For those of you that follow my blog closely you are likely not surprised that I'm writing a post on my distaste for worksheets, and for you I'll be preaching to the choir. Others may be thinking "ugh, another progressivist posting about how terrible worksheets are." I assure you, ditching worksheets is not a progressive move anymore. You might be neither of those people and are just curious about why worksheets may not be an optimal learning strategy and what some alternatives may be. I hope to provide some insight to all and some alternatives to worksheets.
I have used "worksheets" before and will continue to use them occasionally in my teaching career. However, I use them sparingly, and I use a specific style of worksheet. When I use the word "worksheet" in this post from now on, what I am referring to is that of the "drill" variety: pages or packets filled with the same questions over and over again, slightly modified, that have a right or wrong answer. I'm going to tell you why I don't use worksheets, common excuses for assigning worksheets and alternatives. As you move into summer, reflect on your practices this year. Will you use worksheets next year?
Why I don't give my students worksheets:
1) I would be a hypocrite.
It's an integrity thing for me. I talk heavily about the benefits of experiential learning in this blog. If I were to say "yes" to drill worksheets, I wouldn't be practicing what I preach. I support and promote experiential learning because I have observed the benefits, and science supports it as an effective learning tool. The same can not be said for worksheets, at least not in isolation.
For more information about experiential learning check out this blog post -"What is Experiential Learning, Anyway?". You can also hear my thoughts in my interview about experiential learning on the podcast, A Teacher's Shoes.
2) Worksheets do not accommodate all learning styles.
Worksheets are a one-size-fits-all approach, and learners are not one-size-fits-all. This can leave many students confused, frustrated, and deflated. Differentiation is a popular approach to accommodating many learning styles. At a minimum, then, leave worksheets as an option, but beware that students may not be choosing to do worksheets because they learn best that way. They are likely choosing worksheets because they offer concrete right or wrong answers. It's easier than having to problem-solve, work together as a team, reach out to community members as a resource, as some non-worksheet learning activities would require of students.
3) Drill worksheets do not have a place in life outside of school.
The only time I have ever done worksheets in my life was when I was in school. It would never come up in life; not to get a job, not to keep a job, not to plan for a family, not to plan a trip. Drill worksheets serve no purpose in life, so why do them? I'm short on time as it is. Adding busy work that serves no purpose is not something I'm going to do. Prospective employers are never going to ask students in an interview how well they can fill out a worksheet. They're going to want to know if the student has a thorough understanding of the content necessary to succeed in their field. They're going to want to know if the student can work well with others, control their impulses, critically and creatively think, work independently. These skills aren't gained by completing drill worksheets.
4) Worksheets "decontextualize" learning.
Drill worksheets are loaded with questions or problems in isolation from the whole. For example, I would get worksheets in high school chemistry that were filled with chemical equations to be solved. We would practice over and over solving these equations with specific formulas, yet I had no idea how those formulas applied to chemistry or what they really meant. I wasn't learning chemistry. I only learned how to regurgitate information that had little meaning.
I think the Alfie Kohn quote below is referring to "schooling" in general, but it applies to drill worksheets, which tend to be tasks isolated from a bigger picture. Worksheets perpetuate this problem. By hammering in discrete units, students are collecting piles of bricks but not building a functional home.
5) Worksheets do not ignite a passion for learning.
Worksheets are boring! Some may say, "who cares, students don't have to like it. That's the real-world. Life isn't always fun and games. Better to prepare them for that now." That is something I hear a lot and it's very frustrating to me. Students can quickly lose their passion for learning if worksheets are the norm. What I want for my students is to love learning. You will never have students seeking you out years down the line to thank you for your worksheets or to share with you the incredible impact those worksheets have had on their lives. They will thank you for building a relationship with them, creating opportunities for them to pursuit their interests, challenging them, and giving them autonomy and choice, because it's those things that make a real and important impact on their lives.
I assure you that the student comments above are not in reference to all of the worksheets she was given in school. She is talking about experiences she had. Worksheets are not life-altering. To hear more about this particular student's story, listen to my podcast interview. Link above.
6) Worksheets train students for careers of the past.
Drill style worksheets don't teach Important 21st-century skills such as tech literacy, creativity, social/emotional skills, collaboration, communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and other skills employers of today desire. Rote memorization is no longer a skill worth spending a lot of time cultivating because information is so readily available. It wasn't 50 years ago, at which time worksheets made more sense. Now drill worksheets are an archaic practice.
I have talked to a lot of teachers and parents that defend drill worksheets. Below I have listed some common answers I get from parents and teachers when asked why they give out or support the use of drill worksheets. I have included some alternatives to satisfy those justifications:
1) " I assign worksheets to students as content review."
Many teachers give worksheets to students with the intention of hammering in an idea or concepts covered that day in class or in that unit.
What's the problem with that?
Unless that content is tied to life, the real-world, or something personally meaningful to the student, that content won't be remembered, regardless of how many times they repeat repeat repeat.
What to do instead:
If your purpose for using review worksheets is to help students memorize content, consider doing an activity that will leave a lasting impression. Then students will not only remember the content long enough to pass a test, but may remember it 20 years later, and say to themselves, "Hey! That's an example of commensalism! I remember that from that ecology vocab scavenger hunt we did in Ms. Segar's bio class! Remember that egret we saw sitting on that cow?" (scavenger hunt free in my store) As an experiential educator, I believe "leaving a lasting impression" requires that the learner be involved in some way. A scavenger hunt where students can observe and experience the ecology vocab in action is more memorable than copying definitions onto a worksheet. Even a combination of an activity and a worksheet would be more effective than a worksheet alone (if you insist that the worksheet is necessary).
2) "I sometimes give out worksheets as a formative assessments."
Sometimes teachers just want to see if students know the material that they've been taught. I do understand why teachers would do this. It's quick, it's easy, it's cut and dry.
What is the problem with that?
The problem is that drills are typically in isolation from the whole. It's difficult to see how drill problems connect with the an overarching concept. You often miss misconceptions that students have developed, and you wouldn't necessarily know if students understand the concepts or if they are just great at memorization.
What to do instead:
Try other versions of formative assessments. I get a lot of mine from the book "Science Formative Assessment" by Page Kelly. It gives a ton of quick, easy formative assessment strategies that are designed to reveal where students are having trouble or forming misconceptions. There are so many creative formative assessment strategies out there. Do a simple Google search or head to Pinterest. You can even simply ask students to write a reflection, which is what I do with my students, as reflection is an important part of experiential learning.
3) "Worksheets give students practice."
I hear this one a lot, and understand why someone might think this. A drill worksheet likely does give students practice, but what is it that they're practicing exactly, and is it something we want them practicing?
What is the problem with that?
What students are practicing is memorization for the purpose of passing a test. This just isn't necessary anymore. They have access to information all of the time. The internet is not going away. I would argue that using worksheets to "practice" is doing more harm than good. If students are doing drills for practice, and they are doing the drills incorrectly or don't understand the material, the "practice" is just reinforcing misconceptions and confusions.
What to do instead:
Again, if the purpose for drilling is to get students to memorize the information, try making it experiential. Get your students involved. Not only are they more likely to remember the concepts, but they will have a clearer understanding of it. There are so many great ways to do this like inviting speakers to talk about their research, taking students on field trips, collaborating with the community, inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, STEM, STEAM, maker education and more. These are all effective strategies for practicing and understanding content, while providing opportunities for students to build important life skills. For student-directed problem-based learning, project-based learning, maker, and inquiry resources, check out my store, Experiential Learning Depot.
This is much easier said than done for some teachers. I have math teachers in mind here. For math teachers, check out a previous post here written by Tony Geraci. He is a high school math teacher that incorporates 21st-century skills into his curriculum. Check it out here.
The series of photos above illustrates a STEM project where students worked cooperatively to build a treehouse for LEGO people as an extension of a book we read on citizenship. Not only did students learn about citizenship, practice team building, and work with their hands, they also learned math and physics concepts. They are more likely to remember and understand those concepts, as they had to actually apply them to be successful.
4) "Sometimes kids have to do things they don't want to do. That's life."
I hear this one a lot, "That's life", as if drills prepare students for life. I myself have said this before, especially when I'm frustrated with my students and their lack of productivity.
What's the problem with this?
I have to take a step back and remember that life is hard as it is, especially for teenagers. My students have experienced a lot in their short lives. They are tougher and more responsible than they should have to be at 16-years-old. Worksheets are also not a real-world reality. Students will never encounter a job in which they have to sit at a desk and fill out worksheets for the purpose of rote memorization.
What to do instead:
There are many things that our students do in life that they don't like. You don't need worksheets to teach them about hardship or work ethic. Encourage students to prepare for the real-world by getting a job or starting a business. Facilitate learning experiences that are student-directed so they can practice desired career skills. Problem-based learning is a great example activity. Promote community relationships with your students such as starting a mentorship program or organizing service learning experiences.
Want to toughen kids up and help them understand the value of hard work? Have them spend nine days working on an off-grid chicken farm in the middle of the mountains. Everything takes effort. I never heard "that's doing too much" from one of my students because saying that wasn't an option. I understand that these experiences aren't realistic for all. Consider then bringing the challenge to the classroom. Use the community to make your point.
5) "Worksheets are quick and easy to plan and implement. Sometimes I just need a break from rigorous lesson planning."
This is completely understandable. Teacher burnout is real and powerful. Sometimes teachers just need a breather. There is no problem with that.
What to do instead?
Like I said, I get it. If you must give out worksheets to give yourself a break, try to do it sparingly. There are other ways to take breaks that are better for everyone:
Put on a movie! I know this can be frowned upon, but there are so many educational movies out there. There are documentaries galore about any subject you can think of! I love throwing on news series for students because they are relevant and promote citizenship. Check out my Vice News episode activities. Note: I call these resources "worksheets" in my store only because I don't know what else to call them. I assure you, they are not drill worksheets.
Find resources that are quick and easy to plan that are applicable to life. For example, rather than giving students a drill worksheet on basic math principles, ask them to write a travel budget. Rather than giving students a vocabulary worksheet where they copy down definitions, have them create a slideshow with vocab definitions along with a photo that represents the definition. One of my coworkers used to do this with her students. It helps students make real connections with the words in a more interesting and effective way.
One final method of limiting intense lesson planning is to incorporate student-directed learning activities into your curriculum. Your students direct the learning experience while you facilitate. No lesson planning. Check out my store for student-directed learning resources AND refer back to blog posts from my student-directed learning series for guidance.
As you drift into summer, reflect on your year. What did you do well? What could have gone better? What changes do you want to make? What kind of people do you want your students to become? How do you want your students to perceive learning? Does your current approach support your teaching goals? Are drill worksheets working for you, and more importantly, are your students getting anything out of them?
Thanks for stopping by! Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education.
Spring is the perfect time of year for citizen science! It's warming up outside, students are getting antsy and exhausted, testing is underway, breaks are badly needed. On top of that, things start to get active in the world of wildlife, especially in temperate regions like Minnesota. Animals emerge from hibernation, migrating species begin their long journeys to their summer sanctuaries, and it's breeding season for many organisms.
Citizen science is when citizens, like your students, have the opportunity to play an active role in wildlife studies or projects going on around the world that benefit from participation by citizens. Hawk Watch International, for example, hosts hawk counting events at their migration sites that anyone can participate in. Volunteers count passing hawks and record their count to an online database.
Citizen science is a great learning tool for many reasons. One is the application of science concepts to the real-world. Participating in citizen science also shows students that they can play a role in improving the community and the world around them. They are active citizens, an important 21st-century skill.
I highly encourage organizing classwide citizen science activities or taking a project-based learning approach to citizen science. Take a look at my PBL Toolkit to get students rolling on citizen science PBL projects. Using my Community Action Projects resource is one project-based learning approach that makes sense in this case, as students would be actively participating in projects that better the community.
The following is a list of some of my favorite citizen science projects to use with my high school students AND my own young children. The projects listed below are appropriate for ALL ages. You could get students involved either part of school curriculum, at home for homeschool projects, on a family camping trip, or over the summer to keep students busy and sharp, among other things, There are many more citizen science programs out there other than the 20 listed below. I'd love to know about others that you've done with your students!
20 Citizen Science Projects for Students of All Ages
1. Globe at Night
The purpose of this project is to raise awareness about light pollution and its impact on communities. Students can report their night sky brightness observations daily. All they need is a computer or phone. This would be a great supplemental learning experience to a broader PBL project on light pollution.
This website has a variety of projects to get involved in, which is nice when it comes to student-directed learning. Students can pick a citizen science project in line with their interests such as insects, mammals, migrating species, invasive species and more. What's really cool about this website is that is promotes communication and collaboration with naturalists and research scientists.
3. Project Budburst
Project Budburst focuses on plant observations. The intention of the program is to understand human impact on wildlife, particularly plants. One area of focus right now is determining how plants are and will continue to respond to climate change. This site has a tab for educators with age specific learning activity recommendations.
4. Project Noah
Project Noah is another citizen science option that emphasizes wildlife observation and inquiry. There is a section for educators that has a "classroom" feature where teachers can set up and manage class citizen science projects. The education section also provides investigation ideas from mimicry to backyard ecology. This is a great option for homeschoolers as well. You can add as many students to the "class" as you wish. It would be a great independent PBL project because citizen science naturally collaborative, an important element of PBL.
5. Project Squirrel
This citizen science project seems a bit dull. I mean, squirrels? They're so ubiquitous and kind of a nuisance. They aren't rare. They aren't large predators. They are a slightly cuter version of a rat. Squirrels, however, can tell us a lot about the health of the surrounding environment. Students can get involved in this project by recording squirrel observations and photos. It's a more interesting and hands-on way to learn about ecosystems. There is also a special experiment students can get involved in that looks at food patches.
This resource is incredible. What's different about Zooniverse compared to the other citizen science options mentioned so far is that the projects cross disciplines. There are projects on climate, history, literature, medicine and even art, not just natural science. One of the projects on there right now is called "Anti-Slavery Manuscripts". This project was added by the Boston Public Library to include citizens in transcribing their collection of letters written by anti-slavery activists. I think the best feature of this website is that students can create their own citizen science projects to add to the site, which citizens from all over the world can then contribute to. That would be a really cool PBL project and deep learning experience for older students or as a class project. I used to do large group projects like this with my advisory.
SciStarter is similar to Zooniverse in that there are a variety of citizen science projects available to choose from AND students can create their own. It is essentially a massive catalog of citizen science projects. One of my favorite things about this website is their blog. The blog articles illuminate the impact of citizen science on our understanding of the world.
This is a super black and white, straightforward catalog of citizen science projects in the U.S. It is not fancy and does not have a special section for educators like many of the websites mentioned so far. However, the catalog is exhaustive. If you are having your learners do student-directed PBL projects, this website is a great place to start. They can search for ideas relevant to their interests.
9. World Water Monitoring Challenge
This project is fantastic for raising awareness and educating students on water issues across the globe. Students monitor their local waterways by performing water quality tests. Consider implementing scientific open-inquiry labs on water quality in your area (check out my inquiry-based learning toolkit for guiding materials - I also have several student-directed water pollution activities in my store including inquiry, PrBL and PBL..) Students that are especially passionate about this issue and want to get more involved can apply to be ambassadors on the website. The downside to this citizen science project is that it is not free. Specific water quality kits need to be purchased to participate. One upside (of many) is that it's global.
10. The Great Backyard Bird Count
This citizen science project is only open for participation a few days per year. There are four designated days for citizens from all over the world to count birds. This year (2019), almost 33 million birds were counted. Students can count birds, submit observations, and explore the data. There is also a photo contest students can take part in! Your students will need access to smartphones and the eBird app to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. Hawk Watch International, which I mentioned above, is a similar program, but specific to hawks.
11. Journey North
Journey North is a citizen science option that specifically focuses on migrating species such as the monarch butterfly and whooping cranes. There are many organisms to choose from as well as specific projects. The Symbolic Migration project is one example where students from around the world create paper butterflies and send them to students in Mexico. Those students then care for them through the winter and return them in the spring, symbolizing butterfly migration. This is a cool way to integrate art, geography, science, history, and culture, as well as to encourage global learning and collaboration. My kids and I participate in the loon program each spring, which is the MN state bird (my place of residence).
12. Butterflies and Moths of North America
As the title of this citizen science option suggests, this particular project is specific to butterfly and moth sightings across North America. Students can take photographs and record sighting locations of butterflies, moths, and/or caterpillars to the database. Students can open and analyze data maps. This is another one that is easy to participate in as long as you're in North America. Migrating moths and butterflies use the north as a summer sanctuary and the south as a winter sanctuary. They can be found in most environments from urban gardens to national parks. My students and children take part in this project every spring.
13. WildCam Gorongosa
This project can be found and your group managed through Zooniverse (#6). Scientists and conservationists need help tracking and identifying species in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Students scroll through photos taken by wildcams placed in the park. Students identify organisms and their behaviors IN the photos. That's one interesting thing about this citizen science project; students can participate from anywhere in the world, including in a classroom. I understand some educators don't have the flexibility to get out of the building everyday to view wildlife. This is a great option for those in this situation. The "lab" tab in the upper right corner of the homepage is a place for educators to compile class data, which might come from an inquiry investigation for example. Students can also discuss what they see with other volunteers and scientists. It's highly collaborate, and pretty addicting once you start!
14. Nature's Notebook
This website is geared toward educators. Nature's Notebook focuses heavily on phenology monitoring, but what's cool is that you can create your own phenology monitoring program with your students that is relevant to your community. Your students could consider starting a citizen science program as an upper level project-based learning experience.
15. The Wildlab Bird
The Wildlab Bird is another citizen science opportunity offered by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Students observe birds near their learning spaces and report sightings of GPS-tagged birds to Wildlab. One thing that is unique to this citizen science option is that they promote STEM. They put a strong emphasis on integrating technology, so much so, that they will provide iPhones to your students for this project. They will also visit your school or other learning environment free of cost to help you get started.
16. Celebrate Urban Birds
This project encourages urbanites to observe their surroundings and appreciate wildlife. You don't have to be in the middle of a national park to find wildlife. This is a great project for urban students that don't have easy access to natural areas.
17. Project FeederWatch
I love this project! There are so many learning opportunities built into it. It is not simply a matter of counting birds in your school yard. You could take advantage of design thinking by having your students build their own bird feeders. The shape, structure size, color, and food included will all be dependent on the bird they're hoping to attract and count. In order to find this information students will have to do some research on the natural history of birds in their community. You could split your students up into groups, have each team determine a bird of focus, design a birdfeeder specific to the species of their choice, and then observe and count the birds to report to Project FeederWatch. This would be a great PBL experience.
18. School of Ants
The purpose of this program is for citizens to help create a thorough map of ant species and their ranges across North America. This is a great supplemental activity or could be a PBL project in itself. Students would learn about the natural history of ants in North America, what they eat, their behaviors, distribution, and more while contributing to real science. This website has many resources for educators as well.
19. The Lost Ladybug Project
Another one on insects! The Lost Ladybug Project asks citizens to help them collect ladybugs, photograph them, and submit the images along with some basic information such as location, date, habitat, etc, to their database. This could be a great supplemental activity to a larger discussion or unit on topics like invasive species, habitats, competition, evolution, genetics, and more. Be creative, or let your students get creative by having them conduct student-led scientific open inquiry investigations.
20. The Great Sunflower Project
The Great Sunflower Project emphasizes pollinators, a hugely important topic and one that has been in the spotlight for quite some time, as our pollinators are at risk. There are a few ways to get students involved in this program. One way is to have them grow sunflowers, monitor pollinator visitors, and test the effects of pesticides on the pollinators. Students can also participate in pollinator counts anytime, anywhere, even in the school yard or in their home gardens. As a project-based teacher, I think this final option is the coolest way to get involved; students can learn about important habitats for pollinators by literally creating their own pollinator habitat such as a bee or butterfly garden.
Thanks for visiting! I hope you're able to get your students involved in at least one of these citizen science projects this spring. By introducing them now, they can take over and continue to stay involved on their own throughout the summer and into next year. I'd love to know about anymore citizen science projects not mentioned here that would be worth looking into.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources. There are a couple free ecology resources available to download.
Photo Credit: Many of the photos above were taken directly from the citizen science websites cited. The quote photo, blog cover, butterfly photo, bird photos, butterfly art piece, and child looking at butterfly catalog were taken by Experiential Learning Depot.
Spring is here, the weather is warming, and students are getting antsy. The school year is wrapping up. Teachers want to end the year with a bang, but we're also exhausted and don't know how much more we have in us! It's testing season, prom season, graduation season, grade report season! Ah! May is bonkers in the world of education.
What better way to go out with a bang AND cruise through the rest of the year than with community action projects (CAPs)? I did a post on this a while ago. Feel free to go back to that post for details. In summary, students choose a local or global issue, design an action plan, and take action. It's a great mix of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service-learning. Community action projects are interesting, multidisciplinary, and mine are designed to be student-directed, which means there is little to no preparation on your part other than introducing and facilitating the project.
Here's how it works: Students choose an issue that they'd like to get involved in and do some research on the problem. After students have chosen and thoroughly investigated an issue, they brainstorm solutions, design an action plan, and act. Hosting an exhibition night to showcase projects is a nice way to wrap up the experience.
You could allow students to choose any issue of interest or keep it within parameters pertinent to goals or learning objectives for a class. For example, I have done an entire seminar called "community action projects" where that's all we did. I have also incorporated CAPs into specific courses such as a final project for my environmental science class. Students focused on issues pertinent to the environment such as water pollution. Check out this community action project designed specifically to the concept of pollution.
There are a couple important distinctions between this kind of project and any other school project. My community action projects follow the principles of project-based learning, so one of the most important distinctions is that these projects make an impact on the community, preferably long-term. Check out my post on the elements of project-based learning for more details. A student could create an elaborate awareness campaign with beautiful illustrations and a catchy slogan, but if their final product isn't shared or never reaches a relevant audience, then learners aren't reaching their full potential. The project wouldn't make a real impact if not shared with a meaningful audience and the student is robbed of deeper learning, particularly of opportunities to build important 21st-century skills such as networking, communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and citizenship. The purpose of a project like this is not to theorize solutions to hypothetical problems. It's to teach students how to be responsible and active citizens, to have the tools to fight injustices, or simply know how to solve real-world problems.
The following is a list of community action project ideas that could apply to most issues. Students can refer to this list when designing their action plans or you could choose an idea from the list to assign to the class. That would be the more teacher-guided approach vs. student-directed where students design their own projects. You choose!
***I have a community action project toolkit in my store that includes all guiding materials and templates needed for students to carry out projects on issues of their choice.
10 Community Action Project Ideas To Wrap Up the School Year
1. Awareness Campaign:
Students design a campaign that would educate the public on the issue. They could create posters, t-shirts, a video promotion, etc. They can get super creative with this one, and the options are endless, especially with social media and other technologies having come onto the scene.
2) Design and Make a Product:
The idea behind this one is that students design and make something that raises awareness and provides a tangible outcome. The product should be usable or sellable to raise money for the cause. One example would be starting a philanthropic business. The shoe company, TOMS, was founded on this idea. They observed that kids without shoes were developing health problems such as hookworm. TOMS business model then is one-for-one where they give a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair they sell. Check out this free business plan organizer from my store. Another example would be taking an invasive species, like buckthorn here in MN, and using it as material for a product to sell such as a bracelet or waste basket. This action plan physically removes the problem and brings in money (selling the product at a school function, in boutiques, or on ETsy) to use toward a permanent, long term solution (ex: donating the funds to the DNR.) This is a great option for the makers of the world.
3) Innovative Strategy to Raise Awareness:
Imagine a student is interested in the issue of teen pregnancy. One way to raise awareness would be to create a brochure with some info and stats on the isse and pass it around town. Okay. That is technically raising awareness, but it's not a head turner. There is nothing creative, interesting or shocking about it. Brochures are overdone and overlooked. To truly make an impact, the student's audience needs to be intrigued.
For example, a student of mine did her community action project on teen pregnancy. Rather than a simple brochure, she created a website with information about teen pregnancy. She then assembled HUNDREDS of fortune-tellers (paper origami game). She put information about teen pregnancy on the fortune-tellers as well as a link to her website. Near the website link was instructions for entering a drawing for a prize. She then discretely dropped hundreds of these fortune tellers around the city - on city buses, in community center bathrooms, on the bleachers at school football games, etc. In order for a reader of the fortune teller to get their name in the drawing, they had to go to her website, find the contact page, and send her a note that included three facts that they learned from her website. There are several cool things going on here. One is that the fortune teller screams to be picked up. It would be odd to see a fortune teller sitting next to the soap dispenser in a public restroom.
4. Organize a school club or community organization:
I have had several students start and organize clubs for their community action projects. One group started an environmental science club. Enough with the science examples already! I'm a science teacher, what can I say? They created objectives and goals and organized club events related to their community action projects. They put together a community wide clean-up day where they walked the school neighborhood picking up trash. The club organizers invited speakers to come in and educate students on local environmental issues and give them tips on how they could help. I have a PBL project specific to starting a club, which includes templates helpful for getting one started.
5. Community Volunteer
One way to take action on an issue of importance is to give time to a cause. That often takes the shape of volunteering. Students find an organization relevant to the issue they've chosen for their project and give their time to that organization. Leaving it there would be a typical community service or volunteer experience. A community action project doesn't stop at giving a few hours of their time. Students also need to document their experience and share that experience with an audience that is meaningful or relevant to the issue.
One student was interested in trafficking. She connected with a shelter that took in trafficked survivors to help them get back on their feet. They asked her to organize a food and clothing drive for women in the shelter. In order to collect a substantial amount of food and clothing, this student needed to get the attention of the community. She invited some of the women from the shelter to speak at the school. She opened the event to all students and community members. The women's stories were powerful. More people were willing to donate food and clothing once they were aware of the issue. This wasn't a simple volunteer experience where clock hours logged and signed by a supervisor. This student not only gave her time to cause that she was passionate about, but she was able to raise awareness about the issue a the same time. Deep learning took place here. Volunteering has a been a popular action plan. Other projects have included a student helping dog shelters at adoption events. Another group of students observed elementary teachers needed help, so they connected with a local elementary school to come in and help, which included reading with kids.
6. Host a Fundraiser
Raising money is a great way to take action for a community action project. The outcome makes a direct and tangible impact. Several of my students organized a holiday pie fundraiser at the time when the Syrian refugee crisis was front and center. They not only learned about the Syrian conflict, but also how to organize an effective fundraiser. They had to learn which organizations were reputable and would get the money into the right hands. They learned how to make homemade pies and how to market their fundraiser. They had to figure out how to make a profit, not lose money! They knew pie ingredients could get expensive (particularly apples), so worked with local orchards to work out a reduced price. They created a survey to determine how much money people would pay for homemade pies so they could price them appropriately and effectively. See this free student-directed fundraiser organizer from my store.
7. Write Letters and Meet with Legislators
Advocating for legislation is a really powerful learning experience, not only because students make an impact on their community at the time, but they also develop the skills to continue to do so long after they've graduated. It's important for students to know their rights and how to advocate for themselves and their communities over the course of their lives. I had a student that was frustrated with the lack of job prospects for ex convicts. She wrote letters to her local legislators expressing her interest in the issue and invited them to come to the school to meet with her and talk about possible solutions. One of her legislators called her back, came to the school to meet with her, where they brainstormed solutions at the legislative level. Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) also organizes a statewide legislative day every year where students from all corners of Minnesota come to the state Capitol to discuss the importance of alternative education with their legislators.
8. Artistic Production
This is another way to raise awareness about a local issue. This idea here is that students create some kind of production such as a skit, play, documentary, music concert, etc. that raises awareness in an interesting way. They then bring the production to relevant audiences around the community or host an event. For example, a group of students doing a project on the issue of bike accidents might create a skit that demonstrates bike safety and perform that skit at local elementary schools or community clubs in the area.
This is when students organize a walk or demonstration to raise awareness or put pressure on politicians to act. Our students have participated in the Science March, March for Immigration, and the Women's March. They create original signage for the events. They document the experience via vogging, a documentary, photojournalism, blogging, etc. I have also had students organize walks, which is what the photo on the cover of my Community Action Project resource illustrates. Some students read a book for their book club called "Am I Blue?", which inspired them to organize a walk for gay rights. They recruited participants from the school and community.
10. Host a School Event
This is a fun one but might would take significant effort on your part. I have had students organize screenings of documentaries that are only available to educators. One specific example is the documentary "Sold", which is a movie version of the book "Sold", which I read with students for a women's studies seminar. I have also had students host environmental science fairs, fundraisers (carnivals, cook-offs, car washes, etc.) We have had students host a speaker series from community members relevant to the issue at hand. The list goes on. Let kids get creative!
There are many more options for action plans, but these are the most common with my students. This particular project is really powerful, inspiring, and is a great way to end the year, especially if you host an exhibition or presentation night to show off their final products. Good luck! I would love to hear of student projects and outcomes. Feel free to send me photos or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to feature them on my blog.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources. I am participating in the sitewide sale 5/7-5/8. The whole store is 25% off.
'Tis the season for road trips! Whether it be a spring camping trip with students, a summer road trip with your own children, or a cross country trip with just you and your dog, take full advantage of learning opportunities along the way. Learning is powerful beyond the walls of a classroom. Hitting the road opens doors to learning experiences that couldn't be achieved from a classroom.
There are many gears working to make a road trip possible from the planning stages, to packing, navigating, financing, and more. Involving students in these steps gives them the chance to apply skills and knowledge in real-world contexts. Travel gives students the wherewithal to figure things out regardless of the situation or changing circumstances. If you get lost, you have no choice but to find your way. It might put a wrench in your plans, but this is a learning experience in itself.
Learning naturally happens all the time, especially when traveling. But you can still encourage students to plan PBL projects, reflect on their experiences in a way that is intentional, collaborate with locals along the way, do the trip planning, fundraise, and more. I used to take students on road trips for summer school credit. When leading an educational travel experience, having purpose, expectations, structure, and guidance is important. I require my high school student travelers to complete student-directed PBL projects that are relevant to the trip at hand. I have also done this with my own young children. You might recall a past post on a family trip to Denmark where my four-year-old documented the trip with my camera and edited the photos using a photo app.
I am a champion of learning, particularly when it is student-led and promotes lifelong learning. It doesn't matter if it's summer. It doesn't matter if it's not in a traditional learning environment. Parents and homeschoolers, this post is especially pertinent to you because you have more flexibility when it comes to using the world as a resource.
The following is a list of learning activity ideas to do for or on a road trip. They are intended to be adaptable, modifiable, and work across the board with all skill levels, age groups, backgrounds, and more. They are just ideas to bring learning and travel together. Project-based learning is one of the easier ways to incorporate intentional learning into travel experiences. Check out my project-based learning toolkit to help guide students through the process of student-directed project-based learning from the design stage through to the reflection and assessment.
Good luck! I'd love you to add any ideas not listed here. This list is certainly not exhaustive. If you have your students or children do any of these learning activities this spring or summer I'd l'd love for you to share the experience!
20 Learning Activities To Do On Road Trips
1. Create a tour using Google Maps -
I wrote a blog post a while back about using Google Maps in project-based learning. Check that out for more specific ideas. Learners could plot points and narrate a tour on Google Maps of just about anything from restaurants to overlooks to birding spots along the way.
2. Scientific inquiry experiments -
students could ask a question about their route and collect data as they go. For example a student may want to conduct biodiversity sampling from a variety of different habitats. I took students to California a few years ago to study the starkly contrasting ecosystems in the state. We traveled by car around the state collecting climate and biodiversity data. I also drove students through Florida studying the diverse marine ecosystems along the way. These are just examples. There is an infinite number of questions your learners could ask and test on the road. If you're interested in inquiry-based learning but would like some guiding materials, check out the toolkit offered in my store.
3. Scrapbooking -
Students could create a physical scrapbook by adding photos with captions and collecting and adding artifacts from the trip such as museum stubs or souvenirs. They could also find a digital scrapbooking program such as Shutterfly. Shutterfly is a photo program where you can create photo books. They can be costly. Students could use any number of free programs as simple as Google Slides or the free version of Canva.
4. Photojournalism -
Have students document some relevant current event using photography as their medium. This could be on any number of topics in politics, art, culture, humanities, etc. An example would be documenting evidence of an upcoming election. There may be events taking place in towns along the way, campaign signs littering yards or billboard advertisements splattered along freeways.
5. Budgeting -
Have your students create a trip budget that includes lodging, gas, food, activities or tours, etc. I have many travel products in my TpT store, most of which are free. One of these products, free, includes budgeting guidance. Challenge students by encouraging them to keep the trip under a certain amount of money. It might also be cool to have students create a blog post on tips and tricks to pinching pennies on the road.
6. Design and create a road trip game -
Road trips can get long. Ask your students to create a game before the trip begins that they can play in the car. The challenge is making sure the game is road trip appropriate such as keeping it compact, limiting small pieces, and making sure it can be played while seated. You could also have students create a game that is inspired by the trip such as gathering information about small towns on their route and writing trivia questions about their stops.
7. Journaling -
Students could also keep a written journal. I have done this on every trip I've ever taken, even as an adult. It's fun to look back on them years later. I have had students do doodle journals instead of written journals as well where they articulate their experience through pictures, or doodles in this case.
8. Make a cookbook -
All cities have cuisine unique to their region, or types of food they are known for. Determine food staples in different towns/cities along your trip, learn how to make those dishes, and create a cookbook. For example, if I did a road trip through the midwest I might learn how to make deep dish pizza (Illinois), pasties (Michigan), hot dish (Minnesota), and cheese curds (Wisconsin).
9. Photography -
Capturing the travel experience with photos is an obvious road trip learning activity. Just because it is obvious doesn't make it any less valuable. When taking pictures you see things differently than you would if you weren't trying to get the perfect shot. You notice more, learn to ask questions, and go to greater lengths (such as climbing this hill just a little bit higher) to get that perfect shot. Students would experience the trip from a unique perspective. Try landscape photography, wildlife photography, environmental portraits, etc.
10. Create a trip inspired playlist -
This is more of a trip reflection as it encourages students to look back on the trip and connect music to meaningful experiences had on the trip. Click here for a free travel reflection.
11. Creative writing -
Students could write a book of poetry, a short story, a children's book, a graphic novel, a song(s), a comic, etc. inspired by trip experiences.
12. Make postcards -
Students can make their own postcards of stops along the way with any number of art mediums such as photography, drawing, painting, charcoal, etc. They can then send their postcards to friends and family as they travel.
13. Social media documentation -
The great thing about technology today is that students can share their experiences in real time. Students can document their trips as they are on them and post updates for friends and family to follow along on their journey. I had my students do this on school trips with me. We published a blog post at the end of each day of the trip. My students have mostly blogged in the past, but they could have also vlogged, made a podcast, a documentary, or simply provided updates on their own social media sites. I took students on a bio trip to Costa Rica a few years ago and we blogged about the experience right here on Experiential Learning Depot - check it out.
14. Volunteering/community involvement -
Before students take the trip, ask them to contact organizations along the route that reflects their interests. For example, students interested in environmental science or nature may be interested in cleaning up road litter along the way or plastics washed up along beaches.
15. History projects -
Have students do PBL projects on the history of places they stop on their trip. They might want to know how the infrastructure of towns has changed over the past 100 years, the history of the people and changing demographics, the history of specific monuments located in each town they stop, or even the history of particular buildings such as lighthouses, factories, schools, or abandoned buildings.
16. Economics projects -
Have students explore certain aspects of the economy along the route. One example is to investigate the unemployment rates in different towns along the way and mapping the rates. Another option is exploring major markets or industries in the cities that they visit such as tech startups, logging companies, hospitality, tourism, etc. They could visit some of these companies, tour factories, interview employees, etc.
17. Art portfolio -
Students can create a portfolio of art pieces inspired by trip experiences such as drawings, watercolor paintings, a collage, etc. The portfolio could be art pieces based around a theme such as landscapes, water towers, lighthouses, bridges, barns, etc. or the portfolio could just represent the trip in general. One of my students created an adult coloring book, her coloring pages inspired by experiences or things she saw on her trip.
18. Journalism -
Interview people along way on any number of topics and write a "news article". I took some of my students to the Big Island of Hawaii last year, and as we circumnavigated the island over the course of the week, several of my students interviewed locals, farmers, business owners, and more on whether they've felt any impacts of climate change or expect to in the foreseeable future. The students then wrote an article summarizing their findings. Again, this is just one example. I am a science teacher, so many of my examples will be science related. It doesn't mean they have to be. Let your students get creative!
19. Collecting and analyzing artifacts -
Have students collect and catalogue any number of artifacts they find during their travels such as insects, leaves, shells, soil, rocks, flower petals, etc. They can even map their findings and examine how environmental factors might play a role in what artifacts were found where. For example, they may find very different rocks at one stop than they do at another. Students can research and analyze why this might be.
20. Maker projects/ STEM -
Have students observe a problem associated with car travel, such sore backs from sitting too long, and design and create a solution to the problem. I saw a video on Pinterest a while back of students games that could fit in the side pocket of their backpack to bring on an airplane. The pieces had to be small, they had to have three games in one, and the whole game needed to fit in an Altoids tin. The final products were astounding. This is an example of a product engineered to make travel easier.
Thanks for stopping by! Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education. Check out my TpT store - Experiential Learning Depot - for student-directed resources. Most of the educational travel resources are free.
Again, follow up if your students have done any of these learning activities on road trips or if you have any learning activity ideas. Feel free to contact me through email at email@example.com. Parents and students, if spring or summer travel is unrealistic because of time, money, or any other obstacle, check out some of these creative ways to get your kids traveling this summer!
Happy road tripping!
I'm so excited to introduce Eliot Kersgaard from Myra Makes as my guest blogger this week! I've been interested in STEAM for a long time, but do not feel at all equipped at this point to write about it. I'm lucky to have connected with Eliot, a STEAM rockstar, who was kind enough to share his thoughts and expertise with us.
Eliot Kersgaard is the cofounder and director of Myra Makes. He was born and raised in Colorado and has a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Colorado. He has experience in nonprofit management, urban agriculture, STEAM education, physics, metaphysics, design thinking, permaculture and multimedia art.
5 Ways STEAM Can Improve Learning Outcomes
STEAM is one of the new buzzwords on the block in the experiential education movement. But what does it mean, and why should we care?
In most circles, STEAM education is a modification to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math), which includes the A for the Arts. Some organizations, like Maker Bolder in Colorado, switch out a couple of the STEM letters and call STEAM Science, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Arts and Making. To avoid confusion, we’ll think about STEAM in this article as the traditional STEM subjects plus the Arts.
The idea behind STEM and STEAM is not merely that these subjects are important, but that they are best taught together, as complementary subjects. And while STEM might conjure a picture of kids making robots or learning to code, the aim isn’t about getting more kids to build robots and make video games. And adding the “A” isn’t about making those robots prettier. The inclusion of Arts in the mix is a recognition that creative, divergent, and aesthetic thinking are key ingredients to success, innovation, and communication in STEM and life in general. The fundamental objective of STEAM in my mind is to help create a more technically literate society that better understands how science works and is able to think creatively to adapt to these changes and leverage them for the best.
STEAM is part of a growing movement of integrated education, and most in the STEAM movement also recognize the importance of other educational philosophies and tools into their approaches. These include problem-based learning, making, experiential learning, nature-based education, and social-emotional learning. Just as STEAM subjects are strengthened when considered together, these lenses and tools are strengthened when combined.
A collaborative brainstorming session focused on generating ideas to make a difference in our communities.
STEAM education is one way to frame learning during an impact-oriented project.
STEAM, along with other educational philosophies in the dialogue today, can seem intimidating to teachers, kids, and parents because it seems to demand more of everyone involved. This uncertainty and fear is valid, and the STEAM approach is fundamentally different from the educational system that has been developed in the West since the mid 1800’s. However, before that time, STEAM, Making, and problem-based learning, while not called by these names, were the standard for learning and learning environments. Prior to the industrial revolution, it was common for thought leaders in many disciplines to cross disciplinary bridges. Think Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and Hypatia. In many ways, the STEAM and aligned movements are a rekindling of how education has been conducted for most of human civilization.
OK, but what does STEAM education actually look like? I’ll explain through an example of a STEAM project. Imagine that a homeschool family has decided to construct a small greenhouse and outdoor garden. They decide to use this project as a STEAM learning opportunity. The project is broken into five different elements, one for each of the STEAM letters. Note that while the project described is a lengthy project, STEAM learning can take place over shorter times and with less planning as well. See Myra Makes (and a future post here!) for some ideas of quick STEAM activities to do at home.
A garden project, real or imagined, can introduce STEAM topics (pictured: Journey to Cloud City by Myra Makes)
For science, the students will study garden and greenhouse ecology to decide what species to include and what they will need to thrive. For technology, the students will create automated systems of light, heat and water to ensure everything runs smoothly and to reduce the workload during operation. For engineering, the students will design and build the infrastructure needed. For art, the students will design the overall arrangement of all of the elements, create a mural on the side of the garden beds to represent their visions for the project, and write a summary of the project so others can learn from the experience. Finally, for math, the students will create a budget for the project and decide on the various purchases needed. The key factor that makes this project a STEAM project is that learning in one of the areas is connected to learning in all of the other areas. The technology element draws from biology to determine the appropriate light and water requirements for the plants. The engineering element must consider the technology that will be included as well as the ecology. The artistic element brings all of the other elements together to determine how to represent the project to the outside world and create an overarching design.
The results are improved learning outcomes across the board, beginning with:
Number Five: Increasing content relevance
In work, entrepreneurial, or home contexts, the STEAM fields rarely live in isolation from one another. The construction of a garden and greenhouse is one example of how they are likely to be found together. By teaching these subjects together, we are able to more closely mimic how students are likely to encounter them later in life. This strengthens the mental pathways that connect these subjects so that students will be better equipped to understand, analyze and design in situations they will encounter later in life. This increased relevance is the foundation for the other improvements in learning outcomes coming later on this list.
Number Four: Engaging a greater diversity of learners
In the normalized academic structure of having each subject taught separately, students can easily become alienated from specific subjects. Students can lose interest in a class and have a difficult time becoming engaged again as the content grows more difficult and they struggle to play catch-up. If a student is disengaged in math, it is unlikely that more difficult math in the context of another math class will be a gateway to interest. On the other hand, teaching multiple subjects together provides more avenues for learners to become interested in the material. If math is taught alongside art or biology, there are now routes for students interested in art or biology to become interested in math as well.
Number Three: Building creative, problem-solving and design skills
While it is true that careers in science and technology are becoming more plentiful, the most sought-after skills in the workforce are more abstract: problem-solving and creativity. These skills are fundamentally a blend between artistic thinking and scientific thinking. Artistic thinking is divergent, on-the-fly thinking, identifying many approaches to a problem, and connecting disparate elements together. Scientific thinking emphasizes analysis, optimization, and experimentation. As a simplification, the arts are the beginning, highly creative stages of a design process, while the sciences are later stages of analysis and optimization. By teaching them together, problem solving and design are embedded throughout the curriculum.
Problem-solving games can encourage kids to draw on their knowledge of STEAM subjects
to bring their imaginations to life (pictured: Inventure by Myra Makes (prototype))
Number Two: Increasing learner agency
As discussed in our Number Four, STEAM education increases the number of pathways to learning subject material. By mixing and matching subject matter, there are many entry points to the material and there are many ways of thinking about it. Just as this allows STEAM to engage a more diverse array of learners, it allows learners to explore their own personal learning style, connect the subject matter with their interests, and find new learning approaches that work best for them. These combine to increase the agency, or freedom, of a learner. This deepened agency is key to fostering lifelong learning, one of the fundamental aims of integrated education.
Number One: Improving content mastery
While each element on this list is valuable in itself, they also work together to increase students’ content mastery. In other words, their testable outcomes will improve. This is an emergent, almost accidental result of engaging more learners, increasing content relevance, and increasing learner agency.
About Myra Makes:
Myra Makes is a grassroots startup based in Colorado. We believe that every person has the innate capacity to contribute to a brighter future for all while meeting their needs and developing their passions. Our mission is to create a more playful and just society by enriching the lives of kids, teachers and families. To achieve this, we create books, games, and programs to engage the whole child in creative pursuits.
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I'm several posts into my student-directed learning series now, and I'm finding that I may never reach an end. There is so much to say about student-directed learning. Generally speaking, when learning activities are truly student-directed, classrooms are transformed as are students. Student-directed learning, in short, gives students choice, voice, and autonomy. This approach to learning provides students with opportunities to develop important 21st-century skills, grow in knowledge, and develop the tools for lifelong learning.
The three learning tools of focus on this post do not necessarily have to be student-directed. They can all fall under teacher-directed if the teacher is making most of the decisions and directing the experiences. Guiding is much different than directing (check out my post to see what teachers do in a student-directed learning environment.) I chose the three learning activities that I did, not because they have to be student-directed in order to work, but because they have the framework in place to make student-directed learning possible and easy to implement. The following activities are great ways to start if you are looking to transform your classroom (and students) by way of student-directed learning.
3 Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools
1. Project-Based Learning (PBL):
I have written a lot of posts about project-based learning because it has been my dominant teaching tool for the past 11 years. Project-based learning is when students investigate a topic or driving question, create an end product to demonstrate learning, and present the final product. What distinguishes project-based learning from other pedagogies or projects in general is that the community plays a large role in the research process, end products must be innovative, and presentations must be authentic, meaning the information gathered or the product itself should meet and impact a relevant audience. Self and peer-assessment is also important. For details on how to start student-directed project-based learning and for PBL examples, refer back to some of my other posts on PBL.
So then how do you make PBL student-directed? Give students choice in as many ways as you can. Students can choose their own topic and learning objectives if you have the flexibility to allow that. If you are restricted to teaching specific topics, then choose the topic and allow student choice in other aspects of the project process. Students can choose how they will gather information, which community experts they will use and how they will utilize their expertise. Students can choose how they will demonstrate learning such as creating a comic or building a website. Students can and should choose their authentic audience. Students can even choose their own grading criteria by writing their own rubric or designing their own formative assessment.
Teacher-directed project-based learning would mean you would be doing all of that work for your students. Not only is that a lot on you, but learners are then robbed of the opportunity to develop those important skills themselves such as networking, communication, and collaboration.
Most of my TpT store is filled with various project-based learning resources. Many of my PBL resources start with a specific topic but give students choice in every other way. I also have a project-based learning toolkit that provides all of the guiding materials necessary for student-directed PBL that can be personalized to any topic.
The photo on the left is one part of the end product of a large and ongoing student business project. The picture is of skate decks for his skateboard company, all designs done by students. The photo on the right is of a student taking photos as a way of demonstrating learning. Photography was a passion of his, so taking photos to document his project was his choice.
2. Problem-Based Learning (PrBL):
I love problem-based learning for so many reasons, but one is the creative solutions that students come up with. Kids come into this activity with a fresh lens! Problem-based learning is when students examine real-world problems. They investigate the problem, research existing solutions, develop novel solutions, and propose a comprehensive plan to mitigate or eliminate the problem completely.
Again, problem-based learning has the bones to be student-directed as long as students direct the experience through a series of choices. I often introduce a problem and then have students choose how they will examine the issue, who they will talk to, resources they will utilize, collaborators, etc. They can also choose how they propose their plan.
True student-directed problem-based learning would be allowing students to choose the real-world problem they want to investigate and solve. This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires certain skills such as making observations about the world around them or recognizing when there is a problem at all. Students will get better at these skills the more opportunities they have to build on them.
I just started a problem-based learning product line on my TpT site. I have a problem-based learning toolkit that provides the framework and guiding materials to do student-directed problem-based learning from start to finish.
I do a lot of problem-based learning activities on environmental science because I am a science teacher. I give them a water pollution problem about fertilizers (available in my store), and organized a field trip to a nearby organic farm to talk with the farmer about how she grows crops sustainably.
3. Inquiry-Based Learning:
I use student-directed inquiry-based learning quite often because I am a science teacher. It's very fitting for science concepts, as one method of investigation is experimentation. Inquiry-based learning, however, is multidisciplinary. It can be used in any learning environment, for any subject, and any unit (if that's what you're looking for.) Inquiry is simply asking a question and investigating it through whatever means available and effective.
Again, inquiry-based learning is not defined by giving students choice. It falls on a spectrum, as I said in my last post. Feel free to go back one week to see my post on student-directed inquiry-based learning for details on how to guide inquiry activities. If the teacher asks the question, designs the investigation, and directs everything in between, then it is teacher-directed inquiry. Open inquiry is the opposite end of the spectrum where students observe the world around them, ask their own questions, and direct their own investigations. Guided inquiry lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
I have a few scientific open inquiry activities in my TpT store. I also have an inquiry-based learning toolkit with the guiding materials needed for student-directed open inquiry.
These photos are of my own children doing an inquiry activity on conduction. My daughter observed that a metal statue that she touched was cold and asked why. Her observation; her question. I guided the experiment. I do student-directed learning activities with my high schoolers, my preschooler, and even my toddler. It is an effective learning approach for all ages, skill levels, backgrounds, etc.
Of course there are other activities that can be student-directed, but these specific approaches to learning have worked well for me. Other popular learning activities right now that could be student-directed include STEM, STEAM, and making. You could even take something like reading and make it student-directed. Let students choose their own books to read and demonstrate learning in a way that works for them. I see lot teachers doing this on social media.
Student-directed learning is an exaggerated version of differentiated learning. Instead of "choice time" where students have choice for specific chunks of the day, or genius hour where students get one hour a week to choose a topic to study, or splitting kids up based on skill levels certain times of the day, transition to student-directed learning where students can choose to learn in ways that work for them for most or all of the day, not part of it.
If student-directed learning is simply giving students choices then you should be doing that with your students. You just should. I know that's blunt. You can still teach to the standards, you can still have structure, and should absolutely have high expectations of your students. All you have to do is give choice.
Project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry-based learning are great ways to start doing that, and they are taking the educational world by storm. Implementing these types of learning experiences is not out of the question anymore. I got my teaching license 11 years ago. The teaching program that I was in insisted on heavy training in inquiry-based learning. The school where I was trained, the U of M in Mpls, is not ultra-progressive, the teaching program is not an alternative program, and student-directed learning activities like inquiry-based learning are not radical ideas. Not now, and not 11 years ago. Get on board if you haven't already.
I spoke with another teacher the other day that said her school is pushing project-based learning on her. She said she was scared, and I completely understood her sentiment. We as teachers are already spread thin. To take a teaching portfolio that she had spent her entire career developing to then be told that she won't be using that any longer is a blow. It sort of feels like starting over. Like going back to student teaching! Yikes. No one wants that. Just know that you don't need to start over. You just need to facilitate instead of direct. Your expertise, knowledge, network, etc. are incredibly valuable. Take the plunge, especially if your district is giving their full support. Keep coming back to this blog for tips on making the transition. You can do it, and I'm here to help!
P.S. I do have a bundle that includes all of the student-directed tool kits I mentioned above (PBL, PrBL, and inquiry-based learning.)
I would love to hear about any student-directed learning activities that you do with your students, or how your PBL, PrBL, and inquiry-based learning activities are working out for your students.
Getting Started with Student-Directed Inquiry-Based Learning
I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old. These two little ones are at prime ages for questioning. I get 1,000 questions per day, at least. Yesterday I was baking a cake and my son asked me why I was putting eggs in the batter. I turned this simple question into an inquiry-based learning activity.
Rather than tell my son why cakes need eggs, he investigated his own question. I guided him through a simple experiment. We made one cake with all of the listed ingredients (control) and another cake with all of the same ingredients except for eggs. He observed raw eggs before using them by moving the yolk and whites around with a fork. He noticed the consistency; that it was slimy and stretchy. He commented on the color. I asked him to tell me about his experience eating eggs. What do cooked eggs taste like? Feel like in your mouth? Do scrambled egg fall apart when handled? Based on what you're seeing here, what differences do you think you will see between the baked cakes? His prediction was that the cake with eggs would taste like, look like, feel like, and smell like scrambled eggs and the cake without eggs would taste like cake ;) And why wouldn't it? My four-year-old is drawing on his observations and previous experiences.
We then made the two versions of the cake and observed the final products in the same way that we observed the raw eggs. I asked if they looked how he expected and to observe the differences in taste, color, smell, texture, etc. My son thought that the one with eggs tasted better than the one without. The one without eggs fell apart when handled. The one with eggs was brighter yellow. So we determined (with open ended questions from me) that adding eggs to cake batter is probably important for structure, color, and taste.
This is an example of inquiry-based learning.
What is inquiry-based Learning?
Inquiry is simply finding information through questioning. Inquiry-based learning then is a constructivist approach to learning where students develop knowledge by investigating a question rather than through direct instruction (lecture.) Students ask a question based on an observation or are given a question by the instructor. Students then thoroughly investigate that question. The investigation could include experimentation, interviews with community experts, digging through literature such as books, publications and journals, experiential activities, PBL, PrBL, etc.
What are the different approaches to inquiry-based learning?
Inquiry-based teaching spans a broad spectrum from teacher-directed structured inquiry where the instructor gives students the driving question to investigate and designs the investigation, to student-directed open inquiry where students ask their own questions and plan their investigations. Varying levels of guided inquiry lie between the two extremes. An instructor might give students the driving question, for example, but the students plan their own investigations. You might guess, if you are an avid reader of my blog, which end of the inquiry spectrum my learning activities lie.
For more information on student-directed learning, go back to some of my previous posts. I am in the middle of a series on student-directed learning. All of my posts in this series so far can be found by clicking here.
How can I shift to student-directed open-inquiry?
The bulk of my teaching career has been at an experiential learning, student-directed school. I often had students come into my classes mid-year, some 18 years old, that had up until that point experienced a very different kind of learning environment, one where direct instruction was the norm, worksheets were handed out in abundance, and a lot of value was placed on having the correct answers. Throwing students directly into student-directed open inquiry, especially those that are accustomed to being handed "answers", may feel uncomfortable at first. This is especially true with high school students, as there is a shift in mindset that needs to happen.
You can tackle this problem one of three ways:
1) Start at the teacher-directed end of the spectrum and gradually move to the student-directed end of the spectrum. As much as I advocate for student-directed everything, I also understand that there is a learning curve. Making the transition gradually might work best for you and your students.
2) Another way to shift that thinking is to dive right into open inquiry. Be patient and forgiving with students at first, and watch their struggle and confusion transform into a profound learning experience. This is what I usually do. Student-directed open inquiry is where it's at.
3) If I have a population of students that are floundering with open-inquiry after diving right in, I might take a baby step toward the other end of the inquiry spectrum temporarily, providing guided inquiry experiences. This is what I did with my son and the egg experiment. He asked the question. I designed the experiment because, hey, he's 4.
Benefits of student-directed inquiry-based learning?
Why not just Google the answer? If I want to answer a question like why eggs are used in baked goods, I could look it up and find the answer in seconds. The purpose of inquiry-based learning, however, is not finding the correct answer, or finding an answer at all for that matter. The benefits of inquiry-based learning come out of the process, not the results.
A lot of teachers struggle to implement inquiry-based learning because it takes time. What's cool about student-directed inquiry-based learning is that it's multidisciplinary. Many concepts and skills are rolled into one activity vs. direct instruction where ideas are split up into discrete units. Take the egg/cake experiment for example. We practiced counting, colors, and for older students, fractions. We practiced a variety of skills such as communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, and even fine-motor skills. We covered a variety concepts in chemistry and math.
The idea is to get students asking questions and finding information as one would in the real-world. Inquiry-based learning experiences provide students with opportunities to use higher order thinking skills such as making observations, asking their own questions, designing experiments, analyzing ambiguities of conflicting information or unexpected results, working through obstacles and coming to solutions to overcome those challenges. Those are skills that are important in life. Inquiry-based learning is a slam dunk when it comes to practicing the 6 C's as well - collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, citizenship and character development. Student-directed open inquiry teaches students the skills necessary for lifelong learning.
What do you need to start student-directed open inquiry?
Teacher-directed structured inquiry is easy. Pull out a recipe lab and ask students to do it. Open inquiry, however, requires that you provide input. If you want your students to ask their own questions and design their own investigation, you need to set a stage that stimulates the flow of observations, questions, and ideas.
You also need to be prepared to scaffold NOT give answers. Scroll to the bottom for a list of great go-to questions when facilitating a student-directed open inquiry activity.
Finally, student-directed open inquiry does not have to be and should not be chaotic. Structure is allowed and encouraged, especially for beginners. Students should have clear expectations and guiding materials. For example, I personally think it's important for students to reflect on their inquiry experience. Providing reflection questions doesn't dilute the learning experience for your students, it just adds an element of structure that some students need or desire.
Where can I find student-directed open inquiry resources?
I recently added a student-directed inquiry product line to my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I currently have two high school level open inquiry projects in that line on water pollution in lieu of upcoming Earth Day. One is an investigation of water pollutants and their sources and the other is the impact pollutants have on aquatic life. Students will ask their own questions based on materials laid out and what they already know, design an experiment to test their questions, analyze results, and draw conclusions. These resources provide structure and guiding materials for students and teachers in what could otherwise be an overwhelming experience, especially beginners.
I hope to add more inquiry-based learning resources in the near future, including a student-directed open inquiry toolkit that would provide the guiding materials for any open inquiry project that is experimental in nature.
What questions can I ask to guide students through the inquiry process?
1) What do you think?
2) Why do you think that?
3) What do you predict will happen if...?
4) Why do you predict this will happen?
5) What would happen if you tried this instead?
6) How could you find out about this?
7) Who might know the answer to that question?
8) Is this source of information credible? How do you know? What source could you use that would be credible?
9) What does this information mean to you?
10) What does this remind you of?
11) Where have you seen this before?
12) What if you tried this?
13) What did you observe then? What do you observe now?
14) What else does this make you wonder?
15) How does this connect to that?
16) How is this different from that? How are they the same?
17) Tell me about what you're doing here and why you're doing it.
18) What could you do next?
19) What is another way you could ask that question?
20) What could you do next?
Who can implement inquiry-based learning?
My inquiry-based learning resources primarily focus on life science, as that is my licensure and background. Inquiry-based learning can be applied across the board, however. If students are asking questions, doing investigations to answer those questions, and constructing knowledge based on the experience, it's inquiry. You can even see that people of all ages can do inquiry-based learning activities. My resources are geared toward high school students, but I do inquiry all the time with my toddler and preschooler at home.
I would love to hear how educators are using inquiry-based learning across disciplines and age groups. How can you apply inquiry in a high school social studies class, reading class, or math class? How do you use inquiry-based learning in early childhood learning environments?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources including project-based learning, maker resources, and now inquiry. I have a few problem-based learning resources in the works, and am excited to get that product line out in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for following!
If you are an avid follower of my blog, you know by now that content isn't something that I talk about often, if ever. It's not because I don't believe content is important. Students should be able to add fractions, know what a plant requires for growth and survival, and be able to locate China on a map. These things come up in real-life. But all a 21st-century student has to do to find out where China is located is pull out their phone and look it up. They don't need me for that.
What students need from teachers, in my experience, is guidance in developing 21st-century skills. I am an experiential learning and project-based learning educator. These approaches to learning are built around the idea that you acquire content knowledge by using these important 21st-century skills. It is the process of acquiring content knowledge that makes an impact, not the content itself. You learn about plant physiology by making observations, asking questions, problem-solving, making mistakes, trying again, accepting feedback and reflecting. Students discover the content by communicating and collaborating with community members, creating, and sharing using the latest technology, etc.
Applying this philosophy of learning to math is where I have always struggled. Let's put it out there right now. I'm not a math teacher. I have had to teach math because I'm a PBL advisor. It's part of the job description. Math is so content heavy and much of what we're required to teach, I feel, is irrelevant to the real-world. Not long ago a vlog series on Instagram caught my eye. A high school math teacher was posting videos on all of the ways he considers 21st-century learners in his classroom. He is hugely talented at incorporating the latest technology into his curriculum, and his students seem to love it. Math!!! Right?! Who knew. So, I tracked him down and asked him to give us some pointers. Check out his thoughts below and head to his Instagram page (@geraciedu) for more videos and insights from a 21st-century math teacher.
Tony Geraci Bio: I am a fifth-year high school math teacher. I work at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, CT. I currently teach 3 sections of Algebra 2 Honors, one section of Foundations of Geometry, and one section of Foundations of Algebra. While finishing my degree and getting certified to teach, I worked in elementary schools as a paraprofessional and a substitute teacher. Until this year, I also coached baseball for 5 years and girls’ basketball for 10 years at the high school level.
Disclaimer: My perspective is as a secondary education teacher. The elementary and middle school classes, I think, are moving in the right direction. By nature, they deal with the whole child and not just the academic version. For some reason when they get to high school, teachers tend to turn to ranking students rather than developing human beings. I do not want to do the dirty work for colleges. I want to improve the child sitting in front of me. If that is not your cup of tea, then that is also ok. I just want everyone to reflect, and make sure that they feel what they are doing is what is best for their students.
What can you do as a math teacher to BEST serve 21st-century learners?
1. Don’t hide behind your content.
Teachers used to be the sole gatekeepers of all information. Before the internet, if a student did not pay attention in class they would have to deal with the natural consequences of their choices.
Fortunately, that is not the case anymore. The advancements in technology has made information readily available and at our fingertips. It is not fair to judge students solely on their retention of facts and procedures. As teachers, we get upset when students don’t ‘get’ what we are teaching, when in fact, it could be the least interesting thing happening in their lives. Whether we like it or not, there are many more things happening in their lives now than ever before. If the only value that you are bringing your students is your content knowledge do not be surprised if they tune you out. Only students who are compliant will be the ones that engage. I would rather have students who are empowered than compliant.
What I do:
On day 1 of the school year I tell my students two things that usually grabs their attention. One, I don’t care about the math I am teaching. Two, I don’t care about their grades. Heads that are down looking at cell phones or staring out the window usually perk up fast. Now that I have their attention, and hopefully yours, let me explain. I tell them that I am not naive, and I have checked my ego at the door. I understand the reality is that 95% of the students I teach Algebra II will never use what I teach other than in an academic setting. It is just a fact. I am not sure how many jobs require students to use the quadratic formula to find imaginary numbers. Be transparent with your students. They see through the bullshit and your ‘real world’ problems. By being upfront they respect you much more.
2. Create lessons and activities with the human in mind, not content objectives.
As recently as 5 years ago, I saw curriculum stored in binders in the math office. When I asked what I will be teaching they gave me a binder and said follow the worksheets. If you were lucky to have enough textbooks, then teachers would follow textbook content in the order they found most effective. Then teachers would focus on how to best teach the kids content. When test time rolls around, students perform poorly and teachers say, “They should know this. I taught them how to do it."
It is more of the same. Content standards have become the big focus. They have given teachers a macro outlook on what students will be taught and when. “I can” statements or lesson objectives have also been the flavor of the time. Everything is focused on the content and not the student. There are “lessons” online that teachers can borrow or pay for, and many of these lessons focus on teaching the content, not the human that is learning the content.
What I do:
Conceptually, I try to think of how I can engage the students by changing the focus of the activity from the content to the skill. I take traditional, unengaging class time and flip it on its head. Rather than practice mathematical skills with a partner all the time I have a couple of go to activities.
Don’t try to be like anyone else, just be yourself. I am not saying don’t borrow ideas from other teachers, but everything should have your own flair added to it. It should be based on what your kids need and what they enjoy. These ideas are meant to give you a framework. Tailor them to your content, but don't forget about the needs of your students!
3. Be in the present but keep your eye on the future.
It is well known that school was designed to produce factory workers. Listening to the teacher translated into listening to a boss. Following directions and being compliant in school translated into being compliant on the job. It was great for what it was designed for. Unfortunately, the world has changed exponentially, and education hasn't followed suit.
While changes and improvements have been made, it is still not enough. The world is changing too fast. We are at a crucial transition period. There is a younger generation of teachers that have new, fresh ideas that engage students in different ways, but there are still many veteran teachers that don’t want to let go of the power or change the way things have always been done. Additionally, the overall structure of education focuses too much on test scores. We test on material that is irrelevant to the success of students as people. The SAT does not test work ethic, creativity, collaboration skills, or most skills that are needed in the workforce.
What I do:
Be aware of what is happening in the world. We are in the prime of a technology revolution, very similar to the industrial revolution that education was designed for so many years ago. Technology is making our lives more convenient. Convenience is KING/QUEEN!! It is going to be a race to make our lives as convenient as possible through technology. Things we don’t even know we need will be created and introduced in our lives, just like current technology. Who knew we needed apps where you can order almost anything and get it in two days. Rather than focus on teaching students academic skills that will never be applied to their actually lives (example: factoring quadratics), change that focus to life and personal skills that can be applied to all aspects of life.
4. Don’t be so hard on yourself.
If you try something and it flops, then it flops. If you can reflect at the end of the day and feel comfortable with your effort and execution, then you should be proud of yourself. I have tried many activities to try to engage my students that they thought was terrible. It is what it is. Do not let anyone judge what you are trying to do. The only people that matter are the students in front of you. A couple times a year I give my students a survey to get a feel for what they like and don’t like about my teaching style. They are brutally honest. Those surveys remind me that I work for them, they don’t work for me. I need to keep them happy and engaged if I want my message to be delivered effectively.
5. Do things that aren’t in the curriculum that you know are important.
Regardless of the class I am teaching, I always find time to fit in financial lessons. With my Algebra II students it is usually during our exponential growth unit. We talk about saving money with compound interest vs. saving, mortgage interest rates, car depreciation rates, the stock market, taxes and anything else they ask about. At times, the concepts are well above their heads, but they appreciate that fact that I am teaching them something ‘real’.
I hope this post makes you reflect on your practices. Please don’t think I am here trying to tell you what to do. This is what works for me, my personality, and my students. If you can ask yourself a couple questions to get this reflection process going, ask: Why am I a teacher? What do I want students to take away from my class? If I saw a student ten years after they were in my class, what is one thing I would want them to say they learned from my class? I wouldn’t want them to say, “Yah Mr. Geraci, I never forgot how you taught me how to find the vertex of a quadratic”. I don’t think many of you would want responses to involve your content. Don’t we all want to have a lasting impact on the person? Then why don’t we teach like it?
Thank for reading! Check out @geraciedu on Instagram, and @GMath_LSM on Twitter. Click on any of the links below go directly to Tony's videos on Twitter and Instagram.
Video: Probability that we can hit the shapes on the board.
Video: Student Input
Video: Why I started vlogging
What do you do to serve 21st-century students in your math classes?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
I was recently interviewed on the podcast, A Teacher's Shoes, on experiential learning and the profound impact I have seen it have on my students. I have seen learning through experience transform lives. Listen to the episode by clicking on the link below.
A Teacher's Shoes - Experiential Learning with Sara Segar
A couple weeks ago I took my two young children to the zoo. On our way home my four-year-old said "did you know that jellyfish can grow their bodies back when they get chopped up?" In other words, they can regenerate when, say, they have a close call with a sea turtle. My son learned this from chattin' it up with a zoo volunteer. He practiced communication skills, asked questions, took a social risk, and gathered information from an expert on a topic of interest.
I often talk about project-based learning on this blog because it's what I know and use in teaching. An overarching theme of project-based learning is community, from generating projects ideas to the final assessment. Students use community experts to gather information on their project topics, create innovative final products that impact the community, and present their projects to an authentic audience, one that is relevant and often public. All of the PBL components just mentioned involve the community in some way or another.
Before I get into any details on specific ways to use the community as a resource in project-based learning, let's first talk about why you would do this in the first place? Sounds like a lot of work, an extra task or thing to organize, or time away from teaching content. It can be an extra task if you let it. But you could also put some of the responsibility on your students. They can certainly and should be tracking down their own community experts and authentic audience. Community experts also deliver much of the content you would have to otherwise. It also doesn't mean you have to leave the building. As an experiential learning educator I strongly advocate for doing so, but that is not an option for everyone. If it's not an option in your situation, then bring the community to you! And your students can do the same. I'll get to some options soon, but first, why bother to use the community as a resource?
Benefits of Utilizing the Community in Project-Based Learning:
1) Development of 21st-century Skills - students learn a variety of important life skills such as resourcefulness, communication, and collaboration.
2) Real-world application of content - students make meaningful connections when they can see and experience concepts first-hand. For example, shadowing a genetics counselor would allow students to experience genetics concepts in the context of real-life.
3) Building a professional and personal network - students develop a hefty network that could lead to future references, job offers, lifelong mentorships and even friendships.
4) Strengthening the community - community collaboration puts students in a position to actively work at breaking down walls between students and community members that may have developed due to misunderstandings or stereotypes. There is so much to be learned from others, and not just from their expertise, but from their stories.
5) Access to resources you may not be able to offer - I took a graduate class with the biotechnology department at the University of Minnesota several years ago. They offer up their equipment to educators and their students, which I have taken advantage of many times. There have been a variety of scenarios where my students have needed a resource that our school couldn't provide, from actual materials to expertise or skill.
How to Use the Community as a Resource in Project-Based Learning:
The following are ideas or ways that I have personally used or have seen coworkers use the community as an element of learning experiences. You do not have to be doing project-based learning to include community resources in your curriculum. Use some of the suggestions below and adapt them in a way that works for you and your learners.
These are only a few options of many. When planning community involvement in your curriculum, consider the topic of study. Take constraints such as time, your own skills, equipment and space into account. Think about your needs and how a community member might be able to fill that role or provide that resource. It may seem like an additional task to an already demanding load. But if you plan well and put some of the responsibility on your students, it may actually feel like you're saving time, and the end result is worth it. The benefits are worth it.
What are some ways you currently use the community your curriculum? I would love to hear more examples. If you don't currently, what is keeping you? What obstacles do you face and how could you work around them or work through them?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.