often public audiences, and more (check out past project-based learning posts, such as the elements of PBL). So how do students do these things from home, or from a computer?
This series will walk you through that question! I wrote a vague blog post on this a while ago, promising to go into more detail at some point. Here we are! I'm finally getting around to it. So let's dig in!
Before diving too deeply into this series with me, I highly recommend snagging my free resource for subscribing to my email list. This free resource is a high school project-based learning digital assessment portfolio. It is an editable Google Slides resource that students use to demonstrate learning over the course of a class or session. They insert photos of their projects, experiences with community experts, completed evaluations and reflections, etc. If you are planning to do any significant amount of project-based learning with your students this fall, online or in the classroom, this is a great tool to have. Grab it now!
Project-Based Distance Learning Blog Series
So just to clarify, project-based learning is not the same as a project. How do you touch on all of the components that define PBL, those listed in the infographic below, digitally? This series will go over how to implement project-based learning digitally with confidence.
I will be going over the following pieces or processes of project-based learning over the course of the next few weeks, all about how to project-based educate from a distance. All of the following tips and tricks can be applied to a classroom environment as well. The purpose of this series is to show you how to get students engaged with the community even if they cannot be directly or physically immersed in it.
If you have any recommendations or requests for topics to include in this series, let me know! You can email me at email@example.com or head to the contact tab above.
I plan to get my first post of the series on brainstorming project ideas out asap! Early next week at the latest, so stay-tuned or keep an eye out for an email alert. In the meantime, head to Experiential Learning Depot on TPT to download my free Project-Based Learning Topic Brainstorming Activity. We'll go over it right here in a few days.
If you are questioning project-based learning because you're unsure of your situation in the coming months, don't make any big decisions yet! Follow along here first so that you feel confident and solid about your ultimate decision.
I could say that project-based learning isn't for everyone, but in my biased opinion, it is for everyone. PBL is so wonderful precisely for that reason, especially when the experiences are entirely interest-led and self-directed. Student-directed PBL considers all learning styles, skill levels, needs, interests, backgrounds, home life situation, personal responsibilites outside of school and more. It looks at every individual child. It's a great form of differentiation for upper grade levels. Don't pawn it off just yet. We'll see you back here soon!
Again, I start a blog post with a reminder of how the world is changing. We are neck deep in a pandemic that doesn't seem to be getting better in any way; a very powerful racial justice movement is in place, and change feels hopeful and possible because of the tireless effort from the citizens - from the people.
I have been so impressed by the actions of not only the people, but of young people. Kids, from kindergarten age to high school graduation, have the capacity to do so much good in the communities that they are a part of, whether that be on a grand scale or simply advocating for a crosswalk to get put in near a local playground.
When I was teaching high schoolers, I included community action projects in every facet of my teaching. A community action project is a form of project-based learning where students identify issues in the community, research the issues, brainstorm solutions, develop an action plan, and take action. Community action projects deepen learning AND build essential 21st-century skills by engaging students in the community and investing their time and energy into relevant community issues.
My own children and I recently did a community action project together that involved a supplies drive for a local animal shelter during Covid shutdowns. This project was entirely based off of my children's interests, but I had a big hand in organizing and coordinating the experience because my children are 3 and 6 years old. A high schooler could do the same project, but they would lead the entire experience themselves.
I have specific community action projects in my TPT store that focus on specific themes, such a mental health. I also have a community action tool kit that offers an unlimited number of open-ended, self-directed community action projects for high school students. This tool kit includes all of the guiding materials and templates that follow the community action project steps below.
Community Action Project Steps
1. Brainstorm/Identify Community Issues:
This is arguably the most important step of a community action project. This is where students find their interests, make observations about their communities, and decide on a general direction to take with their project. My tool kit includes a variety of brainstorming activities to guide students through this process.
My own children decided to focus their attention on Covid era animal shelters, which was inspired by a stray cat that had been frequenting our yard. My son wanted to keep it, my husband is allergic, and frankly, I don't want a cat. So we researched ways to make an outdoor cat house to protect it from storms and predators, and in doing so, came across a plea for supplies from our local animal shelter. This series of observations lead to our project focus.
2. Research the Issue:
Once students have settled on a community issue that they would like to tackle, they research the issue more thoroughly. The purpose of this step is so they can make informed action plans.
My children and I researched the details of the problem (lack of supplies for shelter animals during the Covid) and exactly which shelter supplies were needed. We discovered that many of the supplies could be hand-made, such as cat toys and blankets.
3. Explore Solutions and Write an Action Plan:
There are many ways that young people can take action. I have another blog post titled "Four Ways Students Can Take Action Today". Check that out for specifics. But this step basically includes brainstorming effective solutions that students can be a part of.
My children and I decided that the best way we could get involved would be to organize a supplies drive for the shelter, which included a neighborhood crafting project.
4. Take Action:
At this point students carry out their action plans. My children created their own fliers using Canva (with my assistance) and passed them around the neighborhood asking for shelter supply donations. We wrote a post on our block Facebook page asking for donations. We made a bin with a sign listing all of the supplies needed, and placed it on our stairs outside for people to make drop-offs. We also organized a cat toy making craft "party". By party, I mean supplying neighborhood kids with materials to make cat toys, having them make them at their own homes, and dropping them off in our donations bin.
We did all of this during the Covid stay-at-home order. This is an example of creative and authentic distance learning. My community action project tool kit includes a digital option to be used with Google Apps so that these projects can be done anywhere.
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.