Every season is prime time for experiential learning, but fall is one of my favorites. Fall is unique in so many ways. The weather begins to change, wildlife prepares for winter, many farmers harvest their crops, seasonal illnesses begin to creep in (not my favorite), kids gear up for winter sports, fall flavors make a brief appearance, and the holiday season comes on strong.
There is so much to learn and an unlimited amount of questions to ask. Experiential learners are self-directed. That is one characteristic of experiential learning that sets it apart from other approaches to learning. They direct the experience by asking their own questions, they choose how and where to gather information, they get involved in learning by organizing authentic experiences, they choose an innovative way to demonstrate learning, and they reflect on the experience.
Although I would prefer to have all learning experiences outdoors, that isn't always an option. For some, it's never an option. As I've said before, experiential learning doesn't have to be "teambuilding" or "outdoor education", two common misconceptions. Experiential education is learning through experience, indoors or outdoors. It is inquiry-based, hands-on, child-led, and reflective. As wonderful as it would be to grab your kids and head out into the community to shadow climate scientists, study the animal behaviors associated with the changing seasons firsthand, and visit farms to participate in fall harvest (I think you should do all of these things if you can, by the way), there are other options for those that have less flexibility.
Check out some indoor and outdoor experiential learning resources below from Experiential Learning Depot that are perfect for fall. You can either take the ideas and roll with them or head to the links provided for a ready-to-go resource.
Head to earlier posts on experiential learning for more details about the method.
Fall Experiential Learning Resources for Secondary Students
Enjoy the last of the fall colors and mildish temperatures with these projects. Again, if you're not able to purchase the resources, head to my store to check out the freebies, and/or use the basic ideas and run with them. Experiential learning is child-led, so the resources help you facilitate those experiences. Happy autumn!
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I have received comments lately from other parents and educators that follow Experiential Learning Depot, that I appear so collected and have everything together all of the time. I assure you that I'm not, and I don't, especially when it comes to my own children. Kids will always throw us curve balls. They're wired to do so!
The same goes for my students. My educational approach is experiential education, thus, child-led learning. I blog about project-based learning more than any other experiential learning activity because it is where I have the most experience and I've seen powerful outcomes. But it's not perfect. That is the reality. As with any pedagogy, there will be snags at times, mishaps, challenges, and disappointments, but I try to look at those setbacks as opportunities - for students AND educators - in disguise. What feels like defeat just may be an opportunity for learning and growth.
For those of you that are transitioning to project-based learning either on your own or with my Project-Based Learning Bundle and Implementation Guide, you have likely come across some pitfalls. I've listed some challenges below that come up the most often in my learning environment, and I hope to shed some light on the "why" and "what to do".
Common Project-Based Learning Challenges and Troubleshooting Tips
Student-directed learning activities give students choice in process and outcome. When it comes to student-directed PBL the hope is that students choose to do projects on topics of interest. That becomes challenging when students tell you that they don't have any interests. This problem comes up often, and it is truly painful at times for everyone involved, including the student. Don't take it personally and don't give up! There is hope!
Everyone has interests. If you have a student saying they don't have any, start digging around for the source of this declaration. If the student is new, they might not feel comfortable with you yet. Other students might have interests but don't have the skills to identify them (yet). Others may bring personal struggles through the door. Before labeling your students as apathetic, first try to understand the source of their disinterest. Sit down and talk to them. Learn about them. Relationship-building is the key to this problem. By knowing each student on a personal level you can help them figure out the struggle, set personal goals, AND identify their interests and skills for potential projects.
2. Low Productivity
This is one of the most common problems with anything that is student-directed. You are giving them choice and freedom, which is wonderful in so many ways. Having choice and autonomy is empowering, but students may not know what to do with this freedom, especially if they are new to student-directed PBL. They often, then, choose not to do anything with it.
This is another challenge that can be largely resolved with relationship-building. Learn what drives and motivates them and what does not. Students new to PBL may be unproductive because they simply do not know what to do. Student-directed project-based learning is child-led, yes, but it's also structured. Your job is to provide them with the tools to direct the experience. Give them the appropriate templates, implement consistent checkpoints, and provide feedback often. Another student might have all of the tools and experience, and still be unproductive. Do some observing and digging. Are they easily distracted? Are they overwhelmed with tasks? Are they exhausted? Work with students one-on-one to determine the source of low-productivity. Once the source has been identified, tweak expectations and/or help students create relevant and attainable goals.
3. Poor Quality Projects
Pretty simple. Students produce projects that are well below their capabilities. There are many problems with that and if you recognize it as a pattern in a student or two, nip it in the bud quickly.
I wrote an entire blog post a while ago about how to boost PBL project quality, so I won't get into too much here. Check out the link for specific tips and tricks. But generally, if students are producing poor quality work, the root of the problem is likely you. It took me years to understand this, and my students still test my boundaries and expectations. As my post emphasizes, establishing a culture of quality work from the start is critical, and that is on you.
4. Burning Bridges
Project-based learning is different than a standard project for several reasons, one of which is the use of community experts. Students rely on the community as a critical source of information. Occasionally a student doesn't show up for a meeting with a community expert that you organized. Regardless of the reason, it reflects poorly on you and bridges are burned.
The solution? Don't stop trying. It can be frustrating, but guiding meaningful connections between students and community members is part of your job as a facilitator. You can also ask that the student deliver an apology letter and write a personal reflection, depending on the situation. Help the child empathize. You can also ask that the student arrange their own community experts for a while. Let them take ownership.
5. Shortage of Willing Community Participants
Cooperation between students and community members is not always seamless and is not entirely on the shoulders of the students. Occasionally, students or myself will get rejected by a community expert when asked to get involved in a student's project. One of my favorite local artists flat out said "I don't work with teeangers."
At first I was furious with this artist, feeling very defensive of my students. Everyone has a right to their opinion, however, and in some situations, all you can really do is move on. You might also consider pushing a little more by tactfully helping them see that children bring something to the table. Organize collaborations with community members that are mutually beneficial. Give AND take is essential for building strong community connections.
6. Incomplete Projects
Projects fizzle out. Students start a project, work diligently on it for all of one day, and never return to it again. Pretty straight-forward.
You may have noticed a theme throughout this post; student-directed project-based learning is not a one-size-fits-all model. One student may ditch a project for an entirely different reason than another student. Handle the issue on an individual basis. Observe their behaviors and ask yourself if lack of project completion is a pattern for the student or an isolated incident. If it's a pattern than they may be struggling with organization, get easily distracted, lose interest easily, or lack specific skills that would normally promote follow-through. Sit down with these students and talk one-on-one. Identify potential sources of the problem and write goals together. Organize regular check-ins and offer consistent feedback.
If a student ditching a project is an isolated incident, however, you might just give them a pass. But you should still sit down and go through the details to understand their motivation. Keep an eye out to ensure that bouncing between 5 projects at a time and not finishing any of them doesn't become the norm. Communication between you and your students is key.
Let’s recap. Yes, PBL is challenging to implement at times, especially if you are a beginner. Even seasoned project-based educators make mistakes. We reflect, grow, and learn just as we ask our students to. The key to troubleshooting is relationship-building. Learn what drives and motivates your students. You'll figure it out together.
A while ago I came across a webinar on EdWeb about design thinking in the classroom (check it out - it's free and you get continuing ed credits). I was instantly hooked on the concept; bringing design thinking into my curriculum. I had done a lot of "making" with my students and my own children, but I was missing some critical pieces, one of which was to connect making experiences with real-world problems. The general idea is that learners develop skills and content by observing and identifying problems before them. They then solve these real-world problems by designing and creating solutions.
I am an experiential educator, so every action my students take is a step toward learning experiences that are entirely child-led (look back at some posts from my student-directed learning series for specific details - link in archives). Therefore, I created a "Maker Tool Kit" that combines the principles of self-led design thinking, problem-based learning, and project-based learning. This tool kit is designed to walk learners through a maker project while giving them the freedom to lead the experience. Learners identify a problem and brainstorm innovative solutions. They design and build a prototype, test it, tweak it, and use the refined final outcome to make a positive impact on the community.
So, how to add design thinking to your curriculum? Start by purchasing my maker tool kit . Simply distribute the resource to your students and watch them thrive! This resource has all of the materials to help gradually move students toward self-directed making experiences.
If you and/or your students are new to design thinking as a learning tool, or student-directed learning for that matter, consider starting students off with a specific problem to solve. You present the problem, your students do the rest. Once learners become more comfortable with the process, you can begin to ask them to identify problems around a theme, such as "fall" or "morning routine". If you have the flexibility, students can eventually take the reigns entirely, identifying problems on their own, free from your influence.
OR you can all dive in head first. One of the best things about design thinking, and making in general, is that failure is not only an option, but is encouraged. Let them learn through experience!
How to Add Design Thinking to Your Curriculum
Use the following example, along with my Maker Tool Kit, to help facilitate the experience:
1. Observe and Empathize - In this phase, learners identify a problem and "empathize" with those impacted by the problem. You might present students with a specific problem, or they observe a problem on their own. Either way, this step is intended to help learners better understand the problem by communicating with those directly impacted.
Ex: A student notices decorative pumpkins splattered across roads and sidewalks in her neighborhood.
Check out this free problem identification resource. The purpose is to help beginners observe and identify problems to solve. This is a skill that takes practice and time to develop.
2. Define the Problem - At this point students have discussed the problem with a variety of people, so can hone in on the specifics. They state the problem.
Ex: Squirrels are taking decorative pumpkins from neighbors' doorsteps and eating them.
3. Ideate - This is my favorite part! Students begin to throw out product ideas to solve the problem. They "think outside the box"; they stray from the obvious. Innovative final products are also an important component of project-based learning.
Ex: 1) Create a barrier, 2) Develop a nontoxic, but annoying substance to paint on the pumpkins, 3) Design and create a pumpkin holder or stand that makes it difficult for squirrels to access the pumpkin, etc.
4. Prototype - At this point students draft a design and create their prototype. They go through a series of challenges and obstacles in the design and making phase, work through the issues, and make modifications.
Ex: The student designs a decorative wire pumpkin holder that prevents squirrels from taking off with pumpkins.
5. Test - Now that students have created a prototype, they can test their initial design on a relevant audience. They gather feedback from their test group and refine their product based on suggestions until it effectively solves the problem.
Ex: The student might gather from the test group that their pumpkin holder solves the problem but isn't attractive. They make recommendations and the student makes adjustments.
I highly recommend encouraging students to observe and identify problems on their own, but understand reasons for making a gradual transition to authentic student-directed learning. Some students might feel overwhelmed by this and need a little more scaffolding. I see this often, which is why I have maker project resources in my store that provide specifics and the problem or challenge is outlined for students. You may also be confined to specific topics and/or standards. That is fine. "Making" helps learners visualize abstract concepts.
Consider giving learners a theme to start with. Check out some of the "fall" themed maker project ideas below! Write the problem on the board, distribute the Maker Tool Kit, and watch magic happen!
Fall Inspired Maker Education Activities
This past week my family headed southwest to start our goal of hitting all of the U.S. National Parks before our kids turn 18. It's a lofty goal, I'm discovering. There are many National Parks. But from the viewpoint of an ex-field ecologist and experiential educator, the benefits of providing these opportunities to my children (and students) far outweigh the costs.
Teachers and administrators: Even if your school doesn't have a travel program, or you can't afford to take your kids abroad, you can still travel. Keep it simple and do your research. Put together a proposal for a travel program using the benefits I present here today, and present it to your school board. You can also look back at past posts on travel to fortify your proposal.
Homeschool parents: Consider cheaper options such as arranging exchanges between homeschool families or partaking in WWOOF experiences as a family. WWOOF is free lodging (and often food) for a few hours of your help on an organic farm everyday. Stay-tuned for a post on educational travel on the cheap. Seasoned homeschool travelers, feel free to send me suggestions to post!
Never will my children or my students learn more by sitting in a classroom scrolling through a textbook than they would experiencing the world firsthand. There is so much to gain by seeing the world from a different, unfamiliar perspective. It's not always easy, traveling with kids, but nothing that is easy is worth doing, right? Isn't that a saying? They will thank you later. Travel is educational by nature, so whether you’re taking students on a trip, worldschooling, traveling for fun with family, or even traveling solo, the experience is life-changing. Check out the reasons that I make travel a priority in my family life and school life.
Six Reasons To Include Educational Travel in Your Curriculum
1. Relationship Building:
My students walk away from school organized trips with the most unexpected lifelong relationships with peers, teachers, mentors, locals, and more. My family just returned from Zion, which was an opportunity for my children to spend some badly needed time with their dad, strengthen their relationship with each other, and spend their time with me in a unique and interesting capacity, one where I wasn't frantically scrambling them out the door to be on time for a commitment. The bonding that occurs and the friendships that develop in travel cannot compare to many other life experiences. Human connection is vital for children.
2. Develop a Healthy Self-Concept:
Another benefit to traveling as a young person is developing a healthy self-concept; gaining confidence, finding interests, knowing what you want for yourself, discovering ones values and priorities, testing oneself, observing strengths and weaknesses, and more. This is especially important for tweens and teens.
I spent much of my 20's traveling the globe as a field ecologist. Frankely, that was the most difficult time of my life. I was broke, lonely, and I put my health and life at risk everyday. But looking back I realize that those experiences in my young life paved the way for who I am today. I learned to live minimally, I discovered what I wanted for myself, I gained a confidence that I never knew I had in me, I learned to appreciate the simple things, I took pride in my successes. That last one is a difficult thing for a Minnesotan to do! Traveling builds character in a way that few other life experiences could.
3. Content Knowledge:
With travel comes gaining content knowledge through experience rather than from a desk or out of a textbook. Heading to a new environment out of one’s comfort zone leads to wonder, observation, inquiry, exploration and holds the most relevant experts and resources. Since being in Zion, my little ones have asked me a million questions. I often find myself and my husband saying “I wonder...” How did Zion form? Why are the rocks red? Why is it dry? What drives climate in Zion? What species adaptations have emerged to survive the climate? What is the region’s human history? The list goes on and on. Any number of these questions could be turned into an inquiry investigation or a driving question for a project-based learning experience.
Check out these resources for student-directed learning experiences. They are all open-ended for learners to follow their interests and inquiries before, during, or after travel.
Project-Based Learning Tool Kit
Problem-Based Learning Tool Kit
Community Action Projects
Scientific Inquiry Tool Kit
(also available as a bundle)
4. Mental/Physical Health:
There are so many grim statistics out there about the health of our children. Anxiety and depression is at an all time high among teenagers. Regular outdoor time is a luxury for many schools. Some schools have taken recess away from children entirely. I have seen some really cool and creative ways that educators are addressing physical and mental health, but let's face it. As long as the bulk of a child's day is sitting at a desk or cooped up in an indoor work space, they are not getting the physical and mental outlet that they need. An hour of gym class is simply not enough.
Travel gets kids outside. It removes them from social and academic pressures. If you go to the right place, they can disconnect from the social media drama that suffocates them at home. They move their bodies! Whether they are in New York City or on the cliffs of Zion National Park, they have to move around to get from point A to point B. Travel is an all-inclusive mental and physical health overhaul. Take advantage, even if it means taking your own child on a weekend camping trip to a local state park. It doesn't have to be extravagant to make an impact.
5. 21st-Century Skill Building:
I have done an entire post on how travel helps learners develop essential 21st-century skills, so I won't get into it too much here. It's pretty simple. Removing children from their comfort zones puts them in a position to adapt. When traveling with a group they develop communication and collaboration skills. They learn how to work as a team. Children think critically and creatively when they face inevitable obstacles. They learn to be flexible. The list goes on. When children are in an environment, especially one in which their learning experiences are self-led, they develop those skills naturally. It's not something you need to plan. It just happens.
6. Expand Their Worldview:
In travel children are exposed to new cultures, different ways of doing things, a variety of perspectives and priorities. They develop tolerance and empathy for people from all walks of life. They observe that there is a world outside of their own. This is especially important for teenagers. Children are self-involved by nature. But exposure to the world will not only help them expand their world view, but define it. My travel experiences have absolutely shaped my worldview. This is really important. Ignorance might be bliss, but it is irresponsible. That is blunt, and I apologize if that offends anyone. But above a report card filled with A's, I want my students and own children to be responsible citizens, empathetic and compassionate people, hard-working, and passionate lifelong learners.
What do you want for your children? Of course traveling is not the only way to achieve all of these things. It's one way, but a very powerful way. Take a hard look at how you are providing your students and children with opportunities to expand their worldview, develop a healthy self-concept, gain content knowledge through child-led learning experiences, build deep and meaningful relationships with solid people, and grow up to be healthy, creative and skilled individuals. It's a lot. It's a huge job, I know. But it's worth it.
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My husband recently informed me that he would like to visit all of the National Parks in the United States as a family before our children turn 18. It is an awesome goal, and I'm fully on board. We are, as I write this, in Zion National Park. I am literally typing away as my two exhausted children are passed-out beside me. We will head to Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon later this week. Follow along on our journey at experientiallearningdepot on Instagram.
I have been heavily involved in my school's travel program since I began teaching there 12 years ago. I have taken groups of high school students to California, Hawaii, Colorado, Florida, Texas, New York City, Costa Rica, and more. I prioritize travel with my own family as well because I've seen how travel can impact a person, including a child. Learning, relationship building, character development and more emerge in a way that is entirely unique to travel. There is so much learning that happens naturally while traveling, especially when it comes to skill-building. Opportunities for gaining content knowledge, however, may take a little more effort.
For this reason, especially when traveling with students, I pair the experience with student-led project-based learning. Each learner asks a driving question about their destination and explores that question on the trip. For example, my child asked me why Zion has cacti. As a science and PBL educator my mind immediately went to how this simple question could be turned into a larger project about climate. I would want to research why Zion has the climate that it does, how animals and plants have adapted to survive the climate, and how the climate has shaped the local economy and human culture.
The answers to these questions wouldn't be found by simply visiting Zion. I would have to go out of my way to explore these questions. That is what student-directed project-based learning is all about. Try enhancing the travel experience by combining it with PBL. Start with the following FREE resources. You can also look back at the dozens of educational travel posts right here on this blog by clicking on the "Student Travel" link to your right.
1. Trip Planner
This resource is a guide to planning an educational trip. I work at a school that is student-led and project-based, so our students (with our guidance) often plan the trips. They use this guide to do so. It includes purpose, budget, itinerary, fundraising plans, etc.
2. Trip Project Proposal
A project proposal is a template for designing a project. Students ask a driving question or choose a topic of focus, determine research questions or categories, plan the use of community experts and authentic experiences, choose an innovative way to demonstrate learning, and more.
3. PBL Cheat Sheet
This is a helpful tool for beginner project-based learners. It gives a few ideas for innovative final products and authentic presentations. This is helpful for any project-based learning experience, travel projects included.
4. Community Expert Planner
An important part of project-based learning is connecting with authentic resources. This is especially pertinent when it comes to traveling experiences. It makes learning more meaningful; more personal. A community expert might be an interpreter at a National Park, a museum curator, business owners, or even locals of whatever destination you happen to be visiting. This resource is a guide to help students choose community members from their travel destination that could be a resource for their project.
5. Trip Reflection
This travel resource is one of my favorites. As an experiential educator, I find enormous value in reflecting on learning experiences, especially an experience as profound as traveling.
6. Travel Brochure Mini-Project
this learning activity can be completed at home or at school. It does not require travel. Students create a brochure for one travel destination of interest. The intention is to get students excited about traveling.
7. Ecology Scavenger Hunt
This is another activity that does not require travel, but would be a great supplement to any nature trip, such as this family trip to Zion National Park.
8. Endangered Species Project
Yet another project that doesn't require traveling, but would be an awesome addition to an outdoor travel experience where students can connect with conservationists, naturalists, politicians, landowners, and more to learn about local endangered species and protection efforts. They might even collaborate with local experts. My family and I came across California condors on our hike through Zion National Park today. California condors have a long and complicated history and have been on the endangered species list for decades. If I were doing a project on this endangered species in Zion I could talk to the naturalists, hunters, landowners, park visitors, bird enthusiasts, and more to gather information from various interests.
We don't have condors in Minnesota, so traveling to where they are and studying them in their natural habitat makes the learning experience more meaningul.
9. Graphic Organizer for Student-Led Fundraisers
Get young travelers invested in the experience by asking them to play a role in fundraising. Traveling isn't cheap, which is one of the reasons my travel resources are free! Let students take some ownership by organizing their own fundraisers. They can use this graphic organizer to brainstorm ideas and organize details.
Find many more PBL resources at Experiential Learning Depot as well as my PBL Toolkit with the necessary templates for unlimited student-directed PBL projects in school, in the home, out in the community, on field trips, traveling around the world and much more.
Good luck to you, and as always, feel free to reach out for questions or comments. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Here comes another "C"! Have you noticed that many of the skills I've been covering in my 21st-century skills series start with a "C"? Those are the 4 C's of education; critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. There are many 21st-century skills, but the 4C's lay the foundation for the others, in my opinion.
The focus of this post is collaboration; working with others to achieve a common goal or purpose. It is imperative that students possess collaboration skills that will meet the demands of living and working in the 21st-century. Help them build a strong community network and to take advantage of all that their community has to offer. For partnerships with local citizens, business owners, legislators, city officials, non-profits, educators, town libraries, historical societies, and so on, and promote collaboration between them that work to meet the needs of the community.
Design your curriculum around community collaborations. Rather than learn about government from a textbook, for example, have students work directly with government officials to write a bill. Connect with farmers and conservationists to develop a plan that both protects livestock from wolf predation and wolves from extinction. The relationship between students and community members is mutually beneficial. By bringing community collaboration into your curriculum, students become an asset to the community rather than a fixture, and the community becomes a key player in the education of its children.
Start making student/community collaborations a priority in your curriculum by implementing some of the suggestions below. It's important to note that this cannot fall on the shoulders of teachers alone. For the following student/community collaborations to be successful, everyone will need to pitch in. Collaborate! Pull together principles, administrators, board members, parents, community members, and most importantly, students. Better yet, let your students take the lead. Yes, kids can be the driving force of most of the collaboration opportunities listed below.
10 Ways to Add Collaboration Skill-Building to Your Curriculum
1) Build YOUR Community Network:
If you are a parent or educator interested in including community collaborations in your curriculum, start by joining a town committee, club, or board. This will provide exposure to the needs of the community as well as establish a solid network for future collaborations between your students and the community. A few weeks ago I posted about a project one of my students was doing about horror films. Within minutes, someone in my network responded to the post offering this student the opportunity to work alongside a community member curating a horror film festival. Make some connections and start putting your ideas out there. Assure potential collaborators that students are contributors. They need your students as much as your students need them.
2) Write a Class Newsletter:
A few years ago several of my students noticed some animosity between our student body and some of our direct neighbors. My advisory got together to brainstorm ways to bridge the gap. My students decided that they would write a newsletter about our school with student and project highlights, upcoming events that neighbors could attend, ways for neighbors to get involved, and so on. My students created the newsletter, made the cookies, and personally delivered both to our neighbors. This small gesture helped our students build a stronger network for future collaborations.
3) Start a Community Garden:
Several of my coworkers had the idea of starting a community garden. They connected students with local horticulturists, farmers, and nonprofits to build a produce garden right on school property. Our students collaborated closely with community experts to build a beautiful and prosperous urban garden.
4) Start a Community Club or Committee:
Have students start clubs or groups that extend out to include community members. A few years ago, several of my students started a community cleanup crew for an assigned PBL project (FInd the resource here - Start a Club). Together our students and the local community organized and participated in regular neighborhood cleanup events.
Students might also consider organizing a committee specific to addressing community needs. Students and citizens, local business owners, city officials, non-profits, conservationists, colleges and universities, etc. would come together to tackle community issues and needs. Check out my Community Action Projects on TpT for guidance.
5) Host Community Events:
Start networking with community members by not only hosting events open to the public, but also including students and community members in the planning and organizing of the events. Our students have organized movie nights, spaghetti dinners, cook-offs, chess tournaments, exhibition nights, a gallery for local artists, and more. Collaboration with the community was integral in the success of these events.
6) Host a Speaker Series at Your School:
One of my coworkers and a group of students organize a speaker series at our school every year. The student committee observes and identifies important community topics and issues, they reach out to experts on those topics, they invite them to speak at our school, and open the doors to the public. The student committee collaborates with local citizens to narrow in on interests and needs, and organizes speakers to meet those needs. Students also collaborate with community experts to speak.
7) Transition to Project-Based Learning:
PBL is community centered by nature. It requires collaboration on many levels. PBL emphasises authentic learning experiences. Students are expected to collaborate with community experts, have real-world learning experiences beyond the walls of the classroom, create a final product that makes a positive impact on the community as a whole, and share their work with an authentic audience. Collaboration is an integral part of PBL. Collaboration skill-building is especially effective when the experience is student-led. Check out past posts on PBL right here, and head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for PBL resources to get you started.
8) Start a Mentorship Program:
One of my coworkers has been hard at work for years developing a mentorship program between our students and members of the community. The students and community members not only develop a friendship, but the mentors get involved in our students' projects, bringing their network and their collaborators to the table.
9) Start an Internship Program:
There are so many reasons to encourage student internships, and building collaboration skills is on the top of that list. The same coworker that works diligently on our mentorship program is also heavily involved in opening up internship possibilities to our students. Several of our students apprentice at Urban Boat Builders where a diverse array of collaborations are at play. Students can further strengthen collaboration skills by finding and arranging their own internship opportunities.
10) Organize Legislative Days:
Encourage learners to collaborate with their local representatives to make positive change in the community. Every year MAAP organizes "Legislative Day" where students from all over the state travel to Capitol building in St. Paul to discuss community issues with their legislators. These conversations often turn into long-term collaborations. One of my students, for example, worked closely with her legislator to create a bill that would help ex-convicts be productive citizens by making job opportunities more accessible.
Of course there are many more ways to help learners develop collaboration skills including problem-based learning, place-based education, hosting exhibition nights, educational travel, service-learning, etc. It can be as simple as taking what you are ALREADY doing with your students and adding community partnerships to the mix.
Next week I'm heading to Zion National Park with my family. I'm unsure at this point if I will have a post ready for next week. Keep an eye out. At a minimum, I'll post when I get home. Stay-tuned for a post on all of the ways to enhance learning while traveling.
Good luck to you, and as always, feel free to reach out for questions or comments. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Last night my three-old tried to climb out of the bathtub by herself. I helped her back in the tub and explained to her that the bathtub ledge is smooth and wet, and therefore, slippery. She then removed the bathmat from the tub floor and swung it over the ledge, and again, began to climb out. She explained that the rough texture of the bathmat made the edge of the tub less slippery so that she could climb out safely by herself. My 3-year-old did this. Toddlers have the capacity to problem-solve, as do preschoolers, elementary students, middle schoolers, teenagers, and so on. With a little guidance, they can be problem-solving champs!
Every facet of life necessitates the ability to recognize problems and come to solutions, such as building and nurturing healthy relationships, raising children, home maintenance, success in careers and college, personal health, and more complex global issues like pandemics and natural disasters. The world around us continues to evolve in profound and unprecedented ways. Educators have an imperative responsibility to help nurture and strengthen that skill. Twenty first-century humans, regardless of age, regardless of context, must know how to face problems, how to work through the unexpected in a world of perpetual uncertainty, and come to logical and effective resolutions.
As I've said in my other posts on 21st-century skills, content and skill development are not mutually exclusive. You do not need to put your content to the side while you work with learners on problem-solving. Check out the following learning activities that incorporate problem-solving by design. There are other options not listed here, but the ones mentioned below are those that I've spent time fine-tuning because I've seen powerful results.
If you happen to be interested in helping learners develop a variety of skills, check out 21st-Century Skills Portfolio in my TpT store. Otherwise, give some of the learning activities below a shot.
Learning Activities That Build Problem-Solving Skills
I choose experiential learning activities for my students as often as humanly possible, which means learning is student-directed, learners are actively involved, and reflection is built into every experience. The following activities, include each of these elements, which is why I turn to them to help learners practice problem-solving.
This is one of my favorite learning experiences for building problem-solving skills. In problem-based learning, students observe real-world, complex, open-ended issues and develop a plan to solve the problem. Learners come to solutions by researching different perspectives, conducting experiments, talking with experts, analyzing the variables, determining several options to solve the problem, and weighing the pros and cons of each option. The results is a powerful combination of content knowledge and many 21st-century skills, including problem-solving. It also crosses disciplines; always a plus.
For example, buckthorn is an invasive species that is devastating forest communities around Minnesota. As a problem-based learning activity, students would research the natural history of buckthorn as well as the structural and behavioral adaptations that have allowed them to be so successful. Learners would look into solutions currently in place. They would research ways to eradicate and prevent the problem. They might even develop original solutions to the problem. They would then weigh their options and develop a comprehensive plan to solve the problem of buckthorn takeover in MN. That is problem-based learning at it's finest.
Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for my problem-based learning resource on invasive species and other problem-based learning resources.
Inquiry-based learning is when students make observations about the world around them, ask questions, and come to their own conclusions through experimentation and/or investigation. Inquiry-based learning starts and ends with the students. When educators rely on lecture and other forms of teacher-centered relaying of information, learners aren't problem-solving. Open inquiry often results in dead ends, unanticipated results, uncooperative sources, etc. that demand that learners take a step back, reflect, analyze the problem, and try something else. For more posts on inquiry, click the inquiry-based learning link to your right.
You can also check out a variety of inquiry-based learning resourcesat my TpT store.
Project-based learning is a wonderful tool for developing problem-solving skills. Innovation, authenticity, and community impact all set PBL apart from other styles of teaching. Learners are immersed in the community by default, so have many opportunities to observe and identify problems that are relevant and close to home. This is especially true when projects are designed to impact the community. My community action projects on TpT ask students to identify problems/issues in their own communities and take action. Click here for other PBL resources on TpT, and here for most posts on project-based learning.
Design thinking is a great way to practice problem-solving skills, and "making" is one way to utilize design thinking. The best maker activities that incorporate problem-solving are those that ask students to design and create something that literally solves a problem. I had a student in my environmental science class that designed and created an entire line of clothing from upcycled materials to reduce clothing waste, for example. Making also naturally leads to problem-solving. Prototypes rarely match final outcomes. Students start with a vision, they try some things out, use materials that they think will do the trick, inevitably run into obstacles, reflect, try something else, and so on and so on, until they have created a working final product.
A few days ago I asked my kindergartener to build a contraption that could rescue a "monster" from lava. His goal was to make something using household items that could pull his monster toy to safety without stepping in the lava (crossing the line). I have had my high schoolers do a similar activity, but it was related to natural selection. They learned content while practicing problem-solving through trial and error.
Check out some of my maker PBL challenges that combine elements of project-based learning and design thinking.
Play, especially when unstructured, is highly influential when it comes to skill development. In play, children themselves create rules, they make-believe, work together, and work through their own dilemmas. Social emotional skills emerge such as empathy, compassion, self-control, and expression of feelings. Twenty-first century skills come onto the scene as well including team-work, communication, flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving.
My oldest child started kindergarten this year. I have had doubts about sending him to a play-based preschool. The transition from two diametrically opposed learning environments has been jarring for everyone. Then I remind myself that his ability to cope with this new experience, to persevere through the transition, to express his fears and worries, to communicate with his teacher, and problem-solve can in part be credited to his preschool experience. I urge you! Let them play!
There are of course many other ways for children to practice problem-solving such as travel, service learning, STEM and STEAM, nature-based learning, team-building activities, current events discussions, analyzing case studies, and even casual conversation. Not all learning experiences are organized and structured. We learn about the world around us by living in it. What will NOT boost problem-solving skills are lectures, drill worksheets, and textbook readings. Those methods of instruction involve very little independent thinking. I understand that they have their place on occasion, but not when it comes to fostering generations of problem-solvers.
Ask yourself what you are doing with your students to help them build problem-solving skills. If your answer is "not much", consider trying out some of the activities here, or asking yourself another question; why not? If you need convincing, head back to some of my other posts about 21st-century skills. If your answer to the first question is a resounding "so many things!" I would love to hear about your experiences! Happy problem-solving!
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Several years ago a student in my psychology seminar came to me with an idea for her psychology project. She had made an interesting observation about her own family. Those observations lead to a question; she wondered why her and her siblings were so different from one another. She settled on a project about birth order theory, developed by Alfred Adler.
Her original project idea was to research birth order theory and conduct her own study. She put together a survey, passed it out, collected it, slapped her results on a poster board and called it a day. We went through her board together. I asked her questions about the topic, most of which she couldn't answer. Her survey was only distributed to her classmates, which made her sample size less than 20 students. No graphs, no charts, no conclusion was included. I asked her if she thought this was her best work. She didn't answer me, and stormed off, fuming.
The following day she came into school ready to try again. We discussed what might be missing and how she could improve her final product. She decided to organize an activity for my psychology students. She separated the class into groups - first borns, middle children, youngest, and only children - and had each group draw a picture of their ideal vacation. Every year thereafter (until this student graduated), my new psychology students did the drawings as well. When drawings were compared to the drawings of prior years, all of the middle children drawings were almost identical to each other, same with the first borns, and so on.
If I hadn't insisted that she improve the quality of her final product she wouldn't have had nearly the same learning experience nor the same outcomes. Asking her to try again, make some adjustments, and turn it into a project that she could be proud of was an important lesson. There is not a quick fix, nor one simple trick that will result in quality projects across the board. The key is a combination of several elements, which when implemented together will get you closer to the results you are looking for.
***The project that my student did on birth order theory was part of my psychology class. Each student conducts their own psychology experiment as their final project for the seminar. Check out that resource here.
How to Improve the Quality of Student Work
1. Cultivate a classroom/homeschool culture of high expectations:
Let students know your expectations from the start. You'll have to model those expectations. It is true, and vital in this particular situation, that actions speak louder than words. If you allow students to turn in low quality work, for example, then that is exactly what they'll continue to do. If you give students a pass because you don't feel they can do any better, then they will think the same of themselves; that they can't do any better.
Build a culture that frames quality work as the norm. Praise effort and work ethic. Give consistent feedback. Build time into your schedule for students to go back and improve their work. Be cognizant of your actions. Ask yourself whether your own behavior is promoting quality projects or stifling them. If you cultivate a classroom/homeschool culture of high standards, you not only promote high quality work, but instill an eagerness in students; a hunger to improve.
2. Develop (and stick with) a system that works:
There is not a specific system that will work for everyone. Find a system that works for you and your learners and stick with it.
My students do PBL projects. Part of our system for ensuring quality final products is by having approval and evaluation meetings. All projects go through an approval process, where students propose their project plan to a small committee (made up of teachers, school staff, other students, community members). Committee members offer feedback and suggestions, fill in any missing pieces, and approve the projects once they are deemed quality plans. Students also have their final products evaluated by the same committee.
This project approval/evaluation system ensures checks and balances and promotes high quality projects. This system has always been a challenge to stick by because it takes teachers and other staff members away from other tasks that often feel more important than approval meetings. But if this system were to go to the wayside, which it has before, project quality would (and does) dip as a result. Although this system is a challenge at times, it makes sense for us. Find a system that works for you, and stick with it. You'll thank yourself later!
3. Supply consistent feedback:
Providing regular feedback to students throughout the process is critical if you expect tremendous final results. Offer many opportunities for feedback from you, peers, community experts, and more. The necessity for steady feedback is one reason for having project approval and evaluation meetings like we do. An eclectic group of people pool together to offer ideas and suggestions from different perspectives that students may have overlooked or simply didn't know the opportunity existed.
For example, I was in on an approval meeting last week with a student who wanted to do a project on horror films. I posted on Instagram about this project. Within minutes, a community member contacted me to see if this student would like to work with him on a horror film festival that he would be curating. This opportunity instantly improved the quality of his final product and the learning experience as a whole.
4. Nurture a self-directed learning environment:
Student-directed learning is when students are given the freedom to lead their learning experiences. They have choice and voice in process and outcome. Click the "self-directed learning" link to your right for past posts on student-directed learning. My students are self-directed project-based learners. They choose their project topics, community experts, how they will gather information, how they will demonstrate learning, and who they will share their work with. They even have choice in evaluation criteria by writing their own rubrics.
When students have choice and take ownership of their learning, they care about the topic and process. They take interest in creating their final products. They develop an intrinsic motivation to do their best because they believe in themselves. They have a newfound sense of self-worth. All of this paves the way to quality projects.
Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for a variety of student-directed learning resources, including project-based learning.
5. Facilitate learning activities that emphasize trial and error:
I've recently developed an appreciation for projects that utilize design thinking (empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing.) Students brainstorm, generate rough ideas, and test those ideas. The original vision does not typically culminate as expected, at which point learners reflect, problem-solve, and try a different approach. Maker education is an example of a learning activity that habituates this type of thinking, among others. Reflection, problem-solving, drafts, redos, second tries, becomes second nature. Producing a high quality outcome is the essence of the activity.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges on TpT, my latest on designing and creating Halloween costumes from trash.
6. Encourage innovative final products:
One way to inspire quality work is to have students create innovative final products. This is one of the key elements of project-based learning; to demonstrate learning in an innovative way.
Poster boards are boring to make and boring to look at, regardless of how cool the project topic is. Get learners thinking beyond poster boards and Powerpoint presentations.
Encourage students to learn about a new software or online design program. Ask them to create a final product that considers their unique skills and interests. A student with a love for painting, for example, might demonstrate learning by painting a mural. A writer might rather demonstrate learning by writing a short story about the concept at hand. When content and/or learning activities are relatable and interesting to students, learners are more likely to put in the effort to create something that they are eager to share.
7. Organize opportunities for authentic presentations:
Authentic learning experiences in general will light a fire under learners. But authentic presentations, where students share their final product with a relevant, often public audience, compels learners to give it their best.
In project-based learning, an authentic presentation or the final product itself should benefit the audience. For example, a final product for a disease project might be a brochure. An authentic presentation might be the distribution of the brochures to clinics across the community. In this case, the brochures can't just be high quality, it would need to be of professional quality. The idea isn't to embarrass kids. Their audience is relying on them to share accurate, helpful information. The idea is to urge learners to do their best for their audience and to feel great about their results.
8. Prioritize self-reflection:
Self-reflection is an essential piece of every learning activity that I do with my students. Reflecting on progress and their final products IS a form of feedback, but because the feedback doesn't come from you or their peers, students critically think and learn to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. It gives learners perspective. Completing a self-evaluation half way through a PBL project, for example, helps learners take a step back, analyze their progress, make adjustments, and move forward in a way that improves outcomes.
Organize regular opportunities for self-reflection such as periodic self-assessments, casual daily check-in forms that learners can use to reflect regularly, one-on-one discussions about how things are going, etc. Each of these methods of reflection should be student-led, otherwise it's not self-reflection at all.
ALL of your students producing professional quality final products ALL of the time is unrealistic. Even getting some of your learners to produce quality products some of the time is an arduous journey, but is one worth taking. It is a skill to want to improve; to STRIVE to improve. Anyone can develop this skill with proper direction and support. Be that direction for your learners. Be that support!
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How to Teach Critical Thinking
A few months ago some tadpoles fell into my lap, figuratively and literally at times! I had reservations initially, but thought, well, this would be a good learning experience for my kiddos. I'm an experiential educator afterall. I am attuned to opportunities that get children involved, and this would do just that.
My kids observed the frogs' life cycle, learned how to keep a tadpole alive and problem-solved when unprecedented events inevitably arose. When their solutions failed, they tried something else. They observed tadpole behaviors, asked questions, designed and conducted experiments. They interpreted unexpected behaviors, hashed out possible explanations, talked with a variety of experts, and drew conclusions from their experiences and research.
My five and two year olds did this. Of course their observations and questions may have been slightly different than that of a high schooler, and their research and experimentation would look different for my kids than it would for a teenager. I mean, my 5 and 2-year-olds can't read or leave the house without a parent, and they have a pretty narrow worldview. But they can critically think. They can problem-solve, evaluate, speculate, analyze, reflect, consider alternatives to the obvious, make predictions, examine deviations from what is expected. Their solutions might not be completely rational, and their analysis may only touch the surface, but skill in those areas will come with time, brain-development, and practice.
I would love to give my high school students this same learning experience. I know lecture, note-taking, textbook reading, and worksheets have their place in some of your classrooms. I'm sure you can even justify them. But that is not what this post is about. This post is about critical thinking, and none of those teaching methods will help your learners transition into adulthood as competent critical thinkers. If you value critical thinking and/or expect your learners to critically think, you'll have to set the stage for success. There are many ways to do that. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
5 Ways to Engage Students in Critical Thinking
1. Organize Learning Experiences that Promote Critical Thinking:
Offer activities, such as our tadpole project, that challenge learners to observe, analyze, create, fail, evaluate, problems-solve, reflect, interpret, and more. There are many learning activities that involve critical thinking by nature, such as STEM/STEAM, activities that use design thinking such as maker projects, inquiry-based learning, place-based learning, project-based learning, and yes, play. If you are working with young children unstructured play might be the best thing you can do to encourage critical thinking. You too, kindergarten teachers!
One of my favorite activities for critical thinking is problem-based learning. In problem-based learning students are asked to identify complex real-world problems. Solutions aren't always clear, or there may not be just one, thus costs and benefits must be analyzed and weighed. A variety of perspectives are examined and considered when coming to the most effective solution(s).
For a variety of resources that promote critical thinking, head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT. There you can find problem-based learning, project-based learning, and inquiry-based learning toolkits. You can even find a project specific to 21st-century skill building called 21st-Century Skills Portfolio.
2. Questions, Questions, and More Questions:
Encourage your students to ask questions! Inspire students to ask questions that are open-ended, those that don't always have a clear answer. Give your students the confidence to ask deep questions by inviting those questions, pushing learners to dig deeper, and by answering their questions with another question, such as "what do you already know about that?", "how could you find out?", "what do you notice if you look at it from this perspective?".
To empower learners to ask their own questions, create a learning environment that gives them the space, time, resources, and encouragement to do so. Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are great learning tools for this.
3. Observations, Observations, and More Observations:
Observations more often than not give rise to questions. My children observed that our tadpoles rarely moved. They were surprisingly lethargic all of the time. This one observation generated a plethora of questions such as whether this behavior is normal, if tadpoles are this immobile in the wild, if they were hungry at the time, if they were going through a specific phase of their life cycle that required more energy than others. Making observations, asking questions, exploring those questions, experimenting and analyzing results is critical thinking. Student-directed open-inquiry is a great way to practice using these skills, and open-inquiry starts with observations.
Examining and evaluating others' work is one way to practice making consequential observations such as dissecting current events, perusing scientific publications, interpreting music lyrics, analyzing debates, and even conducting peer evaluations. Project-based learning is one such learning tool that promotes peer feedback. By teaching learners to make observations they are in turn building critical thinking skills.
4. Allow Students to Direct Their Own Learning Experiences:
When given choice and autonomy, learners make decisions for themselves, which in itself requires critical thinking. To design a project, for example, students need to evaluate their skills, consider their interests, ask relevant questions, find sources and analyze credibility. Throughout the project process learners reflect on their experiences and plan accordingly. In contrast, when learners are given a specific task that is put together for them, a task that has a right/wrong/yes/no answer, critical thinking is not at play. Teach students how to critically think by giving them the tools to think for themselves. One of those tools is choice.
Look back at posts from my student-directed learning series for help getting started. It can seem a daunting transition to go from teacher-centered to student-directed, but it's not so bad if you have direction and support.
5. Establish a Culture of Critical Thinkers
Show your students that you value critical thinking by establishing a learning environment that promotes it. If critical thinking is the expectation, if you vocalize it's value, if it becomes a part of your every day lexicon, if you provide experiences for learners that endorse critical thinking, and if you uphold its importance by demonstrating critical thinking yourself, you are engaging your learners in this very critical 21st-century skill.
These are just six of many ways you can engage your students in critical thinking. All educators should be making 21st-century skills a priority, not just advisors, career counselors, and life skills instructors. I'm a science teacher. It is my responsibility to teach the content, yes, but content and 21st-century skills are not mutually exclusive. Learners can have it all.
Okay, this is no longer a rhetorical question. How are you engaging your students in critical thinking? I'd love you all to share some strategies that have been effective, and even those that have not. Let's share!
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Content knowledge and 21st-century skills? Can educators teach both? The answer is yes, they can do it all, and they must. Not long ago my husband and I got into a conversation about the importance of 21st-century skills. What is more valuable, skills or content knowledge? I argued (and have argued here before), that you can't have one without the other, and it is one of our greatest responsibilities as educators to provide opportunities for development in both.
To be a wildlife ecologist, my career before teaching, I needed to understand concepts such as carrying capacity, predator/prey relationships, symbiotic relationships, migration behaviors, etc. - the content. An ecologist might also need to know how to utilize mapping software, write a technical report, read and produce charts and graphs, and present their findings to their scientific peers - hard skills.
Once learners have memorized the buzzwords, have a basic understanding of the content, and have developed some relevant hard skills to get them started, are they in the clear? Will they succeed in their careers, live a happy life, be competitive, be creative, healthy, responsible, productive citizens?
To make it as a wildlife ecologist, I also needed to be able to problem-solve. I needed to be able to communicate and collaborate with stakeholders, even those that I didn't always agree with. I needed to know not just how to solve a problem, but how to identify one. I had to accept failure and grow from it. I needed to be able to ask important and relevant questions. It is a rare occurrence to be handed information, discrete facts, outside of a classroom environment. I have had to troubleshoot, find answers, and reach conclusions on my own as a wildlife ecologist, educator, blogger, curriculum writer, mother, daughter, friend, citizen and everything else I am or have become.
These are important skills that are often forgotten about or glossed over in modern day classrooms. Some educators lack the confidence to teach content AND skills, don't find value in including skills in their curriculum, or don't believe there is enough time to do both. I find this to be particularly accurate in secondary classrooms. The pressure on teachers is high. Lack of time is a misconception, though. It's easier to work around time constraints when you choose learning activities that promote both skill and content development. Project-based learning is one example. Students learn content while also engaging with the community, networking, problem-solving, presenting, and locating credible resources, all essential skills that wouldn't be gained from lecture, worksheets, or textbook readings.
I see many educators trying project-based learning as well as STEM, STEAM, experiential learning, design activities, inquiry, nature-based learning, and play-based learning, among many others. The students of these educators will thank them later. These are all strategies that help learners develop content knowledge AND build the skills they need to be happy, confident, passionate lifelong learners. Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for resources that offer the best of both worlds.
Whether you are a primary teacher, middle or high school teacher, an alternative educator, a home educator, a traditional or progressive educator, you need to ask yourself, "What am I doing to engage my students in 21st-century skill-building?" Do some serious, honest reflection. If you are delivering content, and content alone, reassess and make some changes. Learners deserve better. It's never too late to start!
As I said earlier, I believe another reason for glossing over skill development in classrooms is lack of confidence on the part of the educator. I for one have always been intimidated by STEM. That insecurity held me back for a long time. Eventually I just decided to go for it. I slowly started adding a few STEM activities here and there until both my students and I had more confidence. STEM activities help students practice team-work, critical thinking, creativity, tech literacy and more. So, over the course of the next month I will post about specific skills along with tips, tricks, learning activities and other resources to engage students in those skills. Stay-tuned for that.
How do you incorporate 21st-century skill building into your curriculum or routine?
If you are looking for a resource that specifically focuses on skills, check out my 21st-Century Skills Portfolio. Otherwise, keep your eyes out for posts on engaging learners in 21st-century skill building throughout September and October.
Thanks for stopping by!
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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.