Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
There is one critical teacher question to ask students consistently:
"How can you find out?" This is one of my favorite answers to student questions. Resourcefulness is an important skill for children to have heading into adulthood in the 21st-century. I often have students that don't know how to answer this question when I ask it. They don't know where to go to get information.
A parent in my neighborhood recently shared with me that he himself reached out and networked in the community to secure a summer internship for his son, a requirement for his son to earn his college degree. His son is in his 20's. This parent wanted to be helpful. He wanted his son to graduate. The problem is not really with the parent. It's not even with the son. The problem is that his son up to this point had rarely needed to inquire, ask questions, find information, collaborate with community members, or create his own learning opportunities. He had been given answers, given resources, given teacher-directed lessons. He didn't know how to get an internship, a real-life learning experience, because he had never been asked to do anything like that before.
I have noticed since starting this blog and connecting with so many amazing educators from around the world on social media, that there is a huge push toward pedagogy that teaches skills like this - knowing how to find information and opportunity. I do think that things are changing drastically. Educators are doing some amazing things. Project-based learning, problem-based learning, STEM/STEAM, and Inquiry-based learning are a few examples. Inquiry-based learning is a powerful method of setting the stage for development of the very important life skill of resourcefulness; the ability to answer the question "How can you find out?"
Note: A while ago I published two posts, both of which include details on inquiry-based learning that I won't get into here - "Getting Started with Inquiry-Based Learning" and "3 Transformational Approaches to Student-Directed Teaching" . Check out these posts for details on inquiry and great guiding questions to ask students throughout the process if it's a route you choose to try.
"How can you find out" in action:
My children and I recently spent a few days at my parents home, which is on a lake. There is a wetland, which we call "the lagoon", behind their home where my children spend a lot of time. Wetlands are full of life, and they really come to life when you stop and observe. My children noticed hundreds of green balls floating in the water that they had never seen before. My two-year-old daughter thought they were balloons. My 5-year-old thought they were fish eggs. I thought they looked like the tapioca pearls that you'd see in bubble tea, which of course they were not. My kids asked the question, "What are those?" My answer: "Great question. How could we find out?"
We started by scooping a pan full of these mysterious balls and making observations. My kids noticed that they could pop the balls, so the balls were in fact filled with gas. This opened the door to a conversation about gases/solids/liquids. I used a balloon as an analogy. They then made the observation that the balls were green. I asked them what other natural feature is green. They said trees. They were then able to determine that the bubble shape was probably created by a plant. This discovery segued to plant anatomy.
I asked my son where he could learn more about plants, how he could find out why plants are green, and he said with books. So we headed to the library. We looked at several kids books on plant anatomy and water plants.
Then I asked my son who might know a lot about plants. He said a "plant doctor" so I brought him to the DNR building in town, the next best thing! He looked through brochures and showed a picture of the balls to a DNR employee. She gave my son a business card for their wetland ecologist. We later contacted her and she clarified that the balls were in fact algal blooms.
This is inquiry.
My child had a simple question. "What is this?" He was able to find out the answer by asking around. He investigated by making observations, asking experts questions, rifling through informative books that he located (with the help of the librarian), and drawing his own conclusions. He constructed his own knowledge by actively seeking out information. He led this learning experience. Of course I had a role to play and that was facilitator. That is the job of a student-directed educator.
The lessons learned here are appropriate for a 5-year-old. He learned the difference between solids, liquids, and gases. He learned how to differentiate between plants, animals, insects, etc. based on physical features. He learned how to observe using all of his senses. He even learned that plants, including algae, make their own food. Most importantly, in my opinion, he practiced locating resources to find the answer to his question, a need that will come up in his life over and over again.
If this same observation were to be made by an older student you could launch into exploring photosynthesis with them, wetland ecology, ecological health, water pollution from fertilizers and more. I had dozens of questions when I saw these balls floating around. Not "What is it?" I knew what they were. My high school students, particularly my environmental science students, would likely know what they were. My questions were more along the lines of why those algal blooms were there at all, if they were impacting ecological and/or human health, recreational fishing, or the economy, and if so, what could be done about it?
Each of those questions could be turned into inquiry-based learning opportunities for students by conducting scientific inquiry experiments (check out my inquiry-based learning toolkit, geared toward middle and secondary students); contacting community experts; visiting sites; inviting speakers to the school; digging for publications; interviewing people from varying perspectives such as the DNR, other conservation groups, farmers, city planners, scientists, golf course managers, and more. When asked "how could you find out?", those are some ways, and our students need to have this skill. They need to know HOW to learn.
Take a peek at these other inquiry-based learning and student-directed learning resources for middle and high school students at Experiential Learning Depot:
- Student-Directed Learning Toolkit Bundle (Inquiry, PBL and PrBL)
- Student-Directed Scientific Inquiry - Water Pollution Bundle
- Water Pollution Unit: Student-Directed Learning Bundle
- Water Pollution Community Action Project
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.