Several years ago a student in my psychology seminar came to me with an idea for her psychology project. She had made an interesting observation about her own family. Those observations lead to a question; she wondered why her and her siblings were so different from one another. She settled on a project about birth order theory, developed by Alfred Adler.
Her original project idea was to research birth order theory and conduct her own study. She put together a survey, passed it out, collected it, slapped her results on a poster board and called it a day. We went through her board together. I asked her questions about the topic, most of which she couldn't answer. Her survey was only distributed to her classmates, which made her sample size less than 20 students. No graphs, no charts, no conclusion was included. I asked her if she thought this was her best work. She didn't answer me, and stormed off, fuming.
The following day she came into school ready to try again. We discussed what might be missing and how she could improve her final product. She decided to organize an activity for my psychology students. She separated the class into groups - first borns, middle children, youngest, and only children - and had each group draw a picture of their ideal vacation. Every year thereafter (until this student graduated), my new psychology students did the drawings as well. When drawings were compared to the drawings of prior years, all of the middle children drawings were almost identical to each other, same with the first borns, and so on.
If I hadn't insisted that she improve the quality of her final product she wouldn't have had nearly the same learning experience nor the same outcomes. Asking her to try again, make some adjustments, and turn it into a project that she could be proud of was an important lesson. There is not a quick fix, nor one simple trick that will result in quality projects across the board. The key is a combination of several elements, which when implemented together will get you closer to the results you are looking for.
***The project that my student did on birth order theory was part of my psychology class. Each student conducts their own psychology experiment as their final project for the seminar. Check out that resource here.
How to Improve the Quality of Student Work
1. Cultivate a classroom/homeschool culture of high expectations:
Let students know your expectations from the start. You'll have to model those expectations. It is true, and vital in this particular situation, that actions speak louder than words. If you allow students to turn in low quality work, for example, then that is exactly what they'll continue to do. If you give students a pass because you don't feel they can do any better, then they will think the same of themselves; that they can't do any better.
Build a culture that frames quality work as the norm. Praise effort and work ethic. Give consistent feedback. Build time into your schedule for students to go back and improve their work. Be cognizant of your actions. Ask yourself whether your own behavior is promoting quality projects or stifling them. If you cultivate a classroom/homeschool culture of high standards, you not only promote high quality work, but instill an eagerness in students; a hunger to improve.
2. Develop (and stick with) a system that works:
There is not a specific system that will work for everyone. Find a system that works for you and your learners and stick with it.
My students do PBL projects. Part of our system for ensuring quality final products is by having approval and evaluation meetings. All projects go through an approval process, where students propose their project plan to a small committee (made up of teachers, school staff, other students, community members). Committee members offer feedback and suggestions, fill in any missing pieces, and approve the projects once they are deemed quality plans. Students also have their final products evaluated by the same committee.
This project approval/evaluation system ensures checks and balances and promotes high quality projects. This system has always been a challenge to stick by because it takes teachers and other staff members away from other tasks that often feel more important than approval meetings. But if this system were to go to the wayside, which it has before, project quality would (and does) dip as a result. Although this system is a challenge at times, it makes sense for us. Find a system that works for you, and stick with it. You'll thank yourself later!
3. Supply consistent feedback:
Providing regular feedback to students throughout the process is critical if you expect tremendous final results. Offer many opportunities for feedback from you, peers, community experts, and more. The necessity for steady feedback is one reason for having project approval and evaluation meetings like we do. An eclectic group of people pool together to offer ideas and suggestions from different perspectives that students may have overlooked or simply didn't know the opportunity existed.
For example, I was in on an approval meeting last week with a student who wanted to do a project on horror films. I posted on Instagram about this project. Within minutes, a community member contacted me to see if this student would like to work with him on a horror film festival that he would be curating. This opportunity instantly improved the quality of his final product and the learning experience as a whole.
4. Nurture a self-directed learning environment:
Student-directed learning is when students are given the freedom to lead their learning experiences. They have choice and voice in process and outcome. Click the "self-directed learning" link to your right for past posts on student-directed learning. My students are self-directed project-based learners. They choose their project topics, community experts, how they will gather information, how they will demonstrate learning, and who they will share their work with. They even have choice in evaluation criteria by writing their own rubrics.
When students have choice and take ownership of their learning, they care about the topic and process. They take interest in creating their final products. They develop an intrinsic motivation to do their best because they believe in themselves. They have a newfound sense of self-worth. All of this paves the way to quality projects.
Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for a variety of student-directed learning resources, including project-based learning.
5. Facilitate learning activities that emphasize trial and error:
I've recently developed an appreciation for projects that utilize design thinking (empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing.) Students brainstorm, generate rough ideas, and test those ideas. The original vision does not typically culminate as expected, at which point learners reflect, problem-solve, and try a different approach. Maker education is an example of a learning activity that habituates this type of thinking, among others. Reflection, problem-solving, drafts, redos, second tries, becomes second nature. Producing a high quality outcome is the essence of the activity.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges on TpT, my latest on designing and creating Halloween costumes from trash.
6. Encourage innovative final products:
One way to inspire quality work is to have students create innovative final products. This is one of the key elements of project-based learning; to demonstrate learning in an innovative way.
Poster boards are boring to make and boring to look at, regardless of how cool the project topic is. Get learners thinking beyond poster boards and Powerpoint presentations.
Encourage students to learn about a new software or online design program. Ask them to create a final product that considers their unique skills and interests. A student with a love for painting, for example, might demonstrate learning by painting a mural. A writer might rather demonstrate learning by writing a short story about the concept at hand. When content and/or learning activities are relatable and interesting to students, learners are more likely to put in the effort to create something that they are eager to share.
7. Organize opportunities for authentic presentations:
Authentic learning experiences in general will light a fire under learners. But authentic presentations, where students share their final product with a relevant, often public audience, compels learners to give it their best.
In project-based learning, an authentic presentation or the final product itself should benefit the audience. For example, a final product for a disease project might be a brochure. An authentic presentation might be the distribution of the brochures to clinics across the community. In this case, the brochures can't just be high quality, it would need to be of professional quality. The idea isn't to embarrass kids. Their audience is relying on them to share accurate, helpful information. The idea is to urge learners to do their best for their audience and to feel great about their results.
8. Prioritize self-reflection:
Self-reflection is an essential piece of every learning activity that I do with my students. Reflecting on progress and their final products IS a form of feedback, but because the feedback doesn't come from you or their peers, students critically think and learn to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. It gives learners perspective. Completing a self-evaluation half way through a PBL project, for example, helps learners take a step back, analyze their progress, make adjustments, and move forward in a way that improves outcomes.
Organize regular opportunities for self-reflection such as periodic self-assessments, casual daily check-in forms that learners can use to reflect regularly, one-on-one discussions about how things are going, etc. Each of these methods of reflection should be student-led, otherwise it's not self-reflection at all.
ALL of your students producing professional quality final products ALL of the time is unrealistic. Even getting some of your learners to produce quality products some of the time is an arduous journey, but is one worth taking. It is a skill to want to improve; to STRIVE to improve. Anyone can develop this skill with proper direction and support. Be that direction for your learners. Be that support!
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How to Teach Critical Thinking
A few months ago some tadpoles fell into my lap, figuratively and literally at times! I had reservations initially, but thought, well, this would be a good learning experience for my kiddos. I'm an experiential educator afterall. I am attuned to opportunities that get children involved, and this would do just that.
My kids observed the frogs' life cycle, learned how to keep a tadpole alive and problem-solved when unprecedented events inevitably arose. When their solutions failed, they tried something else. They observed tadpole behaviors, asked questions, designed and conducted experiments. They interpreted unexpected behaviors, hashed out possible explanations, talked with a variety of experts, and drew conclusions from their experiences and research.
My five and two year olds did this. Of course their observations and questions may have been slightly different than that of a high schooler, and their research and experimentation would look different for my kids than it would for a teenager. I mean, my 5 and 2-year-olds can't read or leave the house without a parent, and they have a pretty narrow worldview. But they can critically think. They can problem-solve, evaluate, speculate, analyze, reflect, consider alternatives to the obvious, make predictions, examine deviations from what is expected. Their solutions might not be completely rational, and their analysis may only touch the surface, but skill in those areas will come with time, brain-development, and practice.
I would love to give my high school students this same learning experience. I know lecture, note-taking, textbook reading, and worksheets have their place in some of your classrooms. I'm sure you can even justify them. But that is not what this post is about. This post is about critical thinking, and none of those teaching methods will help your learners transition into adulthood as competent critical thinkers. If you value critical thinking and/or expect your learners to critically think, you'll have to set the stage for success. There are many ways to do that. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
5 Ways to Engage Students in Critical Thinking
1. Organize Learning Experiences that Promote Critical Thinking:
Offer activities, such as our tadpole project, that challenge learners to observe, analyze, create, fail, evaluate, problems-solve, reflect, interpret, and more. There are many learning activities that involve critical thinking by nature, such as STEM/STEAM, activities that use design thinking such as maker projects, inquiry-based learning, place-based learning, project-based learning, and yes, play. If you are working with young children unstructured play might be the best thing you can do to encourage critical thinking. You too, kindergarten teachers!
One of my favorite activities for critical thinking is problem-based learning. In problem-based learning students are asked to identify complex real-world problems. Solutions aren't always clear, or there may not be just one, thus costs and benefits must be analyzed and weighed. A variety of perspectives are examined and considered when coming to the most effective solution(s).
For a variety of resources that promote critical thinking, head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT. There you can find problem-based learning, project-based learning, and inquiry-based learning toolkits. You can even find a project specific to 21st-century skill building called 21st-Century Skills Portfolio. I recently launched my STEM Challenge product line. Check that out here.
2. Questions, Questions, and More Questions:
Encourage your students to ask questions! Inspire students to ask questions that are open-ended, those that don't always have a clear answer. Give your students the confidence to ask deep questions by inviting those questions, pushing learners to dig deeper, and by answering their questions with another question, such as "what do you already know about that?", "how could you find out?", "what do you notice if you look at it from this perspective?".
To empower learners to ask their own questions, create a learning environment that gives them the space, time, resources, and encouragement to do so. Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are great learning tools for this.
3. Observations, Observations, and More Observations:
Observations more often than not give rise to questions. My children observed that our tadpoles rarely moved. They were surprisingly lethargic all of the time. This one observation generated a plethora of questions such as whether this behavior is normal, if tadpoles are this immobile in the wild, if they were hungry at the time, if they were going through a specific phase of their life cycle that required more energy than others. Making observations, asking questions, exploring those questions, experimenting and analyzing results is critical thinking. Student-directed open-inquiry is a great way to practice using these skills, and open-inquiry starts with observations.
Examining and evaluating others' work is one way to practice making consequential observations such as dissecting current events, perusing scientific publications, interpreting music lyrics, analyzing debates, and even conducting peer evaluations. Project-based learning is one such learning tool that promotes peer feedback. By teaching learners to make observations they are in turn building critical thinking skills.
4. Allow Students to Direct Their Own Learning Experiences:
When given choice and autonomy, learners make decisions for themselves, which in itself requires critical thinking. To design a project, for example, students need to evaluate their skills, consider their interests, ask relevant questions, find sources and analyze credibility. Throughout the project process learners reflect on their experiences and plan accordingly. In contrast, when learners are given a specific task that is put together for them, a task that has a right/wrong/yes/no answer, critical thinking is not at play. Teach students how to critically think by giving them the tools to think for themselves. One of those tools is choice.
Look back at posts from my student-directed learning series for help getting started. It can seem a daunting transition to go from teacher-centered to student-directed, but it's not so bad if you have direction and support.
5. Establish a Culture of Critical Thinkers
Show your students that you value critical thinking by establishing a learning environment that promotes it. If critical thinking is the expectation, if you vocalize it's value, if it becomes a part of your every day lexicon, if you provide experiences for learners that endorse critical thinking, and if you uphold its importance by demonstrating critical thinking yourself, you are engaging your learners in this very critical 21st-century skill.
These are just six of many ways you can engage your students in critical thinking. All educators should be making 21st-century skills a priority, not just advisors, career counselors, and life skills instructors. I'm a science teacher. It is my responsibility to teach the content, yes, but content and 21st-century skills are not mutually exclusive. Learners can have it all.
Okay, this is no longer a rhetorical question. How are you engaging your students in critical thinking? I'd love you all to share some strategies that have been effective, and even those that have not. Let's share!
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Content knowledge and 21st-century skills? Can educators teach both? The answer is yes, they can do it all, and they must. Not long ago my husband and I got into a conversation about the importance of 21st-century skills. What is more valuable, skills or content knowledge? I argued (and have argued here before), that you can't have one without the other, and it is one of our greatest responsibilities as educators to provide opportunities for development in both.
To be a wildlife ecologist, my career before teaching, I needed to understand concepts such as carrying capacity, predator/prey relationships, symbiotic relationships, migration behaviors, etc. - the content. An ecologist might also need to know how to utilize mapping software, write a technical report, read and produce charts and graphs, and present their findings to their scientific peers - hard skills.
Once learners have memorized the buzzwords, have a basic understanding of the content, and have developed some relevant hard skills to get them started, are they in the clear? Will they succeed in their careers, live a happy life, be competitive, be creative, healthy, responsible, productive citizens?
To make it as a wildlife ecologist, I also needed to be able to problem-solve. I needed to be able to communicate and collaborate with stakeholders, even those that I didn't always agree with. I needed to know not just how to solve a problem, but how to identify one. I had to accept failure and grow from it. I needed to be able to ask important and relevant questions. It is a rare occurrence to be handed information, discrete facts, outside of a classroom environment. I have had to troubleshoot, find answers, and reach conclusions on my own as a wildlife ecologist, educator, blogger, curriculum writer, mother, daughter, friend, citizen and everything else I am or have become.
These are important skills that are often forgotten about or glossed over in modern day classrooms. Some educators lack the confidence to teach content AND skills, don't find value in including skills in their curriculum, or don't believe there is enough time to do both. I find this to be particularly accurate in secondary classrooms. The pressure on teachers is high. Lack of time is a misconception, though. It's easier to work around time constraints when you choose learning activities that promote both skill and content development. Project-based learning is one example. Students learn content while also engaging with the community, networking, problem-solving, presenting, and locating credible resources, all essential skills that wouldn't be gained from lecture, worksheets, or textbook readings.
I see many educators trying project-based learning as well as STEM, STEAM, experiential learning, design activities, inquiry, nature-based learning, and play-based learning, among many others. The students of these educators will thank them later. These are all strategies that help learners develop content knowledge AND build the skills they need to be happy, confident, passionate lifelong learners. Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for resources that offer the best of both worlds.
Whether you are a primary teacher, middle or high school teacher, an alternative educator, a home educator, a traditional or progressive educator, you need to ask yourself, "What am I doing to engage my students in 21st-century skill-building?" Do some serious, honest reflection. If you are delivering content, and content alone, reassess and make some changes. Learners deserve better. It's never too late to start!
As I said earlier, I believe another reason for glossing over skill development in classrooms is lack of confidence on the part of the educator. I for one have always been intimidated by STEM. That insecurity held me back for a long time. Eventually I just decided to go for it. I slowly started adding a few STEM activities here and there until both my students and I had more confidence. STEM activities help students practice team-work, critical thinking, creativity, tech literacy and more. So, over the course of the next month I will post about specific skills along with tips, tricks, learning activities and other resources to engage students in those skills. Stay-tuned for that.
How do you incorporate 21st-century skill building into your curriculum or routine?
If you are looking for a resource that specifically focuses on skills, check out my 21st-Century Skills Portfolio. Otherwise, keep your eyes out for posts on engaging learners in 21st-century skill building throughout September and October.
Thanks for stopping by!
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Take Learning Outdoors
I have always been an avid outdoors-woman. I was raised with parents that valued and encouraged outdoor play and experiences. An appreciation for the outdoors was so instilled in me as a child that I went on to get my degree in wildlife ecology and spent the first part of my career working with endangered species. Then I became a bio teacher, and now I am a stay-at-home-mom raising two young children to love and appreciate nature as well.
I have been feeling on edge and foggy brained lately, and when I feel that way I know it's from one of three things: 1) stress, 2) not enough physical activity, or 3) not enough time spent outside. In this particular case, it was all three. So! My family and I hopped in the car and headed south to Whitewater State Park. It was just what I needed and just what my children needed.
Study after study has shown the benefits of spending time outdoors, especially for young people. Harvard Medical School published a report in 2010 stating that spending time outdoors may be the prescription for better health. Stanford reported in 2015 that taking regular nature walks may lower risk of depression. Amazon is loaded with books dedicated to the simple idea that the human brain is wired to be outside: "Go Outside and Come Back Better" by Ron Lizzi, "The Nature Fix" by Florence Williams, "Balanced and Barefoot" by Angela J. Hanscom, "Vitamin N" by Richard Louv, and "Last Child in the Woods", also by Richard Louv. The list goes on and on. National Geographic published an awesome article titled "We are Wired to be Outside". I just started reading "Place-Based Education" by David Sobel who also wrote "Beyond Ecophobia". I'll let you know how I like it!
It's odd that we live in a time that books need to be written about the benefits of being outdoors. Why do we need convincing? At any given moment we find ourselves with screens at our fingertips. Many students in the US study nature using online simulations and textbooks rather than experiencing it first hand. I am not saying that screens should be completely thrown out of the picture. As I sit here writing this blog, I clearly have some appreciation for technology. But screens should not replace outdoor time, physical activity, or opportunities to create, imagine and explore, in the home or at school.
As I flip through photos of my recent adventure in Whitewater State Park, I appreciate the number of learning experiences packed into two days. My children put their hands in the dirt, bonded with their father whom they get little time with, inhaled fresh air, gazed at the stars free from city lights. My 5 year old walked close to four miles and my darling 2 year old climbed on everything. They learned how to build a fire! They found and made their own walking sticks. They practiced reading a map. They observed and inquired about the natural world. In just two days my children were able to do all of this with no plan, textbooks, lesson plans, PowerPoint lectures, note-taking, or testing. Just them. Just us. Just the great outdoors.
When I was still teaching at a public school, much of my curriculum focused around being outside of the building. As a small, project-based school, we were fortunate to have the encouragement and resources to take learning beyond the walls of the classroom - out to the parking lot, to the local river basin, and even trips abroad through our school travel program (check out some of my past posts on student travel).
Homeschoolers, experiential educators, and stay-at-home-parents like myself have the flexibility to embrace nature-based learning. If you are home with your kids, get them outside if you don't already! If you are a public school teacher that has the flexibility and support from the district to take learning outside, I sure hope you're doing so. If you are an educator that is confined to the classroom, check out some outdoor learning activity ideas below that could be done right on school grounds.
The photos in the slideshow below are of my students enjoying various outdoor learning experiences. Many of these photos are from trips taken through our travel program.
Books that Inspire
Want to get your children and/or students outside? Inspire the urge to explore, or simply the desire to chill in some fresh air for a few minutes, with books. Check out this list of great reads that inspire a love of (or at least a respect for) the outdoors. The lists vary by age and purpose.
How to Work Outdoor Learning Activities Into Your Curriculum
Take every opportunity to get your students outside. If you have a lesson that could just be moved out onto the grass, do it. Best case scenario is that your lesson incorporates natural surroundings. This is easy for project-based learners and life science teachers. For math teachers, maybe not quite as easy. Or is it? Check out some of these fun integrated outdoor learning activities.
Take Reading Outside:
Take Writing Outside:
What's great about writing is that you could do it just about anywhere as long as you have a pen and some paper. With phones, Chromebooks, Kindles, and iPads on the rise, we can even bring along our mobile devices. Taking your writers outdoors is a great way to inspire writing topics, remove disturbances and distractions, and give them the space and peace that they need to focus.
Take Social Studies Outside:
Take Math Outside:
There are a lot of resources out there for implementing math activities outdoors. Most of them are for elementary aged students, a few for more advanced math concepts.
Take Science Outside:
Science outdoors is a no-brainer, especially bio. Simply bring students outdoors, let them observe their surroundings, ask questions, and design experiments. If you're looking for some other creative science activities to do outside, check these out:
You might be thinking, "How do I get my students outdoors in the winter?" I know this conundrum better than anyone. I live in Minnesota where it seems to be below zero four months of the year and we get blizzards in April. Here's what I'll say; even bringing students outside for 10 minutes per day is better than nothing. You might also consider again starting a student travel program at your school. Finally, if at all possible, incorporate the weather into your lessons. Test snow or rain for acid using a pH kit. Calculate relative density of snow, ice and water. Paint in the rain. Write in the outdoors on a snowy day! Even tough weather days inspire curiosity and creativity.
With that said, we are down to very few nice days! Get outside now, enjoy the fall colors, get your students inspired BEFORE the weather takes a dramatic turn. Good luck!
Check out Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for student-directed learning resources that take learning outdoors:
I also have a handful of free resources on student travel.
How do you take learning outside? I would love to add ideas to this post! Have a great fall everyone. Happy outdoor learning!
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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.