Several years ago I showed a Vice News episode to my advisory/PBL students about the Syrian refugee crisis. A student of mine approached me after the activity to express her interest in this topic. The conflict in Syria was something she knew little about, and she wanted to know more. She decided to do a project on Syria. The driving question for her project, which she chose, would be how the conflict in Syria began. She would demonstrate learning by organizing the series of events that led to the conflict into a digital timeline. Again, her choice. With my guidance the student wrote project goals and created her own project rubric.
My student dove deep into research and quickly came to the conclusion that she wanted to do something to help or contribute in addition to her original timeline project. She organized a holiday pie fundraiser in the community. She turned the fundraiser into a group effort by recruiting students from our advisory. They made and distributed marketing materials, made order forms, and made their own "take-and-bake" apple pies to sell. The student still completed her original project and used her timeline as a marketing strategy to sell pies. She shared her timeline to various social media pages along with an ad for her pie fundraiser. The visual helped connect potential pie buyers with the cause.
What is Student-Directed Learning?
This project is the epitome of a student-directed learning experience. This student called all the shots from the beginning to the end. I provided guidance but the learning experience as a whole was entirely directed by the student. Student-directed learning by definition involves student choice at every step.
Without student choice you do not have student-directed learning.
1. Students choose what they want to learn.
2. Students write their learning goals and determine their own learning objectives.
3. Students choose how they will gather information.
4. Students partner up with community members of their choosing for expertise and collaboration.
5. Students choose how they will demonstrate learning.
6. Students determine an authentic audience and choose a method of reaching that audience.
7. Students establish a method of assessment and criteria for evaluation.
Ways to implement student-directed learning:
Student-directed activities: some teachers may throw in a student-directed activity once in a while into an otherwise teacher-centered curriculum.
Student-directed curriculum with teacher-directed objectives: other teachers will design a learning environment that is dominantly student-directed but will themselves lay down a framework around specific objectives. I see this as the most common form of student-directed learning as teachers have the unfortunate task of meeting standards. Imagine how wonderful teaching would be if students didn't have standards. Students could learn about whatever they want to learn whenever they want to learn it. Genius hour for more than an hour! Anyway, this is the type of student-directed teaching you'd likely see going on in my class at any given time.
Authentic student-directed learning: the final way of operating a student-directed learning environment is to give students full control of their learning from start to finish. Teachers do not place any parameters on the learning experience. The project conducted by my student on Syria is an example of authentic student-directed learning. Some would say it is not student-directed learning at all if every step above isn't directed by the student. I would tend to agree, but understand that it is much easier to implement in theory than in reality. There are obstacles to consider such as state standards, district philosophy and mission, class sizes, class structure, and district/staff/parent/community support.
I worked in a very progressive school for most of my teaching career. I didn't face many of the obstacles just mentioned, yet I still found myself choosing learning objectives for my students here and there. I did this for a couple of reasons. One was because progressive or not, we still needed to follow the same state standards as everyone else. I also learned that students need input. They need "sparks" as Wayne Jennings would say. The Vice News episode in the project example above was such a "spark" for this student. It was the introduction of a topic that sparked interest and questions. It is okay to plant the seed even in a student-directed learning environment. I showed a Vice episode to my advisory every single Monday morning to start off the week. I did this because they loved it. Every time I showed an episode of Vice at least one student turned the episode topic into a student-directed PBL project. I have Vice News episode guides and student-centered extension activities in my TpT store. This is a bundle I used with my students, the episode about Syria included in the "War and Peace" bundle - Vice News Series Bundle.
Benefits of student-directed learning:
The student mentioned in the Syria example not only learned the details of an important and current global issue, but gained numerous critical 21st-century competencies as well by learning how to learn. When students direct their own learning they take ownership. They are invested in the process and the outcome. An intrinsic motivation to learn emerges. The motivation for some, a passion for learning, has been buried deeply in students that have spent much of their academic careers in a teacher-centered learning environment. Allowing students choice, autonomy, room to fail, and opportunities to construct knowledge through experience sets the stage for lifelong learning. The alternative is a teacher-directed environment where information is given, answers are right or wrong, learning is passive, 21st-century skills are glossed over, facts are memorized and forgotten weeks later. There is little meaning or relevance, therefore, learning is shallow.
I'm elated to say that I don't see a lot of teachers running classrooms anymore that are completely teacher-centered. There are so many amazing student-centered learning activities that I see educators implementing such as STEM, maker education, inquiry, experiential learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning. There are so many cool ideas out there. You can teach in a traditional environment and still implement student-directed teaching activities. Start small. If your curriculum is largely teacher-directed right now, consider adding a few student-directed learning activities in here and there. See how they go. If that goes well do more until your entire curriculum is student-directed! You won't regret it.
Student-directed learning resources:
A great student-directed learning activity to start with is project-based learning. There are so many amazing PBL resources out there. My TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot is dominated by PBL projects right now. Feel free to check those out. I have a project-based learning bundle that includes a manual on how to get started with project-based learning in your classroom. This product is designed to move your classroom from teacher-directed to student-directed. If you are a beginner to project-based teaching or student-directed learning this may be a good resource for you. You can also go back to any number of my previous blog posts on project-based learning. Start here with "What is Project-Based Learning, Anyway?" I also like the Buck Institute. They work hard at spreading PBL love and have great tips and resources for using project-based learning in a more traditional learning environment.
Coming up in the student-directed learning series:
Stay-tuned for more from my student-directed learning series. Expect to see some future blog posts on the following, among others.
1. What does a student-directed learning environment look like?
2. What does the teacher do in a student-directed learning environment?
3. Student-directed assessments. I'm really excited about this one. I submitted an article to be to the Reformer, an education magazine through ASCD. I was accepted from a pool of over 500 submissions! My article on student-generated rubrics will be published in February. I will add a condensed version of it here.
4. Student-directed parent/teacher conferences.
5. List of student-directed learning activities.
6. What teachers are doing in their student-directed classrooms.
If you have questions about student-directed learning or would like me to write a blog post on a specific aspect of student-directed learning that I haven't mentioned, please reach out.
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Here comes another "C"! Have you noticed that many of the skills I've been covering in my 21st-century skills series start with a "C"? Those are the 4 C's of education; critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. There are many 21st-century skills, but the 4C's lay the foundation for the others, in my opinion.
The focus of this post is collaboration; working with others to achieve a common goal or purpose. It is imperative that students possess collaboration skills that will meet the demands of living and working in the 21st-century. Help them build a strong community network and to take advantage of all that their community has to offer. For partnerships with local citizens, business owners, legislators, city officials, non-profits, educators, town libraries, historical societies, and so on, and promote collaboration between them that work to meet the needs of the community.
Design your curriculum around community collaborations. Rather than learn about government from a textbook, for example, have students work directly with government officials to write a bill. Connect with farmers and conservationists to develop a plan that both protects livestock from wolf predation and wolves from extinction. The relationship between students and community members is mutually beneficial. By bringing community collaboration into your curriculum, students become an asset to the community rather than a fixture, and the community becomes a key player in the education of its children.
Start making student/community collaborations a priority in your curriculum by implementing some of the suggestions below. It's important to note that this cannot fall on the shoulders of teachers alone. For the following student/community collaborations to be successful, everyone will need to pitch in. Collaborate! Pull together principles, administrators, board members, parents, community members, and most importantly, students. Better yet, let your students take the lead. Yes, kids can be the driving force of most of the collaboration opportunities listed below.
10 Ways to Add Collaboration Skill-Building to Your Curriculum
1) Build YOUR Community Network:
If you are a parent or educator interested in including community collaborations in your curriculum, start by joining a town committee, club, or board. This will provide exposure to the needs of the community as well as establish a solid network for future collaborations between your students and the community. A few weeks ago I posted about a project one of my students was doing about horror films. Within minutes, someone in my network responded to the post offering this student the opportunity to work alongside a community member curating a horror film festival. Make some connections and start putting your ideas out there. Assure potential collaborators that students are contributors. They need your students as much as your students need them.
2) Write a Class Newsletter:
A few years ago several of my students noticed some animosity between our student body and some of our direct neighbors. My advisory got together to brainstorm ways to bridge the gap. My students decided that they would write a newsletter about our school with student and project highlights, upcoming events that neighbors could attend, ways for neighbors to get involved, and so on. My students created the newsletter, made the cookies, and personally delivered both to our neighbors. This small gesture helped our students build a stronger network for future collaborations.
3) Start a Community Garden:
Several of my coworkers had the idea of starting a community garden. They connected students with local horticulturists, farmers, and nonprofits to build a produce garden right on school property. Our students collaborated closely with community experts to build a beautiful and prosperous urban garden.
4) Start a Community Club or Committee:
Have students start clubs or groups that extend out to include community members. A few years ago, several of my students started a community cleanup crew for an assigned PBL project (FInd the resource here - Start a Club). Together our students and the local community organized and participated in regular neighborhood cleanup events.
Students might also consider organizing a committee specific to addressing community needs. Students and citizens, local business owners, city officials, non-profits, conservationists, colleges and universities, etc. would come together to tackle community issues and needs. Check out my Community Action Projects on TpT for guidance.
5) Host Community Events:
Start networking with community members by not only hosting events open to the public, but also including students and community members in the planning and organizing of the events. Our students have organized movie nights, spaghetti dinners, cook-offs, chess tournaments, exhibition nights, a gallery for local artists, and more. Collaboration with the community was integral in the success of these events.
6) Host a Speaker Series at Your School:
One of my coworkers and a group of students organize a speaker series at our school every year. The student committee observes and identifies important community topics and issues, they reach out to experts on those topics, they invite them to speak at our school, and open the doors to the public. The student committee collaborates with local citizens to narrow in on interests and needs, and organizes speakers to meet those needs. Students also collaborate with community experts to speak.
7) Transition to Project-Based Learning:
PBL is community centered by nature. It requires collaboration on many levels. PBL emphasises authentic learning experiences. Students are expected to collaborate with community experts, have real-world learning experiences beyond the walls of the classroom, create a final product that makes a positive impact on the community as a whole, and share their work with an authentic audience. Collaboration is an integral part of PBL. Collaboration skill-building is especially effective when the experience is student-led. Check out past posts on PBL right here, and head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for PBL resources to get you started.
8) Start a Mentorship Program:
One of my coworkers has been hard at work for years developing a mentorship program between our students and members of the community. The students and community members not only develop a friendship, but the mentors get involved in our students' projects, bringing their network and their collaborators to the table.
9) Start an Internship Program:
There are so many reasons to encourage student internships, and building collaboration skills is on the top of that list. The same coworker that works diligently on our mentorship program is also heavily involved in opening up internship possibilities to our students. Several of our students apprentice at Urban Boat Builders where a diverse array of collaborations are at play. Students can further strengthen collaboration skills by finding and arranging their own internship opportunities.
10) Organize Legislative Days:
Encourage learners to collaborate with their local representatives to make positive change in the community. Every year MAAP organizes "Legislative Day" where students from all over the state travel to Capitol building in St. Paul to discuss community issues with their legislators. These conversations often turn into long-term collaborations. One of my students, for example, worked closely with her legislator to create a bill that would help ex-convicts be productive citizens by making job opportunities more accessible.
Of course there are many more ways to help learners develop collaboration skills including problem-based learning, place-based education, hosting exhibition nights, educational travel, service-learning, etc. It can be as simple as taking what you are ALREADY doing with your students and adding community partnerships to the mix.
Next week I'm heading to Zion National Park with my family. I'm unsure at this point if I will have a post ready for next week. Keep an eye out. At a minimum, I'll post when I get home. Stay-tuned for a post on all of the ways to enhance learning while traveling.
Good luck to you, and as always, feel free to reach out for questions or comments. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Last night my three-old tried to climb out of the bathtub by herself. I helped her back in the tub and explained to her that the bathtub ledge is smooth and wet, and therefore, slippery. She then removed the bathmat from the tub floor and swung it over the ledge, and again, began to climb out. She explained that the rough texture of the bathmat made the edge of the tub less slippery so that she could climb out safely by herself. My 3-year-old did this. Toddlers have the capacity to problem-solve, as do preschoolers, elementary students, middle schoolers, teenagers, and so on. With a little guidance, they can be problem-solving champs!
Every facet of life necessitates the ability to recognize problems and come to solutions, such as building and nurturing healthy relationships, raising children, home maintenance, success in careers and college, personal health, and more complex global issues like pandemics and natural disasters. The world around us continues to evolve in profound and unprecedented ways. Educators have an imperative responsibility to help nurture and strengthen that skill. Twenty first-century humans, regardless of age, regardless of context, must know how to face problems, how to work through the unexpected in a world of perpetual uncertainty, and come to logical and effective resolutions.
As I've said in my other posts on 21st-century skills, content and skill development are not mutually exclusive. You do not need to put your content to the side while you work with learners on problem-solving. Check out the following learning activities that incorporate problem-solving by design. There are other options not listed here, but the ones mentioned below are those that I've spent time fine-tuning because I've seen powerful results.
If you happen to be interested in helping learners develop a variety of skills, check out 21st-Century Skills Portfolio in my TpT store. Otherwise, give some of the learning activities below a shot.
Learning Activities That Build Problem-Solving Skills
I choose experiential learning activities for my students as often as humanly possible, which means learning is student-directed, learners are actively involved, and reflection is built into every experience. The following activities, include each of these elements, which is why I turn to them to help learners practice problem-solving.
This is one of my favorite learning experiences for building problem-solving skills. In problem-based learning, students observe real-world, complex, open-ended issues and develop a plan to solve the problem. Learners come to solutions by researching different perspectives, conducting experiments, talking with experts, analyzing the variables, determining several options to solve the problem, and weighing the pros and cons of each option. The results is a powerful combination of content knowledge and many 21st-century skills, including problem-solving. It also crosses disciplines; always a plus.
For example, buckthorn is an invasive species that is devastating forest communities around Minnesota. As a problem-based learning activity, students would research the natural history of buckthorn as well as the structural and behavioral adaptations that have allowed them to be so successful. Learners would look into solutions currently in place. They would research ways to eradicate and prevent the problem. They might even develop original solutions to the problem. They would then weigh their options and develop a comprehensive plan to solve the problem of buckthorn takeover in MN. That is problem-based learning at it's finest.
Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for my problem-based learning resource on invasive species and other problem-based learning resources.
Inquiry-based learning is when students make observations about the world around them, ask questions, and come to their own conclusions through experimentation and/or investigation. Inquiry-based learning starts and ends with the students. When educators rely on lecture and other forms of teacher-centered relaying of information, learners aren't problem-solving. Open inquiry often results in dead ends, unanticipated results, uncooperative sources, etc. that demand that learners take a step back, reflect, analyze the problem, and try something else. For more posts on inquiry, click the inquiry-based learning link to your right.
You can also check out a variety of inquiry-based learning resourcesat my TpT store.
Project-based learning is a wonderful tool for developing problem-solving skills. Innovation, authenticity, and community impact all set PBL apart from other styles of teaching. Learners are immersed in the community by default, so have many opportunities to observe and identify problems that are relevant and close to home. This is especially true when projects are designed to impact the community. My community action projects on TpT ask students to identify problems/issues in their own communities and take action. Click here for other PBL resources on TpT, and here for most posts on project-based learning.
Design thinking is a great way to practice problem-solving skills, and "making" is one way to utilize design thinking. The best maker activities that incorporate problem-solving are those that ask students to design and create something that literally solves a problem. I had a student in my environmental science class that designed and created an entire line of clothing from upcycled materials to reduce clothing waste, for example. Making also naturally leads to problem-solving. Prototypes rarely match final outcomes. Students start with a vision, they try some things out, use materials that they think will do the trick, inevitably run into obstacles, reflect, try something else, and so on and so on, until they have created a working final product.
A few days ago I asked my kindergartener to build a contraption that could rescue a "monster" from lava. His goal was to make something using household items that could pull his monster toy to safety without stepping in the lava (crossing the line). I have had my high schoolers do a similar activity, but it was related to natural selection. They learned content while practicing problem-solving through trial and error.
Check out some of my maker PBL challenges that combine elements of project-based learning and design thinking.
Play, especially when unstructured, is highly influential when it comes to skill development. In play, children themselves create rules, they make-believe, work together, and work through their own dilemmas. Social emotional skills emerge such as empathy, compassion, self-control, and expression of feelings. Twenty-first century skills come onto the scene as well including team-work, communication, flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving.
My oldest child started kindergarten this year. I have had doubts about sending him to a play-based preschool. The transition from two diametrically opposed learning environments has been jarring for everyone. Then I remind myself that his ability to cope with this new experience, to persevere through the transition, to express his fears and worries, to communicate with his teacher, and problem-solve can in part be credited to his preschool experience. I urge you! Let them play!
There are of course many other ways for children to practice problem-solving such as travel, service learning, STEM and STEAM, nature-based learning, team-building activities, current events discussions, analyzing case studies, and even casual conversation. Not all learning experiences are organized and structured. We learn about the world around us by living in it. What will NOT boost problem-solving skills are lectures, drill worksheets, and textbook readings. Those methods of instruction involve very little independent thinking. I understand that they have their place on occasion, but not when it comes to fostering generations of problem-solvers.
Ask yourself what you are doing with your students to help them build problem-solving skills. If your answer is "not much", consider trying out some of the activities here, or asking yourself another question; why not? If you need convincing, head back to some of my other posts about 21st-century skills. If your answer to the first question is a resounding "so many things!" I would love to hear about your experiences! Happy problem-solving!
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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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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.
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"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.
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Project-Based Learning End Products to Demonstrate Learning
I have seen students produce some pretty outstanding projects in my 11 years as a project-based educator, but those projects typically came from experienced project-based learners. There is a learning curve with PBL, and it requires breaking some pretty strong habits that have formed from prior training in more traditional learning environments.
The biggest challenge for me has been getting students to think more creatively and authentically about how they will demonstrate learning and share new skills and knowledge with a relevant audience. Based on habit and ease, students naturally gravitate toward poster boards and slideshow presentations - even veteran project-based learners.
Students also default to poster boards and slideshows because they know they'll have to present their project at some point. These tools are practical ways to present information, but may rob students of deep, meaningful learning. Limiting end products to poster boards and presentation slideshows also takes choice away from students, which is essential in project-based learning. There are many avenues for student choice in project-based learning, and one of those is choice in end product. There are plenty of options to choose from. It's just a matter of getting students in the habit of thinking outside of the box. Scroll down for a list of 100 alternatives to poster boards!
Check out these previous posts for details on the general framework of PBL if you haven't seen them already: What is Project-Based Learning Anyway? and Key Components of Project-Based Learning. My next post will be on authentic presentations, which goes hand-in-hand with innovative final products. I will get into community experts and PBL assessments as we move into July. Stay-tuned!
Note: Summer is a great time to start looking into project-based learning if you're interested in starting it with students in the fall. I will continue to post throughout the summer on PBL, so check back frequently. You can also head to my TpT store where most of my resources are project-based.
Poster Board Alternatives
1) Create a magazine
2) Write trivia (Kahoot is a great online trivia game program)
3) Make an interactive exhibit
4) Make a board game
5) Engineer a moving model (ex: demonstrating synaptic transmission)
6) Write a song on a project topic
7) Write a poetry book
8) Create a photo journal
9) Make a scrapbook
10) Write and illustrate a comic
11) Paint a mural
12) Create a gallery (ex: photography, paintings, drawings, sculptures)
13) Hand-make a craft/artifact
14) Design a lesson plan
15) Make a video tutorial
16) Start a Vlog
17) Write a blog
18) Make a website
19) Produce a podcast
20) Write a screen play
21) Create a storyboard
22) Choreograph an interpretive dance
23) Organize a debate
24) Work with local legislators to write a bill
25) Make a calendar
26) Organize a mock trial
27) Make a 3D model
28) Make a documentary
29) Write a newsletter
30) Write a news article
31) Write a lab report
32) Artistically perform (dance, song, etc.)
33) Craft Showcase (Ex: handmade bags, scarves, DIY projects, wood working)
34) Make a video promotion
35) Put together a career portfolio (resume, work experience, reference letters, evidence pages)
36) Create a piece of artwork that illustrates the project topic
37) Slideshow (works well for volunteer experiences, field trips, school travel, etc.)
38) Make a quiz
39) Write a book (biography, short story, novel, etc.)
40) Create an awareness campaign poster for an issue important to you
41) Create a Facebook page (works well for characters in books, business page, or group)
42) Create a spreadsheet portfolio (appropriate for event planning for example)
43) Make charts and graphs (to illustrate survey results for example)
44) Design a t-shirt (school shirt, shirt that raises awareness on an issue, etc.)
45) Make a "Bloom Ball" (check out this fun example and bloom ball template)
46) Create a map
47) Make a puzzle
48) Design an escape room (Lock Paper Scissors Co. has a "how to" guide at the bottom of this webpage. This website offers kits for purchase, but you don't need to, and wouldn't want to in purchase one in this ase, because CREATING one is the final product for the student project.)
49) Design a travel brochure
50) Make a business card (Ex: for a character in a book, for a business, for volunteering, etc.)
51) Make a flier
52) Write a journal or diary (on a personal experience such as a health plan)
53) Write an instruction manual
54) Create a theme poster
55) Make a blueprint (floor plan for the setting in a book, one's dream school, interior design) - Google Sketchup is a great, free program for this.
56) Write a petition
57) Write a persuasive speech
58) Write a business plan
59) Record an interview and publish it using the free Storycorps app
60) Create an online portfolio (for showcasing creative and/or professional work, or student could create a portfolio page for a person they are studying - Crevado is a free efolio maker)
61) Create a billboard style advertisement
62) Write and illustrate a children's book
63) Make a concept map
64) Write and perform a monologue
65) Make a simulation (digital, written or performance)
66) Make an animation
67) Create a timeline
68) Make a diorama
69) Make a diagram
70) Write an informative speech
71) Make a fortune teller (I had a student that created over 100 fortune tellers with information on teen pregnancy. A fortune teller is a kids game made out of paper. She decided rather than put numbers inside, which is normally what you do, each triangle would have statistics on teen pregnancy. She randomly placed them all over the city, in bathrooms, on the city bus, etc. It was a great way to raise awareness). Click here to learn how to make a fortune teller.
72) Make a graphic organizer
73) Make a postcard
74) Compile a book of interviews
75) Organize and host a game show
76) Produce a news segment
77) Put together a time capsule
78) Make a collage
79) Put together learning stations
80) Design a set and give "visitors" a "tour" (would be good for a book project)
82) Organize an event in the community
83) Create a professional quality infographic
84) Make a music video
85) Put together a handbook
87) Learning activity
88) Child-friendly translation of a convoluted concept
89) Design and make a usable product - Ex: If the topic is on natural disasters, the student might design and build a life-saving device.
90) Write a jingle
91) Make a puzzle
92) Design an art installation
93) Create a brand
94) Write a proposal
95) Host a school event
96) Organize a speaker series
97) A "_____ week/month" program/schedule (Ex: three week meal plan or theme book club schedule)
98) Host a fundraiser event
99) Create a Pinterest profile and add boards and pins directly related to your topic. Could do the same for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Create a page that IS NOT personal. You might create a Facebook page for a character in a book or an Instagram page for healthy recipes, for example.
100) Write an editorial
Thanks for stopping by! Feel free to share your stories of project-based learning successes. I'd love to hear about some final products your students have used that weren't listed here! My eyes and ears are always open for new and exciting ideas. Thanks for reading!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest & Instagram, for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
What is project-based learning anyway?
This post was published when I first started my blog about one year ago. This is an updated version. I will be updating other earlier posts on project-based learning throughout June. Stay-tuned.
For several years now, since seeing the documentary "Half the Sky" (if you haven't seen it or read the book I HIGHLY recommend it), I have been doing a women's studies seminar with my students. Part of the seminar is for students to take one topic related to women's history or women's issues and do a project on it.
Several years ago I had a student who chose to do her project on domestic violence. She chose this topic because it was relevant in her life at the time. She connected with the Sojourner Project, a domestic violence non-profit and shelter in the Twin Cities, to ask an educator from the organization to come to the school to speak with her and her classmates about the issue of domestic abuse. This student also contacted a self-defense instructor from the community to come into the school to teach her and her classmates effective self-defense strategies. The photo on the cover of this blog post captures that experience. I still have students talking about what they gained from that class today. It was memorable and meaningful to my students for many reasons, one of which was its relevance to their lives.
This student assembled all of the information she gathered into a presentation and created a brochure that included signs of domestic abuse, community resources for victims, tips for friends and family of abuse survivors and more. She placed hundreds of brochures around the community from health clinics to bus stops to school counseling offices, as well as up on all of her social media sites to spread awareness. She also organized a clothing and food drive for Sojourner Project's shelter.
This student didn't gather statistics and info from a few websites online, copy and paste them into a Powerpoint presentation and regurgitate the information from her slideshow to her classmates. She collaborated with the community, reached out to experts in the field, made an impact on the community by playing an active role in making change, and shared her new knowledge and insight to a relevant audience that could benefit from the information. That is project-based learning.
My experience and philosophy of teaching is all about project-based learning (PBL). I have been a project-based teacher for 11 years. I talk a lot about PBL right here on my blog and my various social media pages. Almost all of my TpT resources are PBL in nature. Since starting this blog a little less than one year ago, I have discovered that there are a few misconceptions around project-based learning that I hope to clarify in this post. The most common is that it's the same as a project. As you can see from my example above, they are very different things. The result of project-based learning is a deep, meaningful learning experience. Generic projects don't always have the same impact.
So what is project-based learning?
In short, PBL is learning through projects that are innovative, relevant, and are shared with an authentic audience. Students gather information on a topic or problem through questioning, learning activities, and community collaboration. They share their new skills and knowledge beyond classroom walls in such a way that their final product and presentation make an impact on the local and/or global community.
Passion for Learning by Ronald J. Newell is a great book about project-based learning, which puts a spotlight on MN New Country School, an authentic project-based learning school in rural Minnesota. This book is informative and inspiring for those interested in moving into project-based teaching. Ronald J Newell describes project-based learning as follows:
It might feel like a lot, and it can feel overwhelming at first. But with the right resources, and by allowing learning to be driven by students, it all tends to fall into place. Not without hard work, mistakes, going back to the drawing board, trying new things, etc. but that is teaching. It's what we do. Changing up our teaching methods based on the evolving needs of our students is not only important, but THAT is our job.
Examples of Project-Based Learning:
I had a few students a couple of years ago who were interested in skateboarding. They could have easily done some research on a famous skateboarder, copied and pasted information into a Powerpoint presentation, presented it to the class, and called it a day. That is a project, not project-based learning. That wouldn't fly in my class, so...
This is what they did instead:
The students decided to create their own skateboard clothing brand. They named their company (Abstract Skate Co.), designed a logo, and met with a local screen printing company who taught them how to screen print AND build and set-up their own screen printing workshop at the school on a budget.
The students met with a local business, JAMF Software, for business tips. JAMF was so inspired by their project that the company ended up giving the students a grant to set up their own screen printing studio at the school and all merchandise needed to start their business. The students met with marketing professionals from JAMF for tips on branding their product. They printed shirts and skate decks, "hired" out another student to write their business plan, created a website, and planned and hosted a launch party for their brand. Now that's authentic project-based learning! Check out the photos below to get an idea of the process.
Benefits of PBL:
Although the brand never really took off (students graduated and went on their way), the lessons learned and skills developed from this one project are profound. If they decide to take another crack at it in the future, they will have the skills to do so successfully.
There are a lot of benefits to project-based learning, but in my opinion the most important is
1) the development of skills essential for success in the 21st century, 2) intrinsic motivation to learn, and 3) a lifelong passion for learning. A poster board project on Tony Hawk would not have produced the same authentic and powerful learning experience.
Take a look at this handy visual that I put together below that compares a standard project with project-based learning and check back next week for specifics on each element of PBL.
If you're interested in project-based learning, continue following this blog throughout the summer and check out my PBL bundle below or any variety of other project-based learning resources in my TpT store, many of which are free (Experiential Learning Depot.)
My PBL resources require little to no prep and train students to critically think and have their own ideas! The result is student-directed learning. Win! Right now is a great time to start thinking about project-based learning for next year or use it as an entire summer school course. Check out the preview for the bundle below or head to my store for individual PBL resources.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education. You can also find me on LinkedIn.
One last example! Check out this three minute video.
I came across a children's book about sea turtles at the library, and grabbed it for my kids. By the second page I discovered that the book is a beautiful illustration of project-based learning at it's finest. Check it out...
Follow the Moon Home by Deborah Hopkinson and Phillipe Cousteau Jr.
Note: I mention "Classroom Unbound" in this video. That was the name of my blog when I first started. I changed it to Experiential Learning Depot a few months ago to streamline my brand. So to clarify, "Classroom Unbound" is the same as "Experiential Learning Depot".
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.