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 email@example.com. I'd love to feature them on my blog.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources. I am participating in the sitewide sale 5/7-5/8. The whole store is 25% off.
'Tis the season for road trips! Whether it be a spring camping trip with students, a summer road trip with your own children, or a cross country trip with just you and your dog, take full advantage of learning opportunities along the way. Learning is powerful beyond the walls of a classroom. Hitting the road opens doors to learning experiences that couldn't be achieved from a classroom.
There are many gears working to make a road trip possible from the planning stages, to packing, navigating, financing, and more. Involving students in these steps gives them the chance to apply skills and knowledge in real-world contexts. Travel gives students the wherewithal to figure things out regardless of the situation or changing circumstances. If you get lost, you have no choice but to find your way. It might put a wrench in your plans, but this is a learning experience in itself.
Learning naturally happens all the time, especially when traveling. But you can still encourage students to plan PBL projects, reflect on their experiences in a way that is intentional, collaborate with locals along the way, do the trip planning, fundraise, and more. I used to take students on road trips for summer school credit. When leading an educational travel experience, having purpose, expectations, structure, and guidance is important. I require my high school student travelers to complete student-directed PBL projects that are relevant to the trip at hand. I have also done this with my own young children. You might recall a past post on a family trip to Denmark where my four-year-old documented the trip with my camera and edited the photos using a photo app.
I am a champion of learning, particularly when it is student-led and promotes lifelong learning. It doesn't matter if it's summer. It doesn't matter if it's not in a traditional learning environment. Parents and homeschoolers, this post is especially pertinent to you because you have more flexibility when it comes to using the world as a resource.
The following is a list of learning activity ideas to do for or on a road trip. They are intended to be adaptable, modifiable, and work across the board with all skill levels, age groups, backgrounds, and more. They are just ideas to bring learning and travel together. Project-based learning is one of the easier ways to incorporate intentional learning into travel experiences. Check out my project-based learning toolkit to help guide students through the process of student-directed project-based learning from the design stage through to the reflection and assessment.
Good luck! I'd love you to add any ideas not listed here. This list is certainly not exhaustive. If you have your students or children do any of these learning activities this spring or summer I'd l'd love for you to share the experience!
20 Learning Activities To Do On Road Trips
1. Create a tour using Google Maps -
I wrote a blog post a while back about using Google Maps in project-based learning. Check that out for more specific ideas. Learners could plot points and narrate a tour on Google Maps of just about anything from restaurants to overlooks to birding spots along the way.
2. Scientific inquiry experiments -
students could ask a question about their route and collect data as they go. For example a student may want to conduct biodiversity sampling from a variety of different habitats. I took students to California a few years ago to study the starkly contrasting ecosystems in the state. We traveled by car around the state collecting climate and biodiversity data. I also drove students through Florida studying the diverse marine ecosystems along the way. These are just examples. There is an infinite number of questions your learners could ask and test on the road. If you're interested in inquiry-based learning but would like some guiding materials, check out the toolkit offered in my store.
3. Scrapbooking -
Students could create a physical scrapbook by adding photos with captions and collecting and adding artifacts from the trip such as museum stubs or souvenirs. They could also find a digital scrapbooking program such as Shutterfly. Shutterfly is a photo program where you can create photo books. They can be costly. Students could use any number of free programs as simple as Google Slides or the free version of Canva.
4. Photojournalism -
Have students document some relevant current event using photography as their medium. This could be on any number of topics in politics, art, culture, humanities, etc. An example would be documenting evidence of an upcoming election. There may be events taking place in towns along the way, campaign signs littering yards or billboard advertisements splattered along freeways.
5. Budgeting -
Have your students create a trip budget that includes lodging, gas, food, activities or tours, etc. I have many travel products in my TpT store, most of which are free. One of these products, free, includes budgeting guidance. Challenge students by encouraging them to keep the trip under a certain amount of money. It might also be cool to have students create a blog post on tips and tricks to pinching pennies on the road.
6. Design and create a road trip game -
Road trips can get long. Ask your students to create a game before the trip begins that they can play in the car. The challenge is making sure the game is road trip appropriate such as keeping it compact, limiting small pieces, and making sure it can be played while seated. You could also have students create a game that is inspired by the trip such as gathering information about small towns on their route and writing trivia questions about their stops.
7. Journaling -
Students could also keep a written journal. I have done this on every trip I've ever taken, even as an adult. It's fun to look back on them years later. I have had students do doodle journals instead of written journals as well where they articulate their experience through pictures, or doodles in this case.
8. Make a cookbook -
All cities have cuisine unique to their region, or types of food they are known for. Determine food staples in different towns/cities along your trip, learn how to make those dishes, and create a cookbook. For example, if I did a road trip through the midwest I might learn how to make deep dish pizza (Illinois), pasties (Michigan), hot dish (Minnesota), and cheese curds (Wisconsin).
9. Photography -
Capturing the travel experience with photos is an obvious road trip learning activity. Just because it is obvious doesn't make it any less valuable. When taking pictures you see things differently than you would if you weren't trying to get the perfect shot. You notice more, learn to ask questions, and go to greater lengths (such as climbing this hill just a little bit higher) to get that perfect shot. Students would experience the trip from a unique perspective. Try landscape photography, wildlife photography, environmental portraits, etc.
10. Create a trip inspired playlist -
This is more of a trip reflection as it encourages students to look back on the trip and connect music to meaningful experiences had on the trip. Click here for a free travel reflection.
11. Creative writing -
Students could write a book of poetry, a short story, a children's book, a graphic novel, a song(s), a comic, etc. inspired by trip experiences.
12. Make postcards -
Students can make their own postcards of stops along the way with any number of art mediums such as photography, drawing, painting, charcoal, etc. They can then send their postcards to friends and family as they travel.
13. Social media documentation -
The great thing about technology today is that students can share their experiences in real time. Students can document their trips as they are on them and post updates for friends and family to follow along on their journey. I had my students do this on school trips with me. We published a blog post at the end of each day of the trip. My students have mostly blogged in the past, but they could have also vlogged, made a podcast, a documentary, or simply provided updates on their own social media sites. I took students on a bio trip to Costa Rica a few years ago and we blogged about the experience right here on Experiential Learning Depot - check it out.
14. Volunteering/community involvement -
Before students take the trip, ask them to contact organizations along the route that reflects their interests. For example, students interested in environmental science or nature may be interested in cleaning up road litter along the way or plastics washed up along beaches.
15. History projects -
Have students do PBL projects on the history of places they stop on their trip. They might want to know how the infrastructure of towns has changed over the past 100 years, the history of the people and changing demographics, the history of specific monuments located in each town they stop, or even the history of particular buildings such as lighthouses, factories, schools, or abandoned buildings.
16. Economics projects -
Have students explore certain aspects of the economy along the route. One example is to investigate the unemployment rates in different towns along the way and mapping the rates. Another option is exploring major markets or industries in the cities that they visit such as tech startups, logging companies, hospitality, tourism, etc. They could visit some of these companies, tour factories, interview employees, etc.
17. Art portfolio -
Students can create a portfolio of art pieces inspired by trip experiences such as drawings, watercolor paintings, a collage, etc. The portfolio could be art pieces based around a theme such as landscapes, water towers, lighthouses, bridges, barns, etc. or the portfolio could just represent the trip in general. One of my students created an adult coloring book, her coloring pages inspired by experiences or things she saw on her trip.
18. Journalism -
Interview people along way on any number of topics and write a "news article". I took some of my students to the Big Island of Hawaii last year, and as we circumnavigated the island over the course of the week, several of my students interviewed locals, farmers, business owners, and more on whether they've felt any impacts of climate change or expect to in the foreseeable future. The students then wrote an article summarizing their findings. Again, this is just one example. I am a science teacher, so many of my examples will be science related. It doesn't mean they have to be. Let your students get creative!
19. Collecting and analyzing artifacts -
Have students collect and catalogue any number of artifacts they find during their travels such as insects, leaves, shells, soil, rocks, flower petals, etc. They can even map their findings and examine how environmental factors might play a role in what artifacts were found where. For example, they may find very different rocks at one stop than they do at another. Students can research and analyze why this might be.
20. Maker projects/ STEM -
Have students observe a problem associated with car travel, such sore backs from sitting too long, and design and create a solution to the problem. I saw a video on Pinterest a while back of students games that could fit in the side pocket of their backpack to bring on an airplane. The pieces had to be small, they had to have three games in one, and the whole game needed to fit in an Altoids tin. The final products were astounding. This is an example of a product engineered to make travel easier.
Thanks for stopping by! Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education. Check out my TpT store - Experiential Learning Depot - for student-directed resources. Most of the educational travel resources are free.
Again, follow up if your students have done any of these learning activities on road trips or if you have any learning activity ideas. Feel free to contact me through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
Getting Started with Student-Directed Inquiry-Based Learning
I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old. These two little ones are at prime ages for questioning. I get 1,000 questions per day, at least. Yesterday I was baking a cake and my son asked me why I was putting eggs in the batter. I turned this simple question into an inquiry-based learning activity.
Rather than tell my son why cakes need eggs, he investigated his own question. I guided him through a simple experiment. We made one cake with all of the listed ingredients (control) and another cake with all of the same ingredients except for eggs. He observed raw eggs before using them by moving the yolk and whites around with a fork. He noticed the consistency; that it was slimy and stretchy. He commented on the color. I asked him to tell me about his experience eating eggs. What do cooked eggs taste like? Feel like in your mouth? Do scrambled egg fall apart when handled? Based on what you're seeing here, what differences do you think you will see between the baked cakes? His prediction was that the cake with eggs would taste like, look like, feel like, and smell like scrambled eggs and the cake without eggs would taste like cake ;) And why wouldn't it? My four-year-old is drawing on his observations and previous experiences.
We then made the two versions of the cake and observed the final products in the same way that we observed the raw eggs. I asked if they looked how he expected and to observe the differences in taste, color, smell, texture, etc. My son thought that the one with eggs tasted better than the one without. The one without eggs fell apart when handled. The one with eggs was brighter yellow. So we determined (with open ended questions from me) that adding eggs to cake batter is probably important for structure, color, and taste.
This is an example of inquiry-based learning.
What is inquiry-based Learning?
Inquiry is simply finding information through questioning. Inquiry-based learning then is a constructivist approach to learning where students develop knowledge by investigating a question rather than through direct instruction (lecture.) Students ask a question based on an observation or are given a question by the instructor. Students then thoroughly investigate that question. The investigation could include experimentation, interviews with community experts, digging through literature such as books, publications and journals, experiential activities, PBL, PrBL, etc.
What are the different approaches to inquiry-based learning?
Inquiry-based teaching spans a broad spectrum from teacher-directed structured inquiry where the instructor gives students the driving question to investigate and designs the investigation, to student-directed open inquiry where students ask their own questions and plan their investigations. Varying levels of guided inquiry lie between the two extremes. An instructor might give students the driving question, for example, but the students plan their own investigations. You might guess, if you are an avid reader of my blog, which end of the inquiry spectrum my learning activities lie.
For more information on student-directed learning, go back to some of my previous posts. I am in the middle of a series on student-directed learning. All of my posts in this series so far can be found by clicking here.
How can I shift to student-directed open-inquiry?
The bulk of my teaching career has been at an experiential learning, student-directed school. I often had students come into my classes mid-year, some 18 years old, that had up until that point experienced a very different kind of learning environment, one where direct instruction was the norm, worksheets were handed out in abundance, and a lot of value was placed on having the correct answers. Throwing students directly into student-directed open inquiry, especially those that are accustomed to being handed "answers", may feel uncomfortable at first. This is especially true with high school students, as there is a shift in mindset that needs to happen.
You can tackle this problem one of three ways:
1) Start at the teacher-directed end of the spectrum and gradually move to the student-directed end of the spectrum. As much as I advocate for student-directed everything, I also understand that there is a learning curve. Making the transition gradually might work best for you and your students.
2) Another way to shift that thinking is to dive right into open inquiry. Be patient and forgiving with students at first, and watch their struggle and confusion transform into a profound learning experience. This is what I usually do. Student-directed open inquiry is where it's at.
3) If I have a population of students that are floundering with open-inquiry after diving right in, I might take a baby step toward the other end of the inquiry spectrum temporarily, providing guided inquiry experiences. This is what I did with my son and the egg experiment. He asked the question. I designed the experiment because, hey, he's 4.
Benefits of student-directed inquiry-based learning?
Why not just Google the answer? If I want to answer a question like why eggs are used in baked goods, I could look it up and find the answer in seconds. The purpose of inquiry-based learning, however, is not finding the correct answer, or finding an answer at all for that matter. The benefits of inquiry-based learning come out of the process, not the results.
A lot of teachers struggle to implement inquiry-based learning because it takes time. What's cool about student-directed inquiry-based learning is that it's multidisciplinary. Many concepts and skills are rolled into one activity vs. direct instruction where ideas are split up into discrete units. Take the egg/cake experiment for example. We practiced counting, colors, and for older students, fractions. We practiced a variety of skills such as communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, and even fine-motor skills. We covered a variety concepts in chemistry and math.
The idea is to get students asking questions and finding information as one would in the real-world. Inquiry-based learning experiences provide students with opportunities to use higher order thinking skills such as making observations, asking their own questions, designing experiments, analyzing ambiguities of conflicting information or unexpected results, working through obstacles and coming to solutions to overcome those challenges. Those are skills that are important in life. Inquiry-based learning is a slam dunk when it comes to practicing the 6 C's as well - collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, citizenship and character development. Student-directed open inquiry teaches students the skills necessary for lifelong learning.
What do you need to start student-directed open inquiry?
Teacher-directed structured inquiry is easy. Pull out a recipe lab and ask students to do it. Open inquiry, however, requires that you provide input. If you want your students to ask their own questions and design their own investigation, you need to set a stage that stimulates the flow of observations, questions, and ideas.
You also need to be prepared to scaffold NOT give answers. Scroll to the bottom for a list of great go-to questions when facilitating a student-directed open inquiry activity.
Finally, student-directed open inquiry does not have to be and should not be chaotic. Structure is allowed and encouraged, especially for beginners. Students should have clear expectations and guiding materials. For example, I personally think it's important for students to reflect on their inquiry experience. Providing reflection questions doesn't dilute the learning experience for your students, it just adds an element of structure that some students need or desire.
Where can I find student-directed open inquiry resources?
I recently added a student-directed inquiry product line to my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I currently have two high school level open inquiry projects in that line on water pollution in lieu of upcoming Earth Day. One is an investigation of water pollutants and their sources and the other is the impact pollutants have on aquatic life. Students will ask their own questions based on materials laid out and what they already know, design an experiment to test their questions, analyze results, and draw conclusions. These resources provide structure and guiding materials for students and teachers in what could otherwise be an overwhelming experience, especially beginners.
I hope to add more inquiry-based learning resources in the near future, including a student-directed open inquiry toolkit that would provide the guiding materials for any open inquiry project that is experimental in nature.
What questions can I ask to guide students through the inquiry process?
1) What do you think?
2) Why do you think that?
3) What do you predict will happen if...?
4) Why do you predict this will happen?
5) What would happen if you tried this instead?
6) How could you find out about this?
7) Who might know the answer to that question?
8) Is this source of information credible? How do you know? What source could you use that would be credible?
9) What does this information mean to you?
10) What does this remind you of?
11) Where have you seen this before?
12) What if you tried this?
13) What did you observe then? What do you observe now?
14) What else does this make you wonder?
15) How does this connect to that?
16) How is this different from that? How are they the same?
17) Tell me about what you're doing here and why you're doing it.
18) What could you do next?
19) What is another way you could ask that question?
20) What could you do next?
Who can implement inquiry-based learning?
My inquiry-based learning resources primarily focus on life science, as that is my licensure and background. Inquiry-based learning can be applied across the board, however. If students are asking questions, doing investigations to answer those questions, and constructing knowledge based on the experience, it's inquiry. You can even see that people of all ages can do inquiry-based learning activities. My resources are geared toward high school students, but I do inquiry all the time with my toddler and preschooler at home.
I would love to hear how educators are using inquiry-based learning across disciplines and age groups. How can you apply inquiry in a high school social studies class, reading class, or math class? How do you use inquiry-based learning in early childhood learning environments?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources including project-based learning, maker resources, and now inquiry. I have a few problem-based learning resources in the works, and am excited to get that product line out in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for following!
This post is part of a series on student-directed learning. If you are unsure of what student-directed learning is or what a student-directed learning environment looks like, go back and peruse previous posts. In short, student-directed learning gives students choice throughout the learning experience, and the learning environment should accommodate those choices.
Imagine you walk into a classroom. You look around and see students spread out around the room. Some students are quietly lounging in bean bag chairs, reading or writing. In the center of the room you see a small group of students chatting around a large table. You find students sitting at desks, working away on computers. One of the students is creating an animation and another student is writing an email. You scan the room and see a couple of students watching a live webinar streaming from Facebook.
This is my classroom. This is what my student-directed learning environment looks like for much of the day (not all of it). Our students lead their education through student-directed project-based learning. For details on student-directed PBL, go back to this post. Each student in the example above is working on some component of a student-directed project. One student decides he wants to gather information for his project by reading books on the topic. The small group of students chatting around the table is brainstorming how best to reach their authentic audience. Another student is creating an animation as her final product to demonstrate learning. The student writing emails is connecting with community experts to utilize for his project. The small group of students watching the live webinar is using this modern technology to learn about their project topic.
Each student is learning in their own way, at their own pace. They may be driven by the same general learning objective that you set for them, such as a standard that needs to be met (or not), but they meet those learning objectives by making a series of personal decisions based on their passions and needs.
The question then is where is the teacher in all of this? If the teacher isn't giving information through direct instruction or providing a structured lesson plan or activity, then what is the teacher even doing there? Teachers wear A LOT of hats. ALL educators know this and experience this, regardless of pedagogy or philosophy. Student-directed teachers still manage the classroom, provide resources, scaffold, organize learning activities, provide input, and even teach students how to direct their own learning. What changes in a student-directed learning environment is your role. You are far from obsolete. You are a facilitator of learning. You guide and support, you challenge, you give feedback.
What does the teacher do in student-directed learning environment?
1. Help students learn how to direct their own learning -
A lot of students have spent the bulk of their education being given information through direct instruction. Teachers that want to transition to a more student-directed learning environment are going to have to undo the mindset that student's have developed over the years that they're going to be given the "correct answers." Student-directed learning requires critical thinking, problem-solving, and failing at times! Students may be uncomfortable with that at first. I have many resources in my Experiential Learning Depot store that guide teachers and students through this transition by way of project-based learning, one of which is a PBL bundle and manual.
2. Get to know your students -
In order to serve your students effectively in a student-directed learning environment, you'll need to get to know who they are, what they're interested in, their learning styles, their passions and more. It is very personalized. Knowing your students on this level will be critical to when you're helping them design projects or work through learning activities. The animation example that I used above was an actual project that one of my students did. She turned a subject that she found boring, neurotransmission, and made it more exciting and engaging by creating an animation that demonstrated this concept. I knew she was a creator and helped her design her project around that passion. Relationship building is huge and sometimes you have to work at it.
3. Guide students through the process of developing learning experiences that are challenging, authentic, and innovative -
Just because students make choices in student-directed learning doesn't mean they're always going to be great decisions! They need your guidance, expertise, connections, and advice. If you know your students, you will know if they're not challenging themselves, if their project design doesn't align with their goals, if they could expand their authentic audience, or if their project plan just doesn't match up with their learning objectives.
My students design their projects using a project proposal. I walk the room while they hash out their project plans, check their proposals, offer suggestions, and sign off on them. I have that blank PBL project proposal and other helpful student-directed PBL templates in my store in a bundle called "PBL Toolkit".
The picture above shows one of my students learning about history through photography. Getting to know this student I discovered she was interested in photography. She needed history credit so she decided to stage major events in history, take and edit photos, and write a description of the events. She eventually developed an entire gallery of recreated historical events. She CHOSE her final product, a way of demonstrating learning that was of interest to her. I guided her through this process. I was so impressed by her results that I created a guided PBL project around this idea and it's available in my store - History Through Artistic Expression.
4. Help students create and manage personal learning plans -
A personal learning plan is a great tool for student-directed learning. It is a plan that includes personal goals, interests, learning styles, project ideas, deadlines, etc. It can really include whatever you feel helps guide students. It's helpful to pull that plan out when students are designing projects or learning experiences. My job as facilitator is to help them write this plan and modify it as they learn and grow. My personal learning plan template is also included in my PBL Toolkit.
5. Assist students with finding resources -
I think my biggest job as a facilitator is to help students find accurate and relevant information, connect with community experts, gather materials, and recognize learning opportunities. Student-directed learning really teaches kids how to be resourceful, especially if you do project-based learning. If you don't know what I mean by that, go back to my previous post on the principles of pbl. I taught a biotechnology seminar a while ago. One of my students was really interested in algae as a biofuel. I connected him with the researchers at the algae lab of the U of M, and my student took it from there. I modeled how to find an authentic learning experience relevant to his interests and learning objectives, he learned from that, and eventually was able to find these opportunities for himself.
At the time when the Syrian refugee crisis reached its peak, a group of my students chose to raise money by having a holiday pie fundraiser. This was their plan for their student-directed community action project that I assigned. Also in my store. I helped them locate resources, in this case, ingredients for pies, by connecting with and arranging deals with local orchards.
6. Provide input and feedback -
Giving students consistent feedback is not only critical for growth and improvement, but students need it, desire it, and ask for it. Because they're not getting immediate and concrete feedback, such as a red check mark over an incorrect answer to a worksheet, they can feel a little lost at times. It is your job as the facilitator to observe their learning process, give them pointers, ask that they go back to the drawing board, etc. I have my students complete self-assessments periodically throughout the learning experience. In most cases with my students it's a rubric for project-based learning. I then go over the assessment with the student one-on-one. Formative assessments or quick end of the day reflections are great also, and are a little more efficient. Find a system that works for you.
7. Organize events that showcase student work to the community-
There are so many interesting and creative ways to present final products to an authentic audience. One great default presentation option for students is to put final products on display at an organized event such as an exhibition night. I have a project in my store that is all about heritage. Every year my students complete this project and then we host a multicultural night for friends, family, and community members. Part of my job as a facilitator in a student-directed learning environment is to plan these events. I do, and I love it!
8. Organize learning activities and sparks -
Not all time in my school learning environment is spent working independently on projects. We have group discussions, we do group projects, we go on field trips, do service learning, travel, watch the news together, invite speakers, host events, and do team building activities. I even do direct-instruction at times. I'm not above that. I just limit it as much as possible. Many of these learning activities are connected to student-projects in some way, but some of them aren't. Some of them are simply done to inform students, start dialog about an important issue or concept, or ignite a spark in a student or two. A huge part of my job is to find, plan, and coordinate these learning opportunities for students.
The photo all the way to the left is a speaker, Dr. Fisch, a Holocaust survivor and artist. A coworker of mine arranged for him to come in to speak to the school. The photo in the middle is a field trip to the Wildlife Science Center. I brought students there to spark interest and gather information for their endangered species projects (look for this free resource in my store). The photo on the far right is of a student at a class team building event that I arranged.
9. Provide students with the tools to be successful student-directed learners -
Student-directed learning does not have to be chaotic. You can and should give structure. It is your job as their instructor to provide the tools they need to direct their own learning. Project-proposals, parameters and deadlines, guidelines for project reflections, graphic organizers, formative assessments, etc. are all great examples of devices that will help your students transition to great student-directed learners. They will need a system, at least right away. In time the hope is that they can become less dependent on you, as throughout the year they will be developing the skills to work more independently.
10. Everything else that comes with territory of being a teacher -
You wear a lot of hats regardless of teaching style. The same goes for teachers in student-directed learning environments. You will always have a student or two that are distracting other students. You will have students that walk in the door with baggage or trauma. You need to manage tardies and absences, and grade and evaluate student work. The list goes on. With student-directed learning, however, some behavioral issues are reduced because students have choice and autonomy. Their learning experiences are based on interest and real-life.
That was long! Thanks for hearing me out. Student-directed learning is powerful and it's worth considering if you don't already use this approach. If you do student-directed learning in your classroom or learning environment, please share about your experience!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
I recently posted part 1 of my student-directed learning series, which broke down the meaning of student-directed learning: What is Student Directed Learning Anyway? Now that you know what student-directed learning means, what do you do with that? What does a student-directed learning environment even look like? Where should you start?
Whatever learning space you are working with, it must nurture student choice. That's the bottom line. If at this point you know nothing about student-directed learning, just know that student choice is mandatory. Students direct their learning through a series of choices from learning objectives to designing their own assessments. The role of the teacher changes to facilitator.
It may be tricky to even imagine what that might look like. What does the "facilitator" do? Sounds like the kids are teaching themselves. In some respects they are, and I'd argue that that's essential in raising lifelong learners. My next post will be on the role of the teacher in a student-directed learning environment. For now, I'm going to share with you the first and most important steps to take to shift from a teacher-directed classroom to a student-directed classroom.
4 Steps to a Student-Directed Learning Environment
1. Modify Your Learning Space to Allow for Student-Choice:
Shifting the layout of your room can make a dramatic impact on the success of student-directed learning in your classroom. The foundation of student-directed learning is choice, so a variety of micro-spaces should be available for students to utilize. The room should accommodate for creating, group cooperation and collaboration, technology, movement, a quiet and peaceful area for reading or independent work. Student-directed learning means that students use their unique learning styles, skills, and interests to guide their educational journey. At any given time students may be working on something different than their peers. It would make little sense to have a room with 30 forward facing desks in that case. That layout screams lecture. Student-directed learning is the opposite of lecture-based instruction.
My Learning Space:
- A large round table in the center of my room for whole-group collaboration. This is a great space to gather for class discussion, meetings, group projects, and presentations.
- Workstations line the perimeter of my classroom. My workstations are desks, each with a desktop computer. We recently started transitioning away from desktop computers and are moving toward Chromebooks for each student. These workstations are great for independent projects and cooperative learning.
- Next door is a workshop or makerspace. That room is free for students to use during independent work time. There is usually a teacher in that room to assist and I can also see into the workshop from my classroom. A creative workspace is essential.
- I have a quiet corner set aside for those that want to work quietly and independently. It has a large shelf filled with books, art materials, a large cozy chair, and pillows. It's a good space for reading and relaxing. Yes. I let my high-schoolers rest when they
Student-Directed Learning Design Projects:
Many of the design aspects of my classroom were achieved through student-directed projects. A small group of students painted each panel of my ceiling. Another student designed and painted my large group table. Students built their own desks. Our reading corner was designed by a student using Google Sketchup. The small square table was an old piece of literal garbage that a student stripped and refinished. If this is something that interests you, check out my PBL Maker Challenge project - Upcycled Lounge Area.
2. Move Beyond the Walls of the Classroom:
Utilize the Community to Your Advantage:
Some of the most profound learning experiences happen outside of the classroom. A large chunk of our student learning activities take place outside of the room whether that be on a school trip across the globe, in the park near our school, or even right outside my classroom door in the commons area. For students to be successful at directing their own learning experiences they need input that is relevant to the real-world. Sparks incite interest and provide exposure to new ideas. Community collaboration, locally or globally, is essential. Using the world as the classroom brings student-directed learning to another level. If you can't leave your classroom, bring the community to you.
Using the World as the Classroom:
In the Community:
- Field trips (history centers, science labs, local businesses, community events, etc.
- School travel
- Mentorship program
- Service learning projects
- Community experts (independent PBL projects, maker projects, assessment panel, speakers)
On School Grounds:
- Live webinars with global experts
- Video conference with community experts
- School yard activities
- Bring experts to you - students can and should arrange for many these meetings in a student-directed learning environment, especially when the expert is unique to one student's project. . You guide and offer suggestions when needed. You could also invite guests from the community that offer exposure to a new topic or are relevant to an overarching theme or standard.
- Get creative with your space - ex: using the commons area for physics experiments.
- Attempt to implement an open-door policy - I know this sounds radical, but what I mean by this is allowing students access to makerspaces, tech rooms, the library, a music room, a quiet conference room. The logistics of this will depend on your situation. Do some brainstorming and find a system that works.
3. Organize Student-Directed Learning Activities:
Implementing student-directed learning activities seems pretty obvious, but what is a student-directed learning activity? Again, student-directed learning involves choice, so the activity needs to provide students with flexibility and the freedom to lead the experience. Project-based learning is a great way to do that. PBL doesn't have to be student-directed, however, which I really just recently discovered.
As a quick reminder, project-based learning is the active exploration of a particular topic where students are fully engaged with the community. Students demonstrate learning with an innovative final product, and share their outcome with a public, authentic audience. For more on PBL see previous posts - What is Project-Based Learning Anyway? and Key Components of Project-Based Learning. All of that in theory could be arranged by the instructor with little to no choice or input from students. However, as a project-based learning teacher who also taught at an experiential high school for 9 years, I can tell you that project-based learning is the perfect canvas for student-directed learning. It's just a matter of proper execution. I have a PBL bundle in my store that gradually transitions students (and teachers) from a teacher-directed classroom to a student-directed classroom using project-based learning. If you're unsure how to make this transition, this may be a great place to start - Project-Based Learning Bundle: 20 Integrative Projects.
Other Activities with Student-Directed Learning Potential:
- Passion Projects
- Genius Hour (although I would argue you do this all of the time instead of for an hour!)
- Learning committees or clubs run by students
- Maker projects
Again, any activity has promise to be student-directed, you just need to let students do the directing!
4. Shift Your Role:
Teacher's Role in Teacher-Directed Learning Environment:
Obviously the activity going on in your classroom at any given time would look very different in a student-directed learning environment than a teacher-centered one. Imagine observing a teacher-directed classroom. What would that look like? You'd likely find students sitting in their desks with pen in hand jotting down notes while the teacher lectures from the front of the room. The teacher may walk the room a bit, reminding students with eye-contact and body language to pay-attention. You may walk into the classroom one day to find students working together on a hands-on activity, but upon closer inspection discover that they are following a prescribed recipe.
Teacher's Role in a Student-Directed Learning Environment:
Now imagine walking into a student-directed classroom. There isn't a typical "scene". There is always activity, but students are pouring into every corner of the room engaged in a different enterprise than their neighbor. One student might be working in the makerspace on their final product. There might be a pair of students in another corner of the room deeply absorbed in a brainstorming session. Another student may be at their desk engrossed in a phone interview with a community expert. And let's be honest. There will of course be the kid who is wandering around looking for someone to banter with, or the kid sleeping in the reading chair. Even student-directed learning classrooms have their challenges. But that's for another day.
Now, where is the teacher in all of this? The role of the teacher changes to facilitator. The teacher is guiding and assisting. You may find the teacher sitting with the pair of students brainstorming, asking questions that challenge their thinking. You may find the teacher in discussion with the student who will be giving the interview. The teacher may be proofing the interview questions or offering suggestions before giving the student the go ahead to make the call. The teacher may be redirecting the wanderer. The teacher works the room offering assistance and inspiration.
What Role do you Play?
My guess is that most of us are probably trying to find a balance between the two roles, especially if you're a high school teacher. There are limitations, rules, time constraints, the pressures of testing. Sometimes whole group instruction is necessary. Full disclosure: sometimes I lecture. I keep it as brief as possible and it's always in connection with student-directed projects. If you find yourself lecturing most of the time, I get it. I have been this teacher. What I do know though, is that if you want your students to be truly engaged, to practice deeper thinking, to have a passion for learning, the internal motivation to thrive and improve, then a great start is shifting your role to allow for more student-directed learning.
How to Start the Shift:
Start small. You don't need to flip your classroom upside-down in one day. If you decide to start doing student-directed project-based learning for example, start by taking one concept that you'd typically teach through lecture, such as climate drivers, and replace it with a PBL project. Once you're comfortable with that, try another one, until you've replaced lecture-based instruction (for the most part.) My PBL bundle and manual that I mentioned above starts with more teacher-centered projects and gradually moves to projects that are entirely student-directed. Play around with your options and ultimately do what feels right and is working well for your students.
I am a huge advocate (clearly) for student-directed learning. I love to talk about it. If you have any questions, need advice, or even want to challenge me, I invite it! Please reach out. Stay-tuned for more from my student-directed learning series.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out my student-directed curriculum in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot.
Several years ago I showed a Vice News episode to my advisory/PBL students about the Syrian refugee crisis. A student of mine approached me after the activity to express her interest in this topic. The conflict in Syria was something she knew little about, and she wanted to know more. She decided to do a project on Syria. The driving question for her project, which she chose, would be how the conflict in Syria began. She would demonstrate learning by organizing the series of events that led to the conflict into a digital timeline. Again, her choice. With my guidance the student wrote project goals and created her own project rubric.
My student dove deep into research and quickly came to the conclusion that she wanted to do something to help or contribute in addition to her original timeline project. She organized a holiday pie fundraiser in the community. She turned the fundraiser into a group effort by recruiting students from our advisory. They made and distributed marketing materials, made order forms, and made their own "take-and-bake" apple pies to sell. The student still completed her original project and used her timeline as a marketing strategy to sell pies. She shared her timeline to various social media pages along with an ad for her pie fundraiser. The visual helped connect potential pie buyers with the cause.
What is Student-Directed Learning?
This project is the epitome of a student-directed learning experience. This student called all the shots from the beginning to the end. I provided guidance but the learning experience as a whole was entirely directed by the student. Student-directed learning by definition involves student choice at every step.
Without student choice you do not have student-directed learning.
1. Students choose what they want to learn.
2. Students write their learning goals and determine their own learning objectives.
3. Students choose how they will gather information.
4. Students partner up with community members of their choosing for expertise and collaboration.
5. Students choose how they will demonstrate learning.
6. Students determine an authentic audience and choose a method of reaching that audience.
7. Students establish a method of assessment and criteria for evaluation.
Ways to implement student-directed learning:
Student-directed activities: some teachers may throw in a student-directed activity once in a while into an otherwise teacher-centered curriculum.
Student-directed curriculum with teacher-directed objectives: other teachers will design a learning environment that is dominantly student-directed but will themselves lay down a framework around specific objectives. I see this as the most common form of student-directed learning as teachers have the unfortunate task of meeting standards. Imagine how wonderful teaching would be if students didn't have standards. Students could learn about whatever they want to learn whenever they want to learn it. Genius hour for more than an hour! Anyway, this is the type of student-directed teaching you'd likely see going on in my class at any given time.
Authentic student-directed learning: the final way of operating a student-directed learning environment is to give students full control of their learning from start to finish. Teachers do not place any parameters on the learning experience. The project conducted by my student on Syria is an example of authentic student-directed learning. Some would say it is not student-directed learning at all if every step above isn't directed by the student. I would tend to agree, but understand that it is much easier to implement in theory than in reality. There are obstacles to consider such as state standards, district philosophy and mission, class sizes, class structure, and district/staff/parent/community support.
I worked in a very progressive school for most of my teaching career. I didn't face many of the obstacles just mentioned, yet I still found myself choosing learning objectives for my students here and there. I did this for a couple of reasons. One was because progressive or not, we still needed to follow the same state standards as everyone else. I also learned that students need input. They need "sparks" as Wayne Jennings would say. The Vice News episode in the project example above was such a "spark" for this student. It was the introduction of a topic that sparked interest and questions. It is okay to plant the seed even in a student-directed learning environment. I showed a Vice episode to my advisory every single Monday morning to start off the week. I did this because they loved it. Every time I showed an episode of Vice at least one student turned the episode topic into a student-directed PBL project. I have Vice News episode guides and student-centered extension activities in my TpT store. This is a bundle I used with my students, the episode about Syria included in the "War and Peace" bundle - Vice News Series Bundle.
Benefits of student-directed learning:
The student mentioned in the Syria example not only learned the details of an important and current global issue, but gained numerous critical 21st-century competencies as well by learning how to learn. When students direct their own learning they take ownership. They are invested in the process and the outcome. An intrinsic motivation to learn emerges. The motivation for some, a passion for learning, has been buried deeply in students that have spent much of their academic careers in a teacher-centered learning environment. Allowing students choice, autonomy, room to fail, and opportunities to construct knowledge through experience sets the stage for lifelong learning. The alternative is a teacher-directed environment where information is given, answers are right or wrong, learning is passive, 21st-century skills are glossed over, facts are memorized and forgotten weeks later. There is little meaning or relevance, therefore, learning is shallow.
I'm elated to say that I don't see a lot of teachers running classrooms anymore that are completely teacher-centered. There are so many amazing student-centered learning activities that I see educators implementing such as STEM, maker education, inquiry, experiential learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning. There are so many cool ideas out there. You can teach in a traditional environment and still implement student-directed teaching activities. Start small. If your curriculum is largely teacher-directed right now, consider adding a few student-directed learning activities in here and there. See how they go. If that goes well do more until your entire curriculum is student-directed! You won't regret it.
Student-directed learning resources:
A great student-directed learning activity to start with is project-based learning. There are so many amazing PBL resources out there. My TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot is dominated by PBL projects right now. Feel free to check those out. I have a project-based learning bundle that includes a manual on how to get started with project-based learning in your classroom. This product is designed to move your classroom from teacher-directed to student-directed. If you are a beginner to project-based teaching or student-directed learning this may be a good resource for you. You can also go back to any number of my previous blog posts on project-based learning. Start here with "What is Project-Based Learning, Anyway?" I also like the Buck Institute. They work hard at spreading PBL love and have great tips and resources for using project-based learning in a more traditional learning environment.
Coming up in the student-directed learning series:
Stay-tuned for more from my student-directed learning series. Expect to see some future blog posts on the following, among others.
1. What does a student-directed learning environment look like?
2. What does the teacher do in a student-directed learning environment?
3. Student-directed assessments. I'm really excited about this one. I submitted an article to be to the Reformer, an education magazine through ASCD. I was accepted from a pool of over 500 submissions! My article on student-generated rubrics will be published in February. I will add a condensed version of it here.
4. Student-directed parent/teacher conferences.
5. List of student-directed learning activities.
6. What teachers are doing in their student-directed classrooms.
If you have questions about student-directed learning or would like me to write a blog post on a specific aspect of student-directed learning that I haven't mentioned, please reach out.
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I have only been out of the classroom for a little over a year. Not long ago I started this blog and was quickly blown away by how much I seem to have missed in only one year out of the education scene. I questioned if I had been completely aloof for a decade, or if educational trends have just emerged that rapidly. I'd like to go with the latter, as my entire educational career has been in a progressive learning environment. It was literally my job to keep up with what was working for students a what wasn't, and to adjust my practice in response.
I have spent the last four months completely immersed in education. I have read dozens of books and hundreds of articles on education. I have participated in professional development courses and conferences. I have been completely in over my head, drowning to be blunt, in social media as it relates to education. Pinterest is littered with the trendiest of trends when it comes to learning, and everything else for that matter. The list of top educational trends of 2018 listed below was created strictly out of observation and experience. I have not run any fancy analytics programs or produced any actual data. So do with that what you will. You can take is as a grain of salt, or you can see for yourself.
Many of these trends aren't new. We implemented several of the trends listed here with full force where I taught (others I have never heard of until recently). They have made such a strong presence in the educational scene within the last couple of years because we know they work for 21st century students. So many of these emerging trends are based on the rapidly evolving world we find ourselves in. What used to make sense or what we used to do just doesn’t make sense anymore. With the world changing as quickly as it is, we are forced to really consider these ideas. Social media and other forms of technology have completely altered the way we communicate and learn. Notice patterns as you read the list. A few themes that I have identified include: student-centered learning; hands-on learning; inquiry-based learning; connecting content with the real-world; student choice and voice; technology and innovation. The overarching theme is a student-centered model necessary to develop the skills needed in the 21st century. Therefore, I don't see these trends going anywhere.
Up until now there has been a lot of buzz and a lot of talk about these concepts. Turn these trends into practice in your classroom if you haven't already. If you've just been playing around with these ideas with your students here and there, try to start implementing it as if it's the norm, because these trends are likely here to stay. There is a reason they are trending. Go with that!
Top 20 Educational Trends of 2018
1) Social-Emotional Learning -
"Social emotional skills" is a buzz phrase in education now because those are the skills students need in the workforce today more than content. Content information they can find in seconds anytime, anywhere.
2) STEM/STEAM -
Stem and steam are hot right now. No pun intended! Both strengthen many 21st century skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and more.
3) Maker Education -
Maker education is a new one for me. I have used "maker" principles with my students without realizing that what I was doing had a name. Students identify a problem and then make something as a solution to the problem. There are a lot of free webinars on edweb.net on maker education. I highly encourage checking those out.
4) Differentiated Learning -
Differentiated learning is providing variety to fit student's individual needs. A lot of teachers are using strategies like "choice time" and "task cards" to provide a differentiated learning environment. Direct-instruction or passive learning can still dominate a differentiated learning environment, however. As an experiential learning educator that is not preferred in my opinion. Check out "personalized learning" below to see another option for meeting student's unique needs.
5) Flexible Seating -
Flexible seating is having a variety of seating options in any given learning environment. It might mean couches or bean bag chairs in a reading corner. A high-top table with stools for projects or activities that require sudden movement, a large community table for cooperative learning activities, etc.
6) College and Career Readiness -
Having a 4.0 GPA just doesn't cut it anymore as far as college and career readiness is concerned. There are competencies students must have to survive and thrive in the 21st century workforce. Just because a student got straight A's doesn't mean they are ready for what comes after graduation.
7) Blended Learning -
From my understanding, blended learning is a combination of classic schooling with online learning. I'm realizing, however, that it's not that simple. I think people that practice true blended learning have a precise understanding of a much more complex picture than just a mix of tech and teacher. I think there is a little personalized learning thrown in there as well, among other principles that are still a bit of an enigma to me. I'd like to learn more about blended learning. If there is anyone reading this that has significant experience with blended learning, please private message me. It would be wonderful to have you guest post about it on this blog.
8) 21st Century Skills -
This one is highly interconnected to the others. The other trends listed here provide learning opportunities to develop the essential skills needed in the 21st century.
9) Project-Based Learning -
My pride and joy. My entire career has been dedicated to project-based learning. Check out some other blog posts I've done on PBL.
10) Genius Hour/Passion Projects -
I hear these two words constantly. They possess the same elements as project-based learning, but are brief, temporary assignments in passing, as supplements to curriculum. Authentic project-based learning is more substantial or tends to be the curriculum itself. For those that assign passion projects in class and have genius hours, is that statement true? I have heard about teachers creating entire courses on passion projects. To me that's the same as project-based learning. Feel free to correct me if that's offbase.
11) Brain-Based Learning -
The point of brain-based learning is to teach or provide a learning environment that takes the brain and how it works into consideration.
12) Trauma Informed Practices -
This is really interesting to me, but I don't know very much about it unfortunately. I worked with high-risk students for almost ten years. Every one of them had experienced one trauma or another. If you're interested in this, ACES is a great place to start. Other than that, I have little to offer. Because of that, I will be having a school counselor guest post about this in the near future. Stay-tuned!
13) Alternative Grading Systems -
This concept is simple. Some schools are starting to move away from strict A-F grading systems. Many combine letter grades with portfolios. Others have eliminated grades all together and complete narratives for each student instead. The purpose is to reduce academic related stressors.
14) Personalized Learning -
As compared with "differentiated instruction" listed above, personalized learning doesn't stop at arranging your classroom or modifying lessons to fit various needs and skill levels. Differentiated learning is great if it's your only option. Personalized learning on the other hand addresses student needs and skill levels in addition to backgrounds, homelife, learning styles, intelligences, and most importantly in my opinion, interests. Students direct their own learning in a personalized learning environment. Lessons aren't modified by the teacher. Students are designing their own educational journey with teachers there to facilitate. I'll do a blog post on this concept in the future.
15) Problem-Based Learning -
PrBL is a cool tool that I wish I was much better at. Rather than students receiving a lecture with numbers and stats on a real-world issue, students learn about said real-world issue by making their own observations, asking questions, exploring the issue, brainstorming solutions and acting on those solutions.
16) Gamification -
I'm going to be completely honest. I know nothing about this. But it's a serious buzzword floating around out there. It does make sense to incorporate gaming into schools. I say that only because technology is here and it's here to stay. These games are only getting better and better. My reservation about it is the hold it has on students - the addictive nature of it. I'm sure there is someone out there to defend both angles. I don't know. What do you think?
17) Lifelong Learning -
Lifelong learning encompasses all of the trends listed here in one. It is having the tools to learn long after "schooling" is over.
18) Growth Mindset -
There is a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. A growth mindset acknowledges that skills can come through hard work and determination, vs. fixed mindset which is the opposite. Promoting and encouraging a growth mindset with students is a major trend right now.
19) Self-Assessments -
This is when students take an active role in a learning outcome. Students grow by periodically self-assessing. They learn how to fail, pick themselves back up, go back to the drawing board, modify and try again. To take it a step further, students can even create their own assessments. I have my students create their own project rubrics. That rubric template is available in my TpT store. Check it out here - Student-Generated Project Rubric.
20) Authentic Presentations -
Finally, my favorite part! I am a huge advocate for project-based learning, and an authentic presentation is an important component to PBL. An authentic presentation is one where students share their work and their acquired knowledge with an authentic audience, one that is relevant and public. There are so many advantages to doing authentic presentations. I wrote a blog article on this concept a while ago. Feel free to check it out for more information - How to Incorporate Authentic Presentations into your Curriculum.
None of these trends are used independently from the others. They are all interconnected. Just because you're focusing on lifelong learning doesn't mean you should put social-emotional learning or college and career readiness on the backburner, for example. They all share common themes. They all consider the needs of 21st century learners.
For resources on many of these trends, as most of them fall under "experiential learning", feel free to check out my TpT store. As of right now project-based learning dominates the store. But with project-based learning comes authentic presentations, lifelong learning, gamification if you wish, self-assessments, personalized learning, and more from the list of trends above. This is the last day of a winter sale on my high school PBL bundle and "how to" guide. Check out Experiential Learning Depot to get to this resource and others. I'm working on some maker and stem resources and will have those posted soon.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TpT, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education.
Happy New Year, Everyone!
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 find people asking me on a regular basis to explain what I do as an experiential educator. A lot of people come wanting to know more about experiential learning and how they can work it into their curriculum. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all backgrounds, learning styles, 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.
Based on Instagram alone, I have noticed that experiential learning is often associated with outdoor education. The Instagram hashtag, #experientiallearning, is loaded with photos of students hiking, traveling, and getting their hands dirty. This can be experiential learning, but isn't always, and outdoor education is certainly not the only form of experiential learning. So let's iron out what it is exactly and how you can utilize it with your students.
In short experiential learning is learning through experience. It's getting actively involved in learning. Hands-on activities aren't necessarily experiential learning activities, however. There are specific elements that make is different. Project-based learning can be experiential, as can inquiry-based learning, problem-based learning, community learning, service learning, and simple hands-on activities, just as long as the following characteristics of experiential learning are utilized:
What is Experiential Learning?
1. Students are actively involved -
Students should be actively, not passively, learning through the learning experience at hand. What experiential learning IS NOT is lecture-based. Students should be involved.
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, not just from the outcome or final grade. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages an attitude of willingness to improve. This is an important competency to have in life-long learners.
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, learning styles, and skill levels of each student.
4. Students see a connection between the 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.
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 as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes an intrinsic motivation to learn.
6. Student-directed -
Student's should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered.
7. Reflection -
Reflection is a big one. I believe that reflection should be a key component to any instructional approach, not just experiential learning. Students should have ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures (which there will be 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 through 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 bring community resources into your classroom. You could bring community experts in as speakers, helpers, or teachers. Utilizing community experts in an important part of project-based learning, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Now, here is an example. I am technically a biology teacher. I teach the basics of neurology, and when I do, I invite someone from the University of Minnesota neurology department to come in to talk about their research. In the past they have brought with them an actual human brain, a resource I am personally unable to get my hands on. That is a valuable resource that brings out some of the elements of experiential learning listed above.
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. For example, you might have your students doing a lab in chemistry. It's hands-on learning. It's not a worksheet, so that's experiential learning right? Not necessarily. If it's a prescribed recipe then students are missing the personalized learning component. The experience isn't student-directed. It may not connect with the students' reality or the real-world. It is not active learning, it's passive. Just because it's hands-on does not make it experiential. 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 a student that has a lifelong passion for learning and actually understands and absorbs the content.
For experiential learning resources check out my TpT store Experiential Learning Depot.
I like the article below on experiential learning. It's a long one, but it would act as a great manual for educators new to experiential learning. I also give it credit for helping me out with this blog post. "Best Practices in Experiential Learning" - prepared by Michelle Schwartz
Happy holidays everyone, and a great final week before break if you're still working!
Click here for full article: Government to Hold School Debate on Climate Change
Student Activism on Climate Change - Students Get Vocal
I came across this article this morning and haven't been able to stop thinking about it, so I'm going to write about it! I'm so inspired, and want to spread that feeling.
Over 100 schools across Uganda will convene this upcoming Monday to debate on climate change. This event was organized by the government with the intention of "inculcating patriotic values and norms in order to develop resourceful, responsible, disciplined, and resilient citizens, who are committed to protecting the country’s resources."
I know now from 9 years of experience working with teenagers that they often have the best ideas and the most unique and creative solutions. They blow me away on a regular basis. My children and my students are growing up in a very different world than I did, with unique perspectives, resources, and skills. This event in Uganda not only gives student's the chance to speak on the issue, but to proffer solutions, and to propose initiatives that can be adopted nationwide. Ideally, globally. Uganda is setting a great example for the rest of the world, which is not only to pay attention to climate change, but to utilize the ideas that come from the most underutilized minds - those of our students!
I took a course on teaching climate change with the National Museum of Natural History. It was a really great class that I highly recommend for those of you interested in teaching climate change. I'm going to get some project-based learning climate change curriculum up in my store at some point, but that'll take some time. Climate change is also not really the point of writing this post. My point is more about the ways in which students can AND should get involved in important global issues. The debate event in Uganda is a great example.
I recommend checking out my "community action project" lesson at Experiential Learning Depot. Students use the templates to create a project around any issue, climate change if you wish. They can do this by raising awareness, advocating for legislation, organizing fundraisers, donating their time, or any other creative mode of action they would like to undertake. These projects can be done independently, in small groups, or as a large group project. My students have done community action projects on climate change. Check out these examples:
Climate Change Community Action Project Ideas:
1) Create an awareness campaign - each student created a promotional video or poster that educated the public on climate change, specifically communities most heavily impacted by climate change. They then shared their work on social media.
2) Interview businesses in the community on the impacts of climate change - I traveled with students to the Big Island of Hawaii in 2017. We toured the island interviewing business owners, those in agriculture, landowners, citizens, etc., on how they saw climate change impacting their livelihoods in the future or how they might already be feeling the effects of climate change. The interviews were eye-opening. We may not have coffee in 20 years! You do not need to go to Hawaii to do this project! I live and teach in Minnesota, and according to stats, Minnesota is one of the most vulnerable states in the U.S. to the impacts of climate change.
3) Organize a drive or fundraiser for climate refugees - this could be a group project or an independent project.
4) Host a school event such as a speaker series - invite climate scientists, business owners, aid organizations, students, renewable resource companies, ecologists, and more to come speak on their perspective.
5) Finally, host a debate! It is reasonable to do this with your own class. If you're ambitious, host a state-wide event.
To see more on the trip to Hawaii and the climate change project, check out The Jennings Experience. This was a student travel blog I kept when I was teaching.
Thanks for stopping by on this Friday afternoon. Have a fantastic weekend everyone!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.