As someone with a background in biology, the first place I would think to go for scientific inquiry experiences is outside. The second would be the kitchen. Winter weather in Minnesota can get extreme and those extremes tend to last awhile. Cooking is an indoor activity that is loaded with learning opportunities, particularly in science. It's also prime season for baking!
Scientific inquiry is a method of gathering information and gaining scientific knowledge by making observations, asking questions, making predictions, and experimentation. It is a student-centered way for learners to make discoveries about the world in their own way. They are not handed information. They are not given "correct" answers. They play around with ideas, draw on background knowledge to predict outcomes, experience the concepts through hands-on and authentic learning experiences, challenge prior thinking, and adjust that thinking upon the advent of new and unexpected information.
And, as I've already said, the kitchen is a great place to start! Below is a list of winter-inspired dessert ideas for students to bake while learning about kitchen science through the process of inquiry. My recommendation is to have students conduct open inquiry. The student directs the inquiry investigation, starting with their own question, designing an experiment to test that question, and conducting the experiment. I have a scientific inquiry tool kit in my store that is perfect for open inquiry. It includes all of the guiding materials for child-led inquiry experimentation.
Another option is to have students investigate the specific question that I pose for each recipe in this post. The same inquiry tool kit can be used for that. A final option is to just cook the food, make observations, ask questions together as you go, research the answers using a variety of resources from books to experts, and have fun with it. That is also inquiry-based learning. Just because it does not involve a scientific experiment, doesn't mean it's not inquiry. This approach is usually what I do with my own children, a preschooler and kindergarten. My high school students conduct open inquiry experiments based on their own observations and questions.
Enjoy the following winter-inspired kitchen science ideas! I have done all of these projects with either my own kids (pre-k) or my students (8-12 graders). Each is fun and doable. Happy holidays, everyone!
Oh! Check out my new maker project, "Dinner Party on a Budget", and Inquiry Bingo: Food Theme, both fun resources for the holiday season stir-craziness. For resource updates, follow Experiential Learning Depot on TpT.
The Question: Does speed at which eggs are added to the hot milk effect texture of eggnog?
In other words, how do I make chunkless eggnog? ;) My children and I made homemade eggnog. It wasn't good. My kids despise it in general, but our final result was scrambled, so I certainly wasn't going to convince them to like it that day! The fun in this activity it the trial and error.
The Science: In order to make smooth eggnog, you have to temper the mixture, controlled heating and cooling. Pouring the eggs into the hot milk mixture too quickly is not controlled. Heat coagulates the proteins in the eggs, so adding the eggs to the heat too quickly causes them to scramble. Tempering, slowly controlling temperature, keeps the protein structure at bay.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making eggnog. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. Click here for the recipe that we used. Or they experiment with the question posed here, trying and experimenting with different methods.
2. Tye-Dye Sponge Roll Cake
The Question: Which ingredients prevent a "roll cake" from crumbling when rolled?
This was such a fun recipe to make with kids. My kiddos made two different types of cake to see how particular ingredients (or lack thereof) might impact the cake texture, making it more or less suitable for rolling without cracking. We made a roll cake and a regular white cake.
The Science: A mixture of eggs and sugar provide structure, in part by trapping air bubbles during the whipping process. In addition, adding baking powder causes a chemical reaction resulting in carbon dioxide, increasing the amount of bubbles in the batter. Proteins and starch in the flour add stability to the air bubbles, but the high ratio of sugar to flour gives it that flexibility that roll cakes require.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making roll cakes. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. They can make a variety of different types of cakes, experiment with baking powder, eliminate an ingredient from a standard roll cake recipe to see what happens, etc. I used this recipe for the roll cake.
3. Pie Crust
The Question: Which fat makes a flakier pie crust, butter or lard?
My high school advisory students started an annual holiday pie fundraiser many years ago, and part of the planning process was creating the BEST pie to sell. We asked around, talked with professional chefs, they surveyed consumers, perused caking blogs, etc. The ultimate influence was my grandmother! She said the secret to her flaky pie crust is animal lard. So we tested it.
The Science: Lard is fat. Period. Butter on the other hand, is fat plus some water. Lard has a higher melting point than butter, making it easier to handle in the making process. Lard also results in flakier crust because the 100% fat in the lard solidifies into crystals, separating the dough into layers, creating that flakiness we were testing for.
Inquiry Activity: Whether flakiness is desired is a matter of opinion. But we did find that lard, in fact, does make pie crust flakier, whether we prefer that texture or not. Learners can investigate their own questions about variables that inspire or interest them. They might investigate why pie crust recipes usually ask for cold water versus hot or room temperature water. Students might experiment with different types of flour such as whole wheat, all-purpose, and pastry flour. Students could play around with crust width, baking temperature, fillings, glazes, vents created for baking, and so on and so on. Find any number of pie crust recipes on Google.
Note: Lard is not required to make pie crust! Learn about your students and be sensitive to their needs. Allergies, food sensitivities, religious food practices, etc. need to be considered and respected.
4. Whipped Cream
The Question: Which milk product will result in the foamiest texture - skim milk, whole milk, or heavy whipping cream?
The Science: The heavy whipping cream turned out to be incredibly important. No matter how long we blended the skim milk and whole milk mixtures, they never became frothy. The fat in the heavy whipping cream envelopes air bubbles added from the whipping process, creating a network that stiffens the mixture. So, fat is what gives it the foamy texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making whipped cream. They can make observations, ask their own questions, and design their own experiments. This is open inquiry. Or they can design an experiment that tests the question I asked above. Click here for the recipe that we used. I let my littles played around with coloring the whipped cream as well (with food coloring).
5. Cream Puffs
The Question: Does the number of eggs affect the structure of cream puffs?
My kids and I have made many bread-type recipes, but this one called for an unusual number of eggs. We made three batches of cream puffs, some with the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, one with half of the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, and one with no eggs at all. The batch without eggs collapsed completely.
The Science: Cream puffs also have a lot of fat, so the egg protein is necessary to keep the structure. Eggs also act as a leavening agent and an emulsifier for a smooth and light final texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making cream puffs. There is so much science involved in these little desserts! For this reason, I would encourage open inquiry. Otherwise you can offer up a specific question, such as the one above. I found there to be a few unusual cooking methods in this recipe as well, such as melting the butter in boiling water and milk first. Those types of investigations are fun as well. Try this recipe. Combine this cooking activity with the whipped cream inquiry above for a really tasty treat!
6. Hard Candy
The Question: Does the temperature of the sugar mixture when removed from the heat source impact the hardness of the final product?
This is a question that my high school students and I investigate every year. I am hesitant to make hard candy with my own children, who are 3 and 5, because of the burning risk. I burned myself making this candy three days before my wedding and it wasn't cool! This recipe is probably more appropriate for older learners, but regardless of age, safety should be a priority and taken seriously.
The Science: Hard candy ingredients include only sugar and water (and flavor extracts and food coloring if you wish). You combine the sugars and water and boil the mixture until it reaches 300° F (hard crack). Boiling the mixture to this specific temperature results in the evaporation of most of the liquid, leaving behind a lot of sugar, thus it sets as hard candy. If the mixture only reaches 250° F, in contrast, not enough water will have evaporated to harden the sugar, leaving a softer consistency such as that of toffee (hard ball), or 270° yielding a taffy-like consistency (soft crack). If the mixture over-evaporates, reaching 320° F, for example, the liquid sugar will caramelize. Temp is critical, and evaporation is the reason for that.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore different evaporation times (cooking temperatures) to test the question that I mentioned above. They could also investigate their own questions and experiment with variables other than temperature such as ingredient quantities or types of sugar (raw sugar vs. white, glucose syrup vs. corn syrup, etc.) Click here for the recipe that we use. I always add flavor extracts to get into the winter spirit, such as peppermint and cinnamon.
7. Gingerbread Cookies
The Question: Does the amount of time that the cookie dough chills in the refrigerator impact the shape and texture of the cookies?
This was a question asked by my kindergartener, only it was more like, "why do we have to put this cookie dough in the refrigerator, I want to make them now!" We were able to explore this question together with my assistance. We simply made two batches of cookies, one with dough that we didn't chill and one with dough that was refrigerated for two hours. It would have been better if we added a couple more batches, one chilled for 20 minutes and one for 12 hours, for example.
The Science: Turns out that the fats in the butter solidify when chilled, giving it more structure. This was important to keep its shape during the rolling, cookie cutting, and the baking processes. You can see an obvious difference between the cookies that were chilled and those that were not. The non-chilled cookie dough cookies were essentially shapeless blobs. It also takes longer for the butter fat to melt in the chilled cookie during the baking process, making the final product slightly chewier and softer.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of gingerbread cookies. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments to test the questions. Click here for the recipe that we used.
The Question: What gives marshmallows their smooth, foamy, stretchy consistency?
Making marshmallows came up once by accident while my students and I were making hard candy (mentioned above). Our candy thermometer was broken. We significantly underestimated the temperature of the sugar/water mixture when removed from the heat source, which resulted in a squishy, stretchy substance comparable to marshmallows. After some investigating, students discovered that marshmallows have a key ingredient, however, that other types of candies lack.
The Science: That ingredient is gelatin. Water, sugar, and corn syrup are heated on the stove. Some of the liquid evaporates. The remaining sugar/water combo is removed from heat, slowly added to a gelatin/water mixture, and beaten, which adds air bubbles to the mixture. As this blended foam cools, the corn syrup prevents crystallization and the gelatin turns from a liquid to a gel, trapping bubbles inside. This special and specific combo of ingredients and cooking method gives marshmallows their structure and consistency.
Inquiry Activity: Students can ask their own questions about marshmallows and conduct open inquiry experiments. Or they could explore something specific such as the importance of temperature, sugar quantity, gelatin quantity, the timing of adding gelatin in the making process, the type of sugar used, and more. They can even experiment with marshmallows that they have already made, such as the hot chocolate temperature required to melt a marshmallow, or how the amount of time in a microwave affects the shape and consistency of a marshmallow. Click here for the recipe that we used. There are many others!
The Question: Does the the blending speed impact the stiffness of meringue peaks?
My students and I discovered the answer to this question by pure accident. My high school advisory students participated in a school pie-baking contest. They decided on lemon meringue, but we didn't have a blender on hand. We hand-whisked the egg white mixture. It took a very, very, very long time, but we did eventually get those peaks. But I wouldn't call them stiff. I have made many meringues since, but used a blender. I highly recommend it.
The Science: As you blend egg whites, air bubbles form. The proteins from the egg whites break up from the blending and rearrange themselves, surrounding the air bubbles and securing them, leaving a foamy consistency. By blending too slowly or weakly, the proteins will not "denature", and thus will not incorporate the scaffolding necessary to keep air bubbles in place. Or by whisking limply, you may not be adding any air bubbles to the mixture at all! You can absolutely hand-whisk very quickly, but expect a labor of love!
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of meringue (cookies, pies, etc.) They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments, such as why sugar is added slowly, the result of overwhipping, using whole eggs instead of egg whites, leaving out cream of tartar, the ideal baking temperature, etc. Click here for the recipe that we used.
10. Chocolate Dessert Bowl
The Question: Does the quality of the chocolate affect the texture after it has been tempered and hardened?
My own children and I tried to make a chocolate bowl using a Pinterest recipe, and it didn't work out. At all. We wondered where we went wrong, and if the type of chocolate matters.
The Science: There is cocoa butter in chocolate, which is fat. The fat forms crystals when the chocolate is tempered (controlled heating and cooling of the chocolate). Tempering chocolate breaks up crystals made from the fat and creates a new, more orderly crystalline structure, giving it a glossy look in the end. We wondered if a higher quality chocolate, one with better or different amounts of cocoa butter would make a difference.
Inquiry Activity: We never tested our question, but think it would be a great way to start kitchen inquiry, especially for beginners. For those that have more experience with inquiry science, encourage open inquiry investigations. Ask students to explore chocolate in general, not necessarily a specific recipe. What gives it its shape? What is the difference between chocolate syrup and the chocolate on a candy bar? How is chocolate made?
I mentioned on Instagram that I would be adding ice cream inquiry to this post. I decided against it because it is just not wintery! I'll save that for summer-inspired kitchen inquiry in a few months! Well, nine months ;) Happy holidays, all!
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Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
I talk about experiential learning a lot in my life. It's in the name of my blog and my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I consider "experiential educator" to be my job title and path of focus. "Experiential learning" is strongly built into my daily lexicon and philosophy of education. I get a lot of inquiries about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum, especially in a traditional learning environment. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components. There isn't really any bad news other than there are some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
The Instagram hashtag, #experientiallearning, is loaded with photos of company team- building retreats, groups hiking, traveling, or digging around in the dirt. One common misconception is that experiential learning has to happen outdoors. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be. Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors.
I worked at an experiential high school for almost 10 years. Although we had a travel program and provided daily authentic experiences for students, 90% of my time was spent in the building, in my classroom. Don't use the fact that you're confined to your classroom as an excuse for not providing experiential learning opportunities to your learners. If you're a homeschooler, you have no excuses! ;)
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term experiential learning is in association with corporate team building activities. Experiential learning in the world of education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can do experiential learning starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Components of Experiential Learning
1. Students are actively involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as a science lab that includes a recipe to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean they are involved in the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student, that learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, and embrace failure and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-led.
2. Students have the freedom and support to make mistakes, and outright fail at times:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners. STEM, STEAM, and maker education, among others, are experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these activities can be implemented in any learning environment, inside and out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting and alternative setting.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges for an experiential learning resource that welcomes mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The experience is personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student.
Student-led project-based learning encompasses every element of experiential learning when implemented correctly, but it's also the easiest way to make learning personalized in my opinion. Check out past posts on project-based learning here if you missed them. If you want to incorporate experiential learning into your curriculum, especially if you are confined to a classroom, project-based learning is a great place to start. Check out some of my PBL resources here.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my PBL Bundle and Implementation guide. If you're ready to dive right into student-directed PBL, I would recommend my PBL Tool Kit.
4. Students see a connection between content and the real world:
Connecting an activity with real-world context helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what their learning applies to life. That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help learners develop the skills that are pertinent to life in the 21st-century.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. It can also be done beyond the walls of the classroom, in the community, or right in the classroom. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students can see purpose in the activity:
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The experience is student-directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Check out my student-directed learning series for more info.
All of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies.
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning. They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
Bonus: Use the community as a resource:
Community outreach is a huge plus when it comes to experiential learning. It might mean bringing students out of the classroom to utilize a community resource, or inviting community experts into your classroom. You could bring community members in as speakers, helpers, or teachers. Utilizing community experts in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Experiential Learning in the Classroom and Beyond
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for.
Go through the checklist with a favorite activity to see if it's experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential. The outcome is learners that have a lifelong passion for learning and actually understand and absorb the content.
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences. Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences. But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners.
Start with any student-directed learning activity. All of my resources are child-led and are designed in a way that makes implementation seamless. Personalization, authentic/real-world connections, purpose, student choice, and reflections are all a part of each experience.
Good luck to you as you launch into the new school year!
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There is one critical teacher question to ask students consistently:
"How can you find out?" This is one of my favorite answers to student questions. Resourcefulness is an important skill for children to have heading into adulthood in the 21st-century. I often have students that don't know how to answer this question when I ask it. They don't know where to go to get information.
A parent in my neighborhood recently shared with me that he himself reached out and networked in the community to secure a summer internship for his son, a requirement for his son to earn his college degree. His son is in his 20's. This parent wanted to be helpful. He wanted his son to graduate. The problem is not really with the parent. It's not even with the son. The problem is that his son up to this point had rarely needed to inquire, ask questions, find information, collaborate with community members, or create his own learning opportunities. He had been given answers, given resources, given teacher-directed lessons. He didn't know how to get an internship, a real-life learning experience, because he had never been asked to do anything like that before.
I have noticed since starting this blog and connecting with so many amazing educators from around the world on social media, that there is a huge push toward pedagogy that teaches skills like this - knowing how to find information and opportunity. I do think that things are changing drastically. Educators are doing some amazing things. Project-based learning, problem-based learning, STEM/STEAM, and Inquiry-based learning are a few examples. Inquiry-based learning is a powerful method of setting the stage for development of the very important life skill of resourcefulness; the ability to answer the question "How can you find out?"
Note: A while ago I published two posts, both of which include details on inquiry-based learning that I won't get into here - "Getting Started with Inquiry-Based Learning" and "3 Transformational Approaches to Student-Directed Teaching" . Check out these posts for details on inquiry and great guiding questions to ask students throughout the process if it's a route you choose to try.
"How can you find out" in action:
My children and I recently spent a few days at my parents home, which is on a lake. There is a wetland, which we call "the lagoon", behind their home where my children spend a lot of time. Wetlands are full of life, and they really come to life when you stop and observe. My children noticed hundreds of green balls floating in the water that they had never seen before. My two-year-old daughter thought they were balloons. My 5-year-old thought they were fish eggs. I thought they looked like the tapioca pearls that you'd see in bubble tea, which of course they were not. My kids asked the question, "What are those?" My answer: "Great question. How could we find out?"
We started by scooping a pan full of these mysterious balls and making observations. My kids noticed that they could pop the balls, so the balls were in fact filled with gas. This opened the door to a conversation about gases/solids/liquids. I used a balloon as an analogy. They then made the observation that the balls were green. I asked them what other natural feature is green. They said trees. They were then able to determine that the bubble shape was probably created by a plant. This discovery segued to plant anatomy.
I asked my son where he could learn more about plants, how he could find out why plants are green, and he said with books. So we headed to the library. We looked at several kids books on plant anatomy and water plants.
Then I asked my son who might know a lot about plants. He said a "plant doctor" so I brought him to the DNR building in town, the next best thing! He looked through brochures and showed a picture of the balls to a DNR employee. She gave my son a business card for their wetland ecologist. We later contacted her and she clarified that the balls were in fact algal blooms.
This is inquiry.
My child had a simple question. "What is this?" He was able to find out the answer by asking around. He investigated by making observations, asking experts questions, rifling through informative books that he located (with the help of the librarian), and drawing his own conclusions. He constructed his own knowledge by actively seeking out information. He led this learning experience. Of course I had a role to play and that was facilitator. That is the job of a student-directed educator.
The lessons learned here are appropriate for a 5-year-old. He learned the difference between solids, liquids, and gases. He learned how to differentiate between plants, animals, insects, etc. based on physical features. He learned how to observe using all of his senses. He even learned that plants, including algae, make their own food. Most importantly, in my opinion, he practiced locating resources to find the answer to his question, a need that will come up in his life over and over again.
If this same observation were to be made by an older student you could launch into exploring photosynthesis with them, wetland ecology, ecological health, water pollution from fertilizers and more. I had dozens of questions when I saw these balls floating around. Not "What is it?" I knew what they were. My high school students, particularly my environmental science students, would likely know what they were. My questions were more along the lines of why those algal blooms were there at all, if they were impacting ecological and/or human health, recreational fishing, or the economy, and if so, what could be done about it?
Each of those questions could be turned into inquiry-based learning opportunities for students by conducting scientific inquiry experiments (check out my inquiry-based learning toolkit, geared toward middle and secondary students); contacting community experts; visiting sites; inviting speakers to the school; digging for publications; interviewing people from varying perspectives such as the DNR, other conservation groups, farmers, city planners, scientists, golf course managers, and more. When asked "how could you find out?", those are some ways, and our students need to have this skill. They need to know HOW to learn.
Take a peek at these other inquiry-based learning and student-directed learning resources for middle and high school students at Experiential Learning Depot:
- Student-Directed Learning Toolkit Bundle (Inquiry, PBL and PrBL)
- Student-Directed Scientific Inquiry - Water Pollution Bundle
- Water Pollution Unit: Student-Directed Learning Bundle
- Water Pollution Community Action Project
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!
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.