Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Interest-Led Learning: It All Starts With a Question
It all starts with a question. How does cheese turn into milk? What is the distribution of Malaria around the world? How do you raise chickens? How do I reduce the number of mosquitos in my backyard? Student-directed learning starts with a driving question that is interest-led. The student asks and investigates the question, while you, the teacher or parent facilitates the experience. This applies to a variety teaching methods including project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry, maker ed, STEM, STEAM, and the list goes on. You can really take any approach and make it student-directed simply by giving students the freedom to lead the experience starting with a question that they themselves have an interest in investigating.
This idea, student-directed, interest-led learning, applies to ALL learners from all backgrounds, skill levels, and age groups, and is even effective in all learning environments, whether that be in the classroom, home, or out in the world. Deeper learning occurs when you allow students choice in topic, process, and outcome because they are intrinsically motivated to learn.
For the past few months I've been hyper-focused on project-based learning here on this blog. I've been through the details of each element and how to implement PBL in your current teaching environment. Click here to peruse those posts. I have a project-based teaching tool kit for student-directed, interest-led PBL experiences, which includes all of the necessary templates to execute PBL from start to finish.
One of those templates is a project-proposal. All PBL projects start with a proposal, which is a document used to guide learners in student-directed project-design. Students plan the entirety of their project on this one-page organizer. That proposal starts with a learner-asked question. Let's go through what this might look like...
A few weeks ago my children and I went to visit my parents' home that sits in the woods overlooking a lake. My son and I were sitting on their deck that is so high that we were positioned in a forest canopy. There is about 30 feet of forest in front of us which then opens up to a freshwater lagoon. Beautiful, but a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It was evening and we began noticing bats in the trees. My son was instantly intrigued.
"Where do bats go during the day?", he asked. This simple question launched my 5-year-old son into a three week project on bat habitat and behavior that resulted in the construction of a bat house to place on my parents' property as a mechanism for bug control.
Interest-Led Project-Based Learning Design Process
Student-directed project-based educators are facilitators of the experience. Part of the role of facilitator is to inspire project ideas and make suggestions that challenge learners. I have several free resources in my store that help educators and learners through the project- design process. I meet one-on-one with students to help them turn a great question into a great project. This is my process:
1. What is Your Driving Question?
The question my son originally asked, "Where do bats go during the day?", became more of a question about habitat. "What is the habitat of a bat? What environment do they require to live?" This is an umbrella question with many sub-questions to explore. Where a species resides is dependent on available food, shelter, proximity to water, foraging behaviors, nesting/resting behaviors, predators to avoid and how they avoid them, etc.
2. What Is Your Final Product?
I showed my son pictures of several bat house designs from Pinterest, many of which had the Batman emblem painted on the front. He decided (mostly because of the Batman symbol) that he wanted to make a bat house to put out near the front porch. Making a functional, successful bat house requires an understanding of bat habitat and behavior.
Note: Showing my son a bat house makes it no less child-led. He had no idea what a bat house was, he had never seen one. Part of the role of the facilitator is to guide the learning experience by providing insight, community connections, suggestions, learning opportunities, and even structure.
3. What Questions Will You Research?
For my son to understand the habitat of a bat there was other questions he needed to ask and examine such as what species of bat he would make a house for, their size, their range, what they eat, their mating requirements, how large they are, how they sleep, their predators. He needed to figure out where the bat house would be placed, in what direction it needed to face, and how high up it needed to be. He found out what building materials are safe for bats, discovering that the wood and any paint we used had to be untreated and non-toxic as well as withstand the harsh weather conditions. He even asked questions about tools and how to use them. Project-based learners map out these questions in the design process and continue developing questions as their projects unfold.
4. What Community Experts Could You Use?
My high school project-based learners, with my help, brainstorm potential community experts and add those individuals to their project proposals. They may happen upon more as they work on their projects, and that's great!
My son and I went out into the community to gather information about bat habitat so that we could create the best shelter possible. I took him to a library to check out a variety of bat books. We went to a local nature center where he was able to speak with a naturalist. She led us on a short tour to see the bat boxes they had on their property. She could have easily been invited to us, but visiting the area gave us a better picture of what to create.
5. How Will You Present Your Work Authentically?
I talk about this piece often on my blog because I think it is such a valuable component of any learning experience. Project-based learning is authentic by nature, so it is only natural that we would present our final product and information to an authentic audience, one that is relevant and can benefit from the project. Learners should have a general idea of their audience before they start their projects. The authentic presentation will determine the direction the learner takes with the project.
My son has his bat box hanging on a tall tree in front of my parents' porch. The final product makes an impact. Visitors can watch the bats from the porch, which is cool in itself, but the bat house also provides a form of bug control for the local residents.
A project like this is highly modifiable. Learner-led project-based learning is personalized, so projects should organically fit the needs, goals, interests, and abilities of the student in question. A project like this one could be adapted to any learner. The amount of guidance would depend on the student, their age, their abilities, and so on. Younger students, like my son, need a lot more guidance than would a high school student.
Conservation is the best way to determine a student's interests. Download my free interest survey from more store to scaffold those conversations.
As a science teacher, I love this project because it brings those life science standards to life. Students learn about ecosystems through hands-on, student-led inquiry. On top of that they build skills such as creative design, collaboration, networking, finding credible information. They begin to understand their local communities and what they need. Student-directed project-based learning is multidisciplinary and the results are mind-blowing.
I recently added a PBL maker challenge to my store that parallels my son's project - Build a Wildlife Shelter. Students choose a local native species of interest, learn about their behaviors and natural history, and build a shelter for that species to place in the community.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education. You can also check out my TpT store for more experiential learning resources such as problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning.
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.