How to Make Learning Personal In Your Classroom
I recently came across a comment on LinkedIn, a tirade really, about personalized learning. I thought to myself, "personalized learning? Of all things!" What could possibly be wrong with that? Personalized learning is what I have done, or thought I was doing, with my students for a decade, learning about their interests, their personal challenges in and outside of school, learning about their strengths and building off of those, planning deep and meaningful projects that reflect every inch of their individuality.
I spent some time trying to discern this mystifying LinkedIn comment, but was unsuccessful. I found what I expected to find; a variety of definitions, all with the same basic idea, that personalized learning is instruction designed around the unique needs of every individual learner. I also discovered that several terms appear to be used interchangeably including individualized learning and differentiated learning. Differentiated learning is not the same as my perceived definition of personalized learning at the time, by the way. I'll get to that in another post.
I moved on. I chalked it up as a comment from an individual that was either completely misled somewhere along the line or that we just fundamentally disagreed about the value of personalized learning. Then I came across an article written by Alfie Kohn. Not a recent one! It was written in 2015. This article finally uncovered the logic behind the comment. Personal learning is what I do. Personalized learning has taken on new meaning while I've been sitting here in the dark.
Four Reasons to Worry About Personalized Learning by Alfie Kohn
Personalized learning, according to Alfie Kohn, is the customization of learning FOR students by rather than BY the students themselves. Personal Learning, Inc. is software (for-profit) that analyzes student test scores to then produce a "personalized" set of basic-skills drills with the intention of improving test scores. This my friend, is NOT what I do. I now fully understand the sentiment behind the LinkedIn diatribe, and with this new frame of reference, completely agreed with it.
What I do is PERSONAL learning. What then is personal learning and how can you do it with your own students?
What is Personal Learning?
Personal learning is the facilitation of deep, meaningful, and authentic learning experiences designed around the unique interests, backgrounds, skill levels, goals, strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and so on of EACH student. The teacher/facilitator builds a relationship with every learner and enhances learning by creating an environment that reflects and celebrates the unique attributes of each child.
"Everyone is genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." Albert Einstein is commonly given credit for saying this, but I've read he didn't actually say it. Regardless of who said it, there is truth in it. Obviously a fish climbing or being able to grasp the concept of its own intelligence is hyperbole. But there are parallels to children, and the point remains - not all children are the same and shouldn't be treated as such, especially when it comes to their education. To cast an umbrella over all of your students, to expect all 5 year olds to be able to read at the same time, for example, is nonsense.
Every student walks into your classroom each day with a unique set of challenges, levels of energy, reading or writing abilities, amount of sleep they had the night before, personal traumas, learning styles, etc., than their peer sitting next to them.
Those differences matter. They matter when it comes to learning. You may get irritated when one of your 15-year-old students falls asleep during your lecture on transcription and translation, but they are kids, and what inspires one may not inspire another. It's not a personal attack on you, but it is personal for them. They may not have an interest in the topic. They may be hands-on learners. They may simply be exhausted from football practice the night before, then to work from there to help support their family, and home to finish up school assignments.
There is a lot to take into consideration here when you're talking about deep learning experiences. This student might do what she's told, get the grades, get into a good college, but did she learn anything? Was it meaningful? Is she leaving school with a passion for learning? Not likely. Making learning personal leads to real, deep, authentic learning that will carry with them through college and their careers. This is what I want for my own children and my students.
So how do you make learning personal for 30 students? The same way you would make learning personal for 1 student, such as a homeschool scenario. By building relationships with your students and moving to a student-directed, teacher-facilitated model.
How Do I Make Learning Personal?
1) Build Meaningful Relationships With Your Students:
The photo below is me working with a student on her student-directed, interest-driven project. Every element of her project was designed with her interests, goals, strengths, weaknesses, etc. in mind. She is dissecting several marine organisms. Her interests and career goals at the time revolved around marine biology.
In the past our students have completed personal learning plans in Powerpoint format. The photos below illustrate a few of the slides. The students then hang onto this personal learning plan and revisit it with their teachers often. Below is a snapshot of an old personal learning plan created by Jennings Community School. I have my own version of a PLP that is included in my PBL bundle mentioned above.
You are likely wondering when in the world you're going to have time for all of this in addition to teaching content. A personal learning plan meeting with each kid, multiple times per session? Yikes. This is a valid concern. You will do this with student-directed learning. Hear me out!
2) Organize Learning Experiences That Are Personal In Nature:
Make learning personal by organizing and facilitating learning activities that give students voice and choice; student-directed learning in other words. Student-directed project-based-learning is a wonderful tool for making learning personal. There are many points in the PBL process where students have choice. Students can design their own projects based on their interests. If you don't have the flexibility to allow students to choose their own topics, students can still design the rest of their projects.
For example, if you need to cover the topic of photosynthesis, students can still choose how they will gather information, how they will demonstrate learning, and what authentic audience they will share it with. One student may want to work on tech literacy, so may choose to demonstrate learning by creating an animation. Another student might prefer to work with their hands, so chooses to demonstrate learning by creating a moving model.
All of my project-based learning resources in my TpT store are designed to give students choice while still providing structure. My project-based learning bundle and instruction manual is a great way to start student-directed project-based learning. This bundle also includes my personal learning plan. You could also try out my PBL Tool Kit if you have specific topics you would like to create projects around.
You are the facilitator of student-directed learning activities, not the director. You are guiding, offering feedback, providing community connections, etc. This gives you the freedom to work the room, talk with students independently, have PLP meetings, and even have that organic, casual dialogue with individuals or small groups of students. By cutting down on lecture and lesson planning, you free up time to build relationships with students and create learning plans that best suit the interests, needs, and goals of each child.
Alfie Kohn said "If the child is off-task...maybe the child isn't the problem...,maybe it's the task." Transitioning from a didactic pedagogy to student-led personal learning wouldn't be an easy transition. Change is hard. But with the right tools, support, and determination, you can do it, and it will be worth the time and energy. You will start to see some of those "behavioral issues" disappear that likely stem from boredom and confusion. You will have students that have lost their love of learning somewhere along the way find that passion again.
Thanks for stopping by. If you ever decide to make learning personal in your classroom through student-directed learning, I'd love to hear from you. How did it go? What have been some challenges? What has gone well?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
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!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
Interest-Led Learning: It All Starts With a Question
It all starts with a question. How does cheese turn into milk? What is the distribution of Malaria around the world? How do you raise chickens? How do I reduce the number of mosquitos in my backyard? Student-directed learning starts with a driving question that is interest-led. The student asks and investigates the question, while you, the teacher or parent facilitates the experience. This applies to a variety teaching methods including project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry, maker ed, STEM, STEAM, and the list goes on. You can really take any approach and make it student-directed simply by giving students the freedom to lead the experience starting with a question that they themselves have an interest in investigating.
This idea, student-directed, interest-led learning, applies to ALL learners from all backgrounds, skill levels, and age groups, and is even effective in all learning environments, whether that be in the classroom, home, or out in the world. Deeper learning occurs when you allow students choice in topic, process, and outcome because they are intrinsically motivated to learn.
For the past few months I've been hyper-focused on project-based learning here on this blog. I've been through the details of each element and how to implement PBL in your current teaching environment. Click here to peruse those posts. I have a project-based teaching tool kit for student-directed, interest-led PBL experiences, which includes all of the necessary templates to execute PBL from start to finish.
One of those templates is a project-proposal. All PBL projects start with a proposal, which is a document used to guide learners in student-directed project-design. Students plan the entirety of their project on this one-page organizer. That proposal starts with a learner-asked question. Let's go through what this might look like...
A few weeks ago my children and I went to visit my parents' home that sits in the woods overlooking a lake. My son and I were sitting on their deck that is so high that we were positioned in a forest canopy. There is about 30 feet of forest in front of us which then opens up to a freshwater lagoon. Beautiful, but a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It was evening and we began noticing bats in the trees. My son was instantly intrigued.
"Where do bats go during the day?", he asked. This simple question launched my 5-year-old son into a three week project on bat habitat and behavior that resulted in the construction of a bat house to place on my parents' property as a mechanism for bug control.
Interest-Led Project-Based Learning Design Process
Student-directed project-based educators are facilitators of the experience. Part of the role of facilitator is to inspire project ideas and make suggestions that challenge learners. I have several free resources in my store that help educators and learners through the project- design process. I meet one-on-one with students to help them turn a great question into a great project. This is my process:
1. What is Your Driving Question?
The question my son originally asked, "Where do bats go during the day?", became more of a question about habitat. "What is the habitat of a bat? What environment do they require to live?" This is an umbrella question with many sub-questions to explore. Where a species resides is dependent on available food, shelter, proximity to water, foraging behaviors, nesting/resting behaviors, predators to avoid and how they avoid them, etc.
2. What Is Your Final Product?
I showed my son pictures of several bat house designs from Pinterest, many of which had the Batman emblem painted on the front. He decided (mostly because of the Batman symbol) that he wanted to make a bat house to put out near the front porch. Making a functional, successful bat house requires an understanding of bat habitat and behavior.
Note: Showing my son a bat house makes it no less child-led. He had no idea what a bat house was, he had never seen one. Part of the role of the facilitator is to guide the learning experience by providing insight, community connections, suggestions, learning opportunities, and even structure.
3. What Questions Will You Research?
For my son to understand the habitat of a bat there was other questions he needed to ask and examine such as what species of bat he would make a house for, their size, their range, what they eat, their mating requirements, how large they are, how they sleep, their predators. He needed to figure out where the bat house would be placed, in what direction it needed to face, and how high up it needed to be. He found out what building materials are safe for bats, discovering that the wood and any paint we used had to be untreated and non-toxic as well as withstand the harsh weather conditions. He even asked questions about tools and how to use them. Project-based learners map out these questions in the design process and continue developing questions as their projects unfold.
4. What Community Experts Could You Use?
My high school project-based learners, with my help, brainstorm potential community experts and add those individuals to their project proposals. They may happen upon more as they work on their projects, and that's great!
My son and I went out into the community to gather information about bat habitat so that we could create the best shelter possible. I took him to a library to check out a variety of bat books. We went to a local nature center where he was able to speak with a naturalist. She led us on a short tour to see the bat boxes they had on their property. She could have easily been invited to us, but visiting the area gave us a better picture of what to create.
5. How Will You Present Your Work Authentically?
I talk about this piece often on my blog because I think it is such a valuable component of any learning experience. Project-based learning is authentic by nature, so it is only natural that we would present our final product and information to an authentic audience, one that is relevant and can benefit from the project. Learners should have a general idea of their audience before they start their projects. The authentic presentation will determine the direction the learner takes with the project.
My son has his bat box hanging on a tall tree in front of my parents' porch. The final product makes an impact. Visitors can watch the bats from the porch, which is cool in itself, but the bat house also provides a form of bug control for the local residents.
A project like this is highly modifiable. Learner-led project-based learning is personalized, so projects should organically fit the needs, goals, interests, and abilities of the student in question. A project like this one could be adapted to any learner. The amount of guidance would depend on the student, their age, their abilities, and so on. Younger students, like my son, need a lot more guidance than would a high school student.
Conservation is the best way to determine a student's interests. Download my free interest survey from more store to scaffold those conversations.
As a science teacher, I love this project because it brings those life science standards to life. Students learn about ecosystems through hands-on, student-led inquiry. On top of that they build skills such as creative design, collaboration, networking, finding credible information. They begin to understand their local communities and what they need. Student-directed project-based learning is multidisciplinary and the results are mind-blowing.
I recently added a PBL maker challenge to my store that parallels my son's project - Build a Wildlife Shelter. Students choose a local native species of interest, learn about their behaviors and natural history, and build a shelter for that species to place in the community.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education. You can also check out my TpT store for more experiential learning resources such as problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning.
I spend a significant portion of this post talking about the purpose and advantages of learner-led assessments. If you are already determined to add learner-led assessments to your routine and already know how awesome this approach is, scroll down to get directly to student-directed assessment strategies.
I have two wonderful children, a two-year-old daughter, and a 4-year-old son. When I was pregnant with my daughter, my second child, I thought she would be effortless. I’ve done this child-raising thing before after-all, I thought. I’d already been through the infancy experience, the teething, the tantrums, the separation anxiety phase. I’d been there, done that, and thought my second child would fall right in line. I would know exactly how to respond when similar challenges, questions about life, and milestones inevitably arose.
I’m not sure why this was my thinking. As a teacher at a school that is personalized in nature, I am very aware of the importance of individuality. Children vary in their interests, learning styles, backgrounds, skills, and abilities. My children couldn’t be more opposite from each other. I came to the realization that each one of my children, just like my students, will have to be raised differently, with some distinctive approaches and expectations. Putting an umbrella over my children, asking them to perform the same activities, master the same competencies, in the same way, and under the same time-frame would be disastrous. This goes for children in school learning environments as well.
How then can we provide a learning environment for our children where individualism is not only recognized but celebrated? We can accommodate for student differences by setting the stage for student-directed learning. Students take ownership of their education in a student-directed learning environment (back track to posts from my student-directed learning series).
In a student-directed learning environment, learning is active rather than passive. The instructor acts as a guide and facilitator of learning. Students initiate and design projects that are based on interest and relevance. Learners write their own goals and methods of accomplishing those goals. Learners create their own assessments based on their goals for the future, competencies needing growth, skill level, pace, learning styles, and more. They self-assess often and reflect on their work. They go back and revise and improve. They lead evaluation meetings with their teachers and an evaluation committee, and conduct parent/teacher conferences using a student-created conference assessment.
Self-assessments are key components to student-directed learning. Not only do students create their own assessments, but they also evaluate their progress using said assessment throughout the course of the learning activity. The student-created assessments that I implement in my classroom are typically project-based learning rubrics. I provide a blank rubric template to be produced by each student according to their project goals. I include word banks with categories and levels of mastery to assist students with the process as they become more confident student-directed learners. That rubric template is available in my store. Scroll down for the link.
Student-generated rubrics allow students to improve in areas specific to their needs in addition to content knowledge. Some students may want to work on organization, others may have already mastered that skill. Some may want to practice and improve on presentation skills, others may not find that relevant. Categories can be across the board from content to social-emotional skills, to career and life skills. Not only are student-created rubrics personalized, they also give learners the chance to have some authority over their education. Some may not see that as a good thing. I see it as imperative for success in a rapidly evolving society. One size does not fit all. This is true now more than ever before, so we shouldn’t be assessing in such a way.
There are a variety of advantages to child-led assessments. The greatest advantage is the intrinsic motivation to learn. When you give student’s choice and voice, they organically invest in the outcome. Learners develop a strong self-concept, intrapersonal intelligence, the skills to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and the wherewithal to grow and adapt. That in itself invaluable for lifelong learners.
Another result in favor of student-directed assessments is the development of competencies that are relevant to life outside of the classroom. A traditional assessment, whether it be a multiple choice test or a teacher-created rubric, doesn’t always address critical life skills, emotional and social awareness, or technical abilities, for example. They are generally intended to assess content knowledge only. Learning important subject concepts isn’t a bad thing. The trouble comes when the assessment ONLY targets content knowledge, and it’s the instructor determining the measurements for all students, not individuals.
Student-generated assessments along with consistent self-reflection and meetings with the facilitator/teacher throughout the learning process gives students indispensable feedback. Students go back and revise and improve their work. That in itself, the motivation to improve, is a skill often lost in teacher-centered classrooms with teacher-created assessments. The result of creating one’s own assessment, having voice and choice in one’s learning and outcomes, and aiming to improve, is passionate, life-long learners. Putting personal opinions about education aside, isn’t that a solid accomplishment and desire of all educators?
I use the following assessments strategies with my project-based learners. If it seems like a bit much, try a few things at a time or attempt to introduce some of the ideas gradually. At some point in your journey to a project-based learning environment you will be able to implement all of these strategies seamlessly because they are building blocks. They work off of each other. Good luck!
Project-Based Learning Assessment Strategies
At the beginning of a session or project have students write personal and academic goals. You are setting students up to be able to design their own assessments based on their vision, needs, and learning goals. Each of my students has a personal learning plan (PLP) that they create with me at the beginning of the school year. This is where they record their strengths, interests, and short and long-term goals. They return to their PLP periodically throughout the course of the year to reflect and adjust their plans. You may also consider asking students to write goals specific to a given project. They can create a few goals before they start.
I use PLP's for goal-making, I have students make project goals before each project, and I also have students do my "goals maker PBL challenge" at the beginning of the year. I guide students in the goal-making process. There is no specific system . Do what works well for you.
2. Student-Generated Assessments :
PBL projects are typically assessed using rubrics. I use a generic rubric for my beginner project-based learners. Eventually students can begin to create their own rubrics where they determine criteria to be evaluated. Criteria might relate to goals, strengths that they would like to build on, interests, skill level, and even the nature of the project. This idea could apply to any assessment style, not just rubrics. You could even have students design formative assessments throughout the course of the project.
For example, if your students are doing a neurology project and they're learning about neurotransmission, allow students to decide how they will demonstrate their understanding of that concept. They might create a moving model, an animation, a poem, etc. The list goes on. Check out my previous post on 100 Ways to Demonstrate Learning.
PBL Formative Assessments
Generic Project-Based Learning Rubric
Student-Generated Rubric with Word Banks
An important life skill is the ability to reflect on one's work, identify areas that could use improvement, and make adjustments. Teachers have to do this every day - reflect and adapt. Ask students to self-evaluate periodically throughout the course of the project and again before their final project evaluation with you (facilitator/teacher). My students fill in their generic or self-generated rubrics as their self-assessments. We often have work days where students work on their projects while I meet with students one-on-one to take a peek at their progress and go over their self-assessments.
A critical element of project-based learning is feedback, and another important life skill is the ability to accept constructive feedback and make improvements. This isn't a skill that everyone innately has. Students often revolt when asked to pump up the quality of a project or go back and try this or that. Establishing high standards of student work starts with feedback and the chance, and expectation, to improve. The end goal is for students to want to improve, or get excited about the prospect.
Foster as many opportunities for feedback as possible. One way to do this is through peer-evaluations. Have students share their work with each other, offer suggestions, and the chance to go back and make improvements. You can ask them to develop partnerships for a specific project - a project buddy. You can have them do project circles where students get together every so often to share their progress with the group. Students can then ask questions, give suggestions, and offer insightful feedback.
5. Community Expert Evaluations
The same idea applies here as with peer-evaluations except community experts have an authentic perspective. In project-based learning students connect with community experts (look back a couple weeks for a post on this concept). If learners are doing a project on puma habitat, for example, they might connect with a local zoologist, conservationist, or ecologist. If their final product is creating a documentary they might bring in a film-maker from the community to help with formatting and editing. Students can maintain consistent communication with these community members throughout the project process and ask that those experts evaluate their progress as they go. These community experts can also attend final presentations and play a role in final evaluations.
6. Student-Led Final Evaluations with Instructor and/or Evaluation Committee
After students have presented their final products to the class/teacher AND their authentic audience (see last weeks post on authentic presentations) I meet with them one-on-one to go over their rubrics (generic and/or self-created). They bring a self-assessed rubric to this meeting. The student justifies their self-evaluation, I give them my feedback, determine credit, we talk about future goals, and move onto the next project.
This process can - and should if you can make it work - be done using an evaluation committee. An evaluation committee is a small group put together to evaluate student projects. The group might consist of another staff member, students, community experts relevant to the project, and you, the instructor. This limits subjectivity when assigning a final grade or credit and offers students feedback from a variety of perspectives.
If you're interested in implementing any or all of these strategies, consider checking out Getting Started with Project-Based Learning Package from my store that includes 20 integrated PBL projects, an implementation manual, and all of the templates necessary for seamless execution of PBL, such as a personal learning plan.
Students from all backgrounds, skill levels, age groups, and instructional environments can take an active role in their education by simply having the chance to create and manage their own measurements of success. Every student is able to create their own assessments, and they will take pride and ownership in the outcome.
"Authentic" is a buzzword in the project-based learning world. Authenticity is the foundation of PBL and plays a role in every step of the process from project design to final evaluation. That is one feature that separates project-based learning from other teaching methods. The learning experiences, final product, resources, presentation, assessment, reflection, etc. should all be authentic - they should be relevant, real, have meaning and purpose in the lives of learners.
For example, an authentic learning experience would be one in which a student interviews an oncologist vs. reads about cancer on Wikipedia. An authentic final product might be a mini-documentary that follows the experience of a cancer survivor vs. a poster board with tidbits of information about cancer. An authentic presentation would be hosting a community screening of the mini-documentary vs. a presentation to the class.
This post is specifically about that authentic presentations.
Backtrack a few weeks to posts from my project-based learning series for more details on PBL.
What is an authentic presentation?
An authentic presentation is the demonstration of new skills and knowledge to a relevant audience in the community. The idea is that the information or the final product reaches an audience that could use the final product or benefit from the material in some way, where the learner can experience and visualize their new understanding of a concept or skill at play in real life. A presentation that is not authentic would be one given to the class followed by the final product getting tossed in the trash, never to be thought of again. An authentic presentation would leave a mark on the community, and depending on the nature of the presentation, possibly make a profound long-term impact (check out my community action projects, a type of project-based learning that leaves a lasting impact on the local or global community).
Why bother with authentic presentations?
One reason to incorporate authentic presentations is quality. When students know their final product will be seen by more than the teacher they up their game a bit. Other benefits include encouraging community collaboration, building communication and networking skills, promoting citizenship, enhancing students' worldview, understanding their local and gobal communities, and more. The result is deeper learning, learning that goes beyond content knowledge. This is true because learners construct meaning through real-life experiences. They see relevance and purpose as it relates to their lives.
Authentic Presentation Ideas
Reaching a relevant audience and making an impact on the community doesn't mean your students have to do public speeches everyday. Speaking to a community audience, such as performing an original skit on bullying to a local elementary assembly, is one way to deliver new skills and knowledge in an authentic way. There are other ways for those educators and learners that are confined to the classroom. Other options include publishing work on digital media such as a blog, submitting work to an online publication or contest, displaying student work in the community, and even bringing the audience to you.
One way of bringing an authentic audience to your students is to host exhibition or presentation events at the school or at your home (if you are a home educator). This gives students the chance to showcase their work to the community. Invite relevant community members, family members, friends, and experts utilized in student projects. The cover photo is of one such exhibition night that my school hosts quarterly.
Check out the graphic organizer below for more authentic presentation ideas. My students use this organizer when designing their projects. Feel free to do the same with your students. A free printable version can be found at Experiential Learning Depot.
Example of an Authentic Presentation in Project-Based Learning:
You assign a PBL project to your life science class. They are to do a project on symbiotic relationships. Each student designs their own project around this topic. Each student chooses how they will find the information, which experts to connect with, how they would like to demonstrate learning, how they would like to present it and who will be their audience (other than the teacher and class). This is what the PBL process looks like in my seminars. I give the topic and the learners direct the learning experience (with my guidance). I will be doing a post in the near future on the steps involved in student-directed project-based learning. Stay-tuned for that. In the meantime, I highly recommend reading Passion for Learning by Ronald Newell.
One student decides to create an infographic on the different types of symbiotic relationships (authentic final product). She collaborates with an ecology professor from a nearby university and a graphic designer in the area (authentic learning experiences). They work together to create a professional quality infographic with solid, accurate information. The student then needs to determine how she will share her learning experience with a relevant audience that will benefit from the information and/or the final product itself (authentic presentation).
Examples of Authentic Presentation Options for this Project Using the Graphic Organizer Above:
1) Distribute Final Product to a Relevant Audience in the Community:
2) Display Final Product to a Relevant Audience in the Community:
3) Present Final Product to a Relevant Audience in the Community:
4) Publish the Final Product:
5) Share your Final Product Digitally:
Good luck! If you're overwhelmed by the possibilities, utilize some of the organizational templates provided in my store, including the one above. Many of them are free. Implementing authentic experiences in your curriculum does not have to be chaotic. Even student-directed learning can have structure and SHOULD be teacher facilitated. I am a firm advocate for authentic learning and love to talk about it. If you have questions or are seeking out advice or tips, please reach out. I would be ecstatic to help out!
My TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot, is filled with PBL learning resources. Check them out if you think project-based learning is something you might love to try with your students.
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There are a few elements that are important to consider in project-based learning, otherwise your students are just doing projects. I vaguely talked about this in a post published last week, "What is Project-Based Learning Anyway" and now I'm back with details on specific elements of PBL that make it what it is. That post includes several examples of project-based learning in action.
Key Components of Project-Based Learning:
1. Innovative Final Product -
Students conduct research or gather information on a topic of their choosing. Students then assemble that information into a final product that will demonstrate learning. Students are quick to settle on poster boards or a slideshow presentation because it's easy. An innovative final product moves away from the cut and paste approach. Deeper learning results. Examples include timelines, business plans, video promotions, skits, etc.
2. Community Experts -
This is a critical component of project-based learning. The idea is that students learn about their project topic by communicating and collaborating with primary sources - real people specifically. Students might conduct an interview, shadow, intern, volunteer, or work directly on a project with a community expert on their topic. The community member might assist with student projects by providing materials, a work space, or knowledge. This element of project-based learning helps students build communication skills, develop a community network, and gather authentic information and experiences.
3. Authentic Presentations -
An authentic presentation is one where the end product of a PBL project is shared with an authentic, relevant audience often outside of the boundaries of the classroom. The purpose is to motivate quality work and make an impact on the community. One of my students did a project on grieving the loss of a parent. She created a blog as a resource for those in a familiar situation. It would have been unfortunate if she only presented that project to her teacher and classmates, as she wouldn't have directly reached an appropriate audience. In addition to presenting to the class then, this student published a blog and marketed via social media so that her blog could meet those in need of resources and support during their time of grief.
4. Assessments and Consistent Feedback -
Project-based learning doesn't often have cut and dry, right or wrong answers, which can make some students uncomfortable. Providing regular feedback is critical, giving students security and validation.
To give you a loose framework, this is my PBL assessment process: I have my students self and peer-assess periodically throughout the project process using my Generic PBL Rubric, or a Student-Generated Rubric created by the student and approved by me before they began their project. I meet with students one-on-one to go over their self-assessment several times over the course of the project experience. I provide feedback at that time and allow the students to go back and revise and improve their work. When they have completed their projects they present to the class AND their authentic audience. After that point I arrange for a one-on-one final evaluation meeting with each student. We go over a rubric and their final project reflection together. It is a great idea to include project community experts in any or all of these steps.
I have a project-based learning bundle that also acts as a PBL implementation manual. It's great for beginner project-based teachers. It includes 20 projects as well as implementation instructions, rubrics, project proposals, topic research templates, personal learning plans, a project reflection, and more. This resource requires zero prep on your part because a project-based teacher is a facilitator, not a deliverer of information. Check out my blog posts on student-directed learning to get a feel for the duties of a PBL educator.
5. Project Reflection -
This piece is so important. When a student's project is complete they should always look back on the experience. The ability to reflect, adjust, and improve is an important life skill. The ability to take constructive feedback and go back and improve is a skill that many adults haven't mastered, me included! Don't skip this part!
My students use this checklist when designing their projects to make sure they've covered all their PBL bases.
Great PBL Example:
I want to give you a quick idea of project-based learning by telling you about one of my all-time favorite student projects. Keep in mind, this was a senior project. Not all projects have to be this elaborate. My student worked on this project over the course of a year. But it's a great example because it really hits on all of the reasons project-based learning is GOLD.
One of my students was interested in botany. Around this time I was taking a course on teaching biotechnology. One day we were talking about it, and he told me about an article he read on algae farms, and how algae was being harvested for fuel. This is how his senior project came to be, from a simple conversation about his interests.
My student's final product, he decided, would be harvesting algae and processing it into biofuel. He started volunteering at the University of Minnesota greenhouse. He contacted Brett Barney from the U of M Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering. My student worked alongside Dr. Barney in his lab to gather information on how to start his own crop. Dr. Barney even GAVE my student algae and materials to get him started.
The Algae Biofuels Summit just happened to be taking place in Minneapolis around that time. My student got in touch with Advanced Biofuels USA to negotiate a deal on a ticket to the conference. They offered to donate my student entrance to the conference free of charge as long as he agreed to write an article for their newsletter on his experience.
Read the rest of his article here.
The bottom line is that this student discovered an interest, asked questions, gathered information using a variety of world-class experts on the topic, created an innovative final product (harvesting and processing his own algae), and shared his work with an authentic, public audience. I don't think he even realizes today, seven years later, the immense impact this project had on his life. Only this experience could have resulted in the skills and knowledge that he gained. Completing a poster board on algae as a biofuel wouldn't have had the same results.
If you're interested in executing project-based learning, but aren't in need of specific project topics, check out my student-directed, project-based learning toolkit. This resource has all of the templates you and your students would need to implement student-led/interest-led PBL, much like "passion projects".
What are some cool projects your students have done? What do they gain from the experience in addition to content knowledge? There are so many amazing ideas and cool projects going on out there. I see them everyday. Brag about yours students!
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What is project-based learning anyway?
This post was published when I first started my blog about one year ago. This is an updated version. I will be updating other earlier posts on project-based learning throughout June. Stay-tuned.
For several years now, since seeing the documentary "Half the Sky" (if you haven't seen it or read the book I HIGHLY recommend it), I have been doing a women's studies seminar with my students. Part of the seminar is for students to take one topic related to women's history or women's issues and do a project on it.
Several years ago I had a student who chose to do her project on domestic violence. She chose this topic because it was relevant in her life at the time. She connected with the Sojourner Project, a domestic violence non-profit and shelter in the Twin Cities, to ask an educator from the organization to come to the school to speak with her and her classmates about the issue of domestic abuse. This student also contacted a self-defense instructor from the community to come into the school to teach her and her classmates effective self-defense strategies. The photo on the cover of this blog post captures that experience. I still have students talking about what they gained from that class today. It was memorable and meaningful to my students for many reasons, one of which was its relevance to their lives.
This student assembled all of the information she gathered into a presentation and created a brochure that included signs of domestic abuse, community resources for victims, tips for friends and family of abuse survivors and more. She placed hundreds of brochures around the community from health clinics to bus stops to school counseling offices, as well as up on all of her social media sites to spread awareness. She also organized a clothing and food drive for Sojourner Project's shelter.
This student didn't gather statistics and info from a few websites online, copy and paste them into a Powerpoint presentation and regurgitate the information from her slideshow to her classmates. She collaborated with the community, reached out to experts in the field, made an impact on the community by playing an active role in making change, and shared her new knowledge and insight to a relevant audience that could benefit from the information. That is project-based learning.
My experience and philosophy of teaching is all about project-based learning (PBL). I have been a project-based teacher for 11 years. I talk a lot about PBL right here on my blog and my various social media pages. Almost all of my TpT resources are PBL in nature. Since starting this blog a little less than one year ago, I have discovered that there are a few misconceptions around project-based learning that I hope to clarify in this post. The most common is that it's the same as a project. As you can see from my example above, they are very different things. The result of project-based learning is a deep, meaningful learning experience. Generic projects don't always have the same impact.
So what is project-based learning?
In short, PBL is learning through projects that are innovative, relevant, and are shared with an authentic audience. Students gather information on a topic or problem through questioning, learning activities, and community collaboration. They share their new skills and knowledge beyond classroom walls in such a way that their final product and presentation make an impact on the local and/or global community.
Passion for Learning by Ronald J. Newell is a great book about project-based learning, which puts a spotlight on MN New Country School, an authentic project-based learning school in rural Minnesota. This book is informative and inspiring for those interested in moving into project-based teaching. Ronald J Newell describes project-based learning as follows:
It might feel like a lot, and it can feel overwhelming at first. But with the right resources, and by allowing learning to be driven by students, it all tends to fall into place. Not without hard work, mistakes, going back to the drawing board, trying new things, etc. but that is teaching. It's what we do. Changing up our teaching methods based on the evolving needs of our students is not only important, but THAT is our job.
Examples of Project-Based Learning:
I had a few students a couple of years ago who were interested in skateboarding. They could have easily done some research on a famous skateboarder, copied and pasted information into a Powerpoint presentation, presented it to the class, and called it a day. That is a project, not project-based learning. That wouldn't fly in my class, so...
This is what they did instead:
The students decided to create their own skateboard clothing brand. They named their company (Abstract Skate Co.), designed a logo, and met with a local screen printing company who taught them how to screen print AND build and set-up their own screen printing workshop at the school on a budget.
The students met with a local business, JAMF Software, for business tips. JAMF was so inspired by their project that the company ended up giving the students a grant to set up their own screen printing studio at the school and all merchandise needed to start their business. The students met with marketing professionals from JAMF for tips on branding their product. They printed shirts and skate decks, "hired" out another student to write their business plan, created a website, and planned and hosted a launch party for their brand. Now that's authentic project-based learning! Check out the photos below to get an idea of the process.
Benefits of PBL:
Although the brand never really took off (students graduated and went on their way), the lessons learned and skills developed from this one project are profound. If they decide to take another crack at it in the future, they will have the skills to do so successfully.
There are a lot of benefits to project-based learning, but in my opinion the most important is
1) the development of skills essential for success in the 21st century, 2) intrinsic motivation to learn, and 3) a lifelong passion for learning. A poster board project on Tony Hawk would not have produced the same authentic and powerful learning experience.
Take a look at this handy visual that I put together below that compares a standard project with project-based learning and check back next week for specifics on each element of PBL.
If you're interested in project-based learning, continue following this blog throughout the summer and check out my PBL bundle below or any variety of other project-based learning resources in my TpT store, many of which are free (Experiential Learning Depot.)
My PBL resources require little to no prep and train students to critically think and have their own ideas! The result is student-directed learning. Win! Right now is a great time to start thinking about project-based learning for next year or use it as an entire summer school course. Check out the preview for the bundle below or head to my store for individual PBL resources.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education. You can also find me on LinkedIn.
One last example! Check out this three minute video.
I came across a children's book about sea turtles at the library, and grabbed it for my kids. By the second page I discovered that the book is a beautiful illustration of project-based learning at it's finest. Check it out...
Follow the Moon Home by Deborah Hopkinson and Phillipe Cousteau Jr.
Note: I mention "Classroom Unbound" in this video. That was the name of my blog when I first started. I changed it to Experiential Learning Depot a few months ago to streamline my brand. So to clarify, "Classroom Unbound" is the same as "Experiential Learning Depot".
Spring is here, the weather is warming, and students are getting antsy. The school year is wrapping up. Teachers want to end the year with a bang, but we're also exhausted and don't know how much more we have in us! It's testing season, prom season, graduation season, grade report season! Ah! May is bonkers in the world of education.
What better way to go out with a bang AND cruise through the rest of the year than with community action projects (CAPs)? I did a post on this a while ago. Feel free to go back to that post for details. In summary, students choose a local or global issue, design an action plan, and take action. It's a great mix of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service-learning. Community action projects are interesting, multidisciplinary, and mine are designed to be student-directed, which means there is little to no preparation on your part other than introducing and facilitating the project.
Here's how it works: Students choose an issue that they'd like to get involved in and do some research on the problem. After students have chosen and thoroughly investigated an issue, they brainstorm solutions, design an action plan, and act. Hosting an exhibition night to showcase projects is a nice way to wrap up the experience.
You could allow students to choose any issue of interest or keep it within parameters pertinent to goals or learning objectives for a class. For example, I have done an entire seminar called "community action projects" where that's all we did. I have also incorporated CAPs into specific courses such as a final project for my environmental science class. Students focused on issues pertinent to the environment such as water pollution. Check out this community action project designed specifically to the concept of pollution.
There are a couple important distinctions between this kind of project and any other school project. My community action projects follow the principles of project-based learning, so one of the most important distinctions is that these projects make an impact on the community, preferably long-term. Check out my post on the elements of project-based learning for more details. A student could create an elaborate awareness campaign with beautiful illustrations and a catchy slogan, but if their final product isn't shared or never reaches a relevant audience, then learners aren't reaching their full potential. The project wouldn't make a real impact if not shared with a meaningful audience and the student is robbed of deeper learning, particularly of opportunities to build important 21st-century skills such as networking, communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and citizenship. The purpose of a project like this is not to theorize solutions to hypothetical problems. It's to teach students how to be responsible and active citizens, to have the tools to fight injustices, or simply know how to solve real-world problems.
The following is a list of community action project ideas that could apply to most issues. Students can refer to this list when designing their action plans or you could choose an idea from the list to assign to the class. That would be the more teacher-guided approach vs. student-directed where students design their own projects. You choose!
***I have a community action project toolkit in my store that includes all guiding materials and templates needed for students to carry out projects on issues of their choice.
10 Community Action Project Ideas To Wrap Up the School Year
1. Awareness Campaign:
Students design a campaign that would educate the public on the issue. They could create posters, t-shirts, a video promotion, etc. They can get super creative with this one, and the options are endless, especially with social media and other technologies having come onto the scene.
2) Design and Make a Product:
The idea behind this one is that students design and make something that raises awareness and provides a tangible outcome. The product should be usable or sellable to raise money for the cause. One example would be starting a philanthropic business. The shoe company, TOMS, was founded on this idea. They observed that kids without shoes were developing health problems such as hookworm. TOMS business model then is one-for-one where they give a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair they sell. Check out this free business plan organizer from my store. Another example would be taking an invasive species, like buckthorn here in MN, and using it as material for a product to sell such as a bracelet or waste basket. This action plan physically removes the problem and brings in money (selling the product at a school function, in boutiques, or on ETsy) to use toward a permanent, long term solution (ex: donating the funds to the DNR.) This is a great option for the makers of the world.
3) Innovative Strategy to Raise Awareness:
Imagine a student is interested in the issue of teen pregnancy. One way to raise awareness would be to create a brochure with some info and stats on the isse and pass it around town. Okay. That is technically raising awareness, but it's not a head turner. There is nothing creative, interesting or shocking about it. Brochures are overdone and overlooked. To truly make an impact, the student's audience needs to be intrigued.
For example, a student of mine did her community action project on teen pregnancy. Rather than a simple brochure, she created a website with information about teen pregnancy. She then assembled HUNDREDS of fortune-tellers (paper origami game). She put information about teen pregnancy on the fortune-tellers as well as a link to her website. Near the website link was instructions for entering a drawing for a prize. She then discretely dropped hundreds of these fortune tellers around the city - on city buses, in community center bathrooms, on the bleachers at school football games, etc. In order for a reader of the fortune teller to get their name in the drawing, they had to go to her website, find the contact page, and send her a note that included three facts that they learned from her website. There are several cool things going on here. One is that the fortune teller screams to be picked up. It would be odd to see a fortune teller sitting next to the soap dispenser in a public restroom.
4. Organize a school club or community organization:
I have had several students start and organize clubs for their community action projects. One group started an environmental science club. Enough with the science examples already! I'm a science teacher, what can I say? They created objectives and goals and organized club events related to their community action projects. They put together a community wide clean-up day where they walked the school neighborhood picking up trash. The club organizers invited speakers to come in and educate students on local environmental issues and give them tips on how they could help. I have a PBL project specific to starting a club, which includes templates helpful for getting one started.
5. Community Volunteer
One way to take action on an issue of importance is to give time to a cause. That often takes the shape of volunteering. Students find an organization relevant to the issue they've chosen for their project and give their time to that organization. Leaving it there would be a typical community service or volunteer experience. A community action project doesn't stop at giving a few hours of their time. Students also need to document their experience and share that experience with an audience that is meaningful or relevant to the issue.
One student was interested in trafficking. She connected with a shelter that took in trafficked survivors to help them get back on their feet. They asked her to organize a food and clothing drive for women in the shelter. In order to collect a substantial amount of food and clothing, this student needed to get the attention of the community. She invited some of the women from the shelter to speak at the school. She opened the event to all students and community members. The women's stories were powerful. More people were willing to donate food and clothing once they were aware of the issue. This wasn't a simple volunteer experience where clock hours logged and signed by a supervisor. This student not only gave her time to cause that she was passionate about, but she was able to raise awareness about the issue a the same time. Deep learning took place here. Volunteering has a been a popular action plan. Other projects have included a student helping dog shelters at adoption events. Another group of students observed elementary teachers needed help, so they connected with a local elementary school to come in and help, which included reading with kids.
6. Host a Fundraiser
Raising money is a great way to take action for a community action project. The outcome makes a direct and tangible impact. Several of my students organized a holiday pie fundraiser at the time when the Syrian refugee crisis was front and center. They not only learned about the Syrian conflict, but also how to organize an effective fundraiser. They had to learn which organizations were reputable and would get the money into the right hands. They learned how to make homemade pies and how to market their fundraiser. They had to figure out how to make a profit, not lose money! They knew pie ingredients could get expensive (particularly apples), so worked with local orchards to work out a reduced price. They created a survey to determine how much money people would pay for homemade pies so they could price them appropriately and effectively. See this free student-directed fundraiser organizer from my store.
7. Write Letters and Meet with Legislators
Advocating for legislation is a really powerful learning experience, not only because students make an impact on their community at the time, but they also develop the skills to continue to do so long after they've graduated. It's important for students to know their rights and how to advocate for themselves and their communities over the course of their lives. I had a student that was frustrated with the lack of job prospects for ex convicts. She wrote letters to her local legislators expressing her interest in the issue and invited them to come to the school to meet with her and talk about possible solutions. One of her legislators called her back, came to the school to meet with her, where they brainstormed solutions at the legislative level. Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) also organizes a statewide legislative day every year where students from all corners of Minnesota come to the state Capitol to discuss the importance of alternative education with their legislators.
8. Artistic Production
This is another way to raise awareness about a local issue. This idea here is that students create some kind of production such as a skit, play, documentary, music concert, etc. that raises awareness in an interesting way. They then bring the production to relevant audiences around the community or host an event. For example, a group of students doing a project on the issue of bike accidents might create a skit that demonstrates bike safety and perform that skit at local elementary schools or community clubs in the area.
This is when students organize a walk or demonstration to raise awareness or put pressure on politicians to act. Our students have participated in the Science March, March for Immigration, and the Women's March. They create original signage for the events. They document the experience via vogging, a documentary, photojournalism, blogging, etc. I have also had students organize walks, which is what the photo on the cover of my Community Action Project resource illustrates. Some students read a book for their book club called "Am I Blue?", which inspired them to organize a walk for gay rights. They recruited participants from the school and community.
10. Host a School Event
This is a fun one but might would take significant effort on your part. I have had students organize screenings of documentaries that are only available to educators. One specific example is the documentary "Sold", which is a movie version of the book "Sold", which I read with students for a women's studies seminar. I have also had students host environmental science fairs, fundraisers (carnivals, cook-offs, car washes, etc.) We have had students host a speaker series from community members relevant to the issue at hand. The list goes on. Let kids get creative!
There are many more options for action plans, but these are the most common with my students. This particular project is really powerful, inspiring, and is a great way to end the year, especially if you host an exhibition or presentation night to show off their final products. Good luck! I would love to hear of student projects and outcomes. Feel free to send me photos or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to feature them on my blog.
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'Tis the season for road trips! Whether it be a spring camping trip with students, a summer road trip with your own children, or a cross country trip with just you and your dog, take full advantage of learning opportunities along the way. Learning is powerful beyond the walls of a classroom. Hitting the road opens doors to learning experiences that couldn't be achieved from a classroom.
There are many gears working to make a road trip possible from the planning stages, to packing, navigating, financing, and more. Involving students in these steps gives them the chance to apply skills and knowledge in real-world contexts. Travel gives students the wherewithal to figure things out regardless of the situation or changing circumstances. If you get lost, you have no choice but to find your way. It might put a wrench in your plans, but this is a learning experience in itself.
Learning naturally happens all the time, especially when traveling. But you can still encourage students to plan PBL projects, reflect on their experiences in a way that is intentional, collaborate with locals along the way, do the trip planning, fundraise, and more. I used to take students on road trips for summer school credit. When leading an educational travel experience, having purpose, expectations, structure, and guidance is important. I require my high school student travelers to complete student-directed PBL projects that are relevant to the trip at hand. I have also done this with my own young children. You might recall a past post on a family trip to Denmark where my four-year-old documented the trip with my camera and edited the photos using a photo app.
I am a champion of learning, particularly when it is student-led and promotes lifelong learning. It doesn't matter if it's summer. It doesn't matter if it's not in a traditional learning environment. Parents and homeschoolers, this post is especially pertinent to you because you have more flexibility when it comes to using the world as a resource.
The following is a list of learning activity ideas to do for or on a road trip. They are intended to be adaptable, modifiable, and work across the board with all skill levels, age groups, backgrounds, and more. They are just ideas to bring learning and travel together. Project-based learning is one of the easier ways to incorporate intentional learning into travel experiences. Check out my project-based learning toolkit to help guide students through the process of student-directed project-based learning from the design stage through to the reflection and assessment.
Good luck! I'd love you to add any ideas not listed here. This list is certainly not exhaustive. If you have your students or children do any of these learning activities this spring or summer I'd l'd love for you to share the experience!
20 Learning Activities To Do On Road Trips
1. Create a tour using Google Maps -
I wrote a blog post a while back about using Google Maps in project-based learning. Check that out for more specific ideas. Learners could plot points and narrate a tour on Google Maps of just about anything from restaurants to overlooks to birding spots along the way.
2. Scientific inquiry experiments -
students could ask a question about their route and collect data as they go. For example a student may want to conduct biodiversity sampling from a variety of different habitats. I took students to California a few years ago to study the starkly contrasting ecosystems in the state. We traveled by car around the state collecting climate and biodiversity data. I also drove students through Florida studying the diverse marine ecosystems along the way. These are just examples. There is an infinite number of questions your learners could ask and test on the road. If you're interested in inquiry-based learning but would like some guiding materials, check out the toolkit offered in my store.
3. Scrapbooking -
Students could create a physical scrapbook by adding photos with captions and collecting and adding artifacts from the trip such as museum stubs or souvenirs. They could also find a digital scrapbooking program such as Shutterfly. Shutterfly is a photo program where you can create photo books. They can be costly. Students could use any number of free programs as simple as Google Slides or the free version of Canva.
4. Photojournalism -
Have students document some relevant current event using photography as their medium. This could be on any number of topics in politics, art, culture, humanities, etc. An example would be documenting evidence of an upcoming election. There may be events taking place in towns along the way, campaign signs littering yards or billboard advertisements splattered along freeways.
5. Budgeting -
Have your students create a trip budget that includes lodging, gas, food, activities or tours, etc. I have many travel products in my TpT store, most of which are free. One of these products, free, includes budgeting guidance. Challenge students by encouraging them to keep the trip under a certain amount of money. It might also be cool to have students create a blog post on tips and tricks to pinching pennies on the road.
6. Design and create a road trip game -
Road trips can get long. Ask your students to create a game before the trip begins that they can play in the car. The challenge is making sure the game is road trip appropriate such as keeping it compact, limiting small pieces, and making sure it can be played while seated. You could also have students create a game that is inspired by the trip such as gathering information about small towns on their route and writing trivia questions about their stops.
7. Journaling -
Students could also keep a written journal. I have done this on every trip I've ever taken, even as an adult. It's fun to look back on them years later. I have had students do doodle journals instead of written journals as well where they articulate their experience through pictures, or doodles in this case.
8. Make a cookbook -
All cities have cuisine unique to their region, or types of food they are known for. Determine food staples in different towns/cities along your trip, learn how to make those dishes, and create a cookbook. For example, if I did a road trip through the midwest I might learn how to make deep dish pizza (Illinois), pasties (Michigan), hot dish (Minnesota), and cheese curds (Wisconsin).
9. Photography -
Capturing the travel experience with photos is an obvious road trip learning activity. Just because it is obvious doesn't make it any less valuable. When taking pictures you see things differently than you would if you weren't trying to get the perfect shot. You notice more, learn to ask questions, and go to greater lengths (such as climbing this hill just a little bit higher) to get that perfect shot. Students would experience the trip from a unique perspective. Try landscape photography, wildlife photography, environmental portraits, etc.
10. Create a trip inspired playlist -
This is more of a trip reflection as it encourages students to look back on the trip and connect music to meaningful experiences had on the trip. Click here for a free travel reflection.
11. Creative writing -
Students could write a book of poetry, a short story, a children's book, a graphic novel, a song(s), a comic, etc. inspired by trip experiences.
12. Make postcards -
Students can make their own postcards of stops along the way with any number of art mediums such as photography, drawing, painting, charcoal, etc. They can then send their postcards to friends and family as they travel.
13. Social media documentation -
The great thing about technology today is that students can share their experiences in real time. Students can document their trips as they are on them and post updates for friends and family to follow along on their journey. I had my students do this on school trips with me. We published a blog post at the end of each day of the trip. My students have mostly blogged in the past, but they could have also vlogged, made a podcast, a documentary, or simply provided updates on their own social media sites. I took students on a bio trip to Costa Rica a few years ago and we blogged about the experience right here on Experiential Learning Depot - check it out.
14. Volunteering/community involvement -
Before students take the trip, ask them to contact organizations along the route that reflects their interests. For example, students interested in environmental science or nature may be interested in cleaning up road litter along the way or plastics washed up along beaches.
15. History projects -
Have students do PBL projects on the history of places they stop on their trip. They might want to know how the infrastructure of towns has changed over the past 100 years, the history of the people and changing demographics, the history of specific monuments located in each town they stop, or even the history of particular buildings such as lighthouses, factories, schools, or abandoned buildings.
16. Economics projects -
Have students explore certain aspects of the economy along the route. One example is to investigate the unemployment rates in different towns along the way and mapping the rates. Another option is exploring major markets or industries in the cities that they visit such as tech startups, logging companies, hospitality, tourism, etc. They could visit some of these companies, tour factories, interview employees, etc.
17. Art portfolio -
Students can create a portfolio of art pieces inspired by trip experiences such as drawings, watercolor paintings, a collage, etc. The portfolio could be art pieces based around a theme such as landscapes, water towers, lighthouses, bridges, barns, etc. or the portfolio could just represent the trip in general. One of my students created an adult coloring book, her coloring pages inspired by experiences or things she saw on her trip.
18. Journalism -
Interview people along way on any number of topics and write a "news article". I took some of my students to the Big Island of Hawaii last year, and as we circumnavigated the island over the course of the week, several of my students interviewed locals, farmers, business owners, and more on whether they've felt any impacts of climate change or expect to in the foreseeable future. The students then wrote an article summarizing their findings. Again, this is just one example. I am a science teacher, so many of my examples will be science related. It doesn't mean they have to be. Let your students get creative!
19. Collecting and analyzing artifacts -
Have students collect and catalogue any number of artifacts they find during their travels such as insects, leaves, shells, soil, rocks, flower petals, etc. They can even map their findings and examine how environmental factors might play a role in what artifacts were found where. For example, they may find very different rocks at one stop than they do at another. Students can research and analyze why this might be.
20. Maker projects/ STEM -
Have students observe a problem associated with car travel, such sore backs from sitting too long, and design and create a solution to the problem. I saw a video on Pinterest a while back of students games that could fit in the side pocket of their backpack to bring on an airplane. The pieces had to be small, they had to have three games in one, and the whole game needed to fit in an Altoids tin. The final products were astounding. This is an example of a product engineered to make travel easier.
Thanks for stopping by! Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education. Check out my TpT store - Experiential Learning Depot - for student-directed resources. Most of the educational travel resources are free.
Again, follow up if your students have done any of these learning activities on road trips or if you have any learning activity ideas. Feel free to contact me through email at email@example.com. Parents and students, if spring or summer travel is unrealistic because of time, money, or any other obstacle, check out some of these creative ways to get your kids traveling this summer!
Happy road tripping!
I'm 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.
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.