Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Student-directed learning is largely interest-driven. A couple of weeks ago I published a post on the common challenges that student-directed project-based educators face, one of which is apathetic students. It's generally not enough to say, "Hey, pull out a project proposal, write one up, and get started", or even to sit down with a student one-on-one and say, "What are you interested in?" A common answer is "nothing", especially from learners that are new to student-directed learning and are accustomed to having their learning experiences neatly designed by someone else and placed before them.
How do you change that answer from "nothing", to an enthusiastic laundry list of interests? You do it by throwing "sparks" out there. I don't know if that is a commonly used word in the world of education, but it is a word I have used for 12 years because that is what my boss called them, so i'll continue to use that word here. A "spark" is really exactly what it sounds like. It is a "thing" that sparks the interest of a student. A "spark" could be a speaker, a movie, a current event, a magazine article, a billboard, a post on social media, or even something you said in casual conversation. It is a "thing", anything, that gets a student's attention, elicits questions, and causes a deep down yearning to learn more about this "thing".
Some "sparks" happen organically. A student might be researching information on one topic and fortuitously come across an idea that creates that spark. It is the job, however, of a student-directed educator to facilitate learning experiences, and part of that duty is creating opportunities for sparks. There is so much going on in the world, so much knowledge at our fingertips, and because of that, a student settling on one topic to learn about can be daunting and overwhelming. There is also an exorbitant amount of topics that students aren't aware of...at all. Exposure to these foreign concepts is important in order to broaden the scope of learning possibilities.
Organizing "sparks" is a regular part of my job at this point. I've come to love this part of my role as an educator. That one kid that gets excited about a topic that you introduce makes it entirely worth the commitment. Here are some ways that I help learners find that spark; that interest that they are searching for as the starting-off point for student-directed learning experiences:
How to Spark Student-Led Learning Experiences
1. Group Share:
One way to inspire project ideas is to have students share their projects with one another. Student A might have done a project on their heritage, for example, inspiring Student B to learn about their own family history. If you are a homeschooler or have the flexibility at your school, consider tracking down some community presentations for learners to observe such as a local science fair or a convention where people are demonstrating some kind of final product. These experiences might inspire project ideas.
2. Share Your Life:
Many of my students' projects have launched because of a story of mine or a project that I had going on at home. My students were always fascinated by stories of my life when I worked in the field as a wildlife ecologist. At my school, a staff member presents on a "project" that they themselves are working on in their own lives such as a rebuilding their deck, reading books on a particular topic, participating in community events, volunteering, writing poetry, etc. We present on our own life projects for a couple of reasons, one of which is to demonstrate lifelong learning, and the other is to help inspire student project ideas.
3. Casual Conversation:
Many educators fill every minute of the day with academic rigor, from the second the students walk into the door to the second a bell rings. I won't go into detail on my views on that today, but I will say that by doing miss out on some pretty amazing learning potential, those learning experiences that are authentic and have personal meaning to the learner. You also miss out on the very important relationship building piece. Student-led learning requires relationship building. Period. It's mandatory. One of the best ways to do that is to simply chat with learners. It doesn't have to be about something specific or with the intention of developing a project. Casual conversation brings up interesting topics organically. Take the time to chat with your students. You won't regret it!
4. TED Talks:
TED Talks are great "sparks"; the talks are an easy, convenient, and free way to discover topic ideas of interest. If a student is struggling to find interest in anything, have them hop on TED.com and peruse the talks to find something that evokes some excitement.
I have a FREE project topic brainstorming activity in my TpT store that includes TED Talks. This is great for student-directed project-based learning and passion projects.
I keep a stack of magazines in my room at all times, from National Geographic to Sports Illustrated. When I have a student that claims that they don't have any interests, I will sometimes send them to the pile to peruse magazines for topic ideas.
6. Volunteering/Community Involvement:
My students do a lot of service learning, which typically organized by me. Students eventually take the reigns. Quite often students will feel really inspired by the experience and branch out with their own projects. I call these projects "Community Action Projects".
7. Group/Class Projects:
Sometimes group projects can help provoke interest in a learning topic. I have my advisory do one large group project every quarter. If you are homeschooler, try to organize a project that includes all of the siblings and you, a small group of community members, or a group of learners from a homeschool coop. My children do projects with their neighborhood friends all of the time. Beginners self-directed learners aren't going to know what to do right away. A group project helps them gain confidence, better understand the process, and provides exposure to new topics.
One of the coolest group projects that we did was on the Syrian refugee crisis. My PBL students learned about the issue and decided to organize a holiday pie fundraiser to raise money for refugee aid. This project helped learners develop essential skills such as critical thinking, empathy, creativity, teamwork and so on. They gained content knowledge from a variety of disciplines. The experience was authentic. But, as it relates to this post, one of the coolest outcomes of this project was the number of student-directed project spin-offs emerged from this experience.
8. Community Events:
Help learners develop topics of interest by engaging with their community. They might attend a city council meeting, participate in a march, check out a variety of cultural events around the city, meet with community experts, check out local speakers, and more.
9. Interest Survey:
Sometimes you'll get a student that says that they don't have any interests. They very likely do have interests, but are not skilled enough at this point to recognize them or might simply struggle with communication. An interest survey is a great way to pull out those underlying sparks AND gives you a chance to get to know your students.
10. Current Events:
I set aside time everyday to discuss current events with my PBL students. Talking about what is going on in the world not only encourages informed, responsible citizenship, but also provides exposure and inspires questions. I like to do Vice News with my high school students because it's gritty. So many projects have come out of watching these episodes. Check out my Vice episode worksheets and extension activities.
We have book clubs at our school, which in itself has inspired so many student-led projects. One of the most dramatic projects that I've seen in my career came out of a young adult novel that I read with my students called "Sold". This book is about human trafficking. Several students were inspired to do an elaborate project on women's issues. My students invited a self-defense instructor to come to our school to give an introductory course. These students connected with a local sex trafficking shelter and invited a survivor to come speak to students. They organized a food and clothing drive for the organization. They started an awareness campaign to bring the very real (and relatable for some of my students) issue to light. It was a year-long service learning project that started with a novel.
Sometimes when my students tell me they don't have any interests I have them conduct interviews. I tell them to write questions that would pull out the stories of someone's life. They then go interview a neighbor, grandma, a friend, a teacher, their parent, etc. The stories they uncover are fascinating, and those stories often lead to project topics. Students can also attempt to uncover their interests by writing down their own stories. It might be the story of their life or a particular moment or even that they want to tell. Storytelling not only helps bring potential project interests to the surface, but also helps learners develop a health self-concept and interpersonal skills.
Start a speaker series at your school or simply organize speakers that you believe could be relevant and interesting to your students. We have had a Holocaust survivor and artist, the Chief of Police, a vermiculturist, a horticulturist, an HIV researcher from the U of M, an educator from a local animal shelter, a biotechnologist, a neurologist, a counselor from an eating disorder clinic, a volunteer coordinator from a domestic violence shelter, a magician, a sculpturist, dancers, local legislators, and so many more. Even if one speaker inspires one student, that's great!
14. Field Trips:
Field trips really spark interests, bottom line. If you can't get learners to a museum, a nature center, a zoo, etc., at least take them outside to observe the world around them. Sometimes a little observation and inquiry is all it takes to stir up some topic ideas. Homeschoolers, take advantage of your flexibility! Hop online and look for free outings in your neck of the woods. You might literally find yourself in the woods, and woods have so much learning potential!
So many interests, questions, and topic ideas come out of my students' (and own children's) travel experiences. There is no other way that I can think of that provides the same level of exposure to new concepts and ideas. I have my students keep a journal when they travel, which serves two purposes: 1) They reflect on each day, 2) They jot down questions, interests, and project topic ideas as emerge throughout the adventure. They typically head home with a few dozen project ideas.
16. Theme Projects
Again with "exposure". Sometimes newbies need a little guidance. It doesn't make them poor self-directed learners. They just require some basic training before they can be expected to dive in head first. Beginner student-directed/interest led educators benefit from the same sort of gradual transition. I often start student-led learning with theme projects, those that have a general topic and guiding templates. I have many project-based learning resources like this in my store. Check those out here. I also have a PBL bundle with twenty theme projects that offer students choice on many levels, and help students and educators make the transition from teacher-directed to student-directed learning experiences.
In an ideal world, all learners would have the wherewithal to guide the learning experience from start to finish. But the fact of the matter is that most learners are not trained to do this. In fact, by the time they get to high school - to me - they have become so habituated to taking a back seat in the learning process, that directing their own learning experiences makes them uncomfortable. Help them get to a point where they are eager to take on their own projects by providing exposure and authentic learning experiences. That is the role of an educator in a student-directed learning environment; the role is facilitator. So get out there and facilitate, starting with creating "sparks" for students.
For more tips and tricks on student-directed learning, click here.
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
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.