Here comes another "C"! Have you noticed that many of the skills I've been covering in my 21st-century skills series start with a "C"? Those are the 4 C's of education; critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. There are many 21st-century skills, but the 4C's lay the foundation for the others, in my opinion.
The focus of this post is collaboration; working with others to achieve a common goal or purpose. It is imperative that students possess collaboration skills that will meet the demands of living and working in the 21st-century. Help them build a strong community network and to take advantage of all that their community has to offer. For partnerships with local citizens, business owners, legislators, city officials, non-profits, educators, town libraries, historical societies, and so on, and promote collaboration between them that work to meet the needs of the community.
Design your curriculum around community collaborations. Rather than learn about government from a textbook, for example, have students work directly with government officials to write a bill. Connect with farmers and conservationists to develop a plan that both protects livestock from wolf predation and wolves from extinction. The relationship between students and community members is mutually beneficial. By bringing community collaboration into your curriculum, students become an asset to the community rather than a fixture, and the community becomes a key player in the education of its children.
Start making student/community collaborations a priority in your curriculum by implementing some of the suggestions below. It's important to note that this cannot fall on the shoulders of teachers alone. For the following student/community collaborations to be successful, everyone will need to pitch in. Collaborate! Pull together principles, administrators, board members, parents, community members, and most importantly, students. Better yet, let your students take the lead. Yes, kids can be the driving force of most of the collaboration opportunities listed below.
10 Ways to Add Collaboration Skill-Building to Your Curriculum
1) Build YOUR Community Network:
If you are a parent or educator interested in including community collaborations in your curriculum, start by joining a town committee, club, or board. This will provide exposure to the needs of the community as well as establish a solid network for future collaborations between your students and the community. A few weeks ago I posted about a project one of my students was doing about horror films. Within minutes, someone in my network responded to the post offering this student the opportunity to work alongside a community member curating a horror film festival. Make some connections and start putting your ideas out there. Assure potential collaborators that students are contributors. They need your students as much as your students need them.
2) Write a Class Newsletter:
A few years ago several of my students noticed some animosity between our student body and some of our direct neighbors. My advisory got together to brainstorm ways to bridge the gap. My students decided that they would write a newsletter about our school with student and project highlights, upcoming events that neighbors could attend, ways for neighbors to get involved, and so on. My students created the newsletter, made the cookies, and personally delivered both to our neighbors. This small gesture helped our students build a stronger network for future collaborations.
3) Start a Community Garden:
Several of my coworkers had the idea of starting a community garden. They connected students with local horticulturists, farmers, and nonprofits to build a produce garden right on school property. Our students collaborated closely with community experts to build a beautiful and prosperous urban garden.
4) Start a Community Club or Committee:
Have students start clubs or groups that extend out to include community members. A few years ago, several of my students started a community cleanup crew for an assigned PBL project (FInd the resource here - Start a Club). Together our students and the local community organized and participated in regular neighborhood cleanup events.
Students might also consider organizing a committee specific to addressing community needs. Students and citizens, local business owners, city officials, non-profits, conservationists, colleges and universities, etc. would come together to tackle community issues and needs. Check out my Community Action Projects on TpT for guidance.
5) Host Community Events:
Start networking with community members by not only hosting events open to the public, but also including students and community members in the planning and organizing of the events. Our students have organized movie nights, spaghetti dinners, cook-offs, chess tournaments, exhibition nights, a gallery for local artists, and more. Collaboration with the community was integral in the success of these events.
6) Host a Speaker Series at Your School:
One of my coworkers and a group of students organize a speaker series at our school every year. The student committee observes and identifies important community topics and issues, they reach out to experts on those topics, they invite them to speak at our school, and open the doors to the public. The student committee collaborates with local citizens to narrow in on interests and needs, and organizes speakers to meet those needs. Students also collaborate with community experts to speak.
7) Transition to Project-Based Learning:
PBL is community centered by nature. It requires collaboration on many levels. PBL emphasises authentic learning experiences. Students are expected to collaborate with community experts, have real-world learning experiences beyond the walls of the classroom, create a final product that makes a positive impact on the community as a whole, and share their work with an authentic audience. Collaboration is an integral part of PBL. Collaboration skill-building is especially effective when the experience is student-led. Check out past posts on PBL right here, and head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for PBL resources to get you started.
8) Start a Mentorship Program:
One of my coworkers has been hard at work for years developing a mentorship program between our students and members of the community. The students and community members not only develop a friendship, but the mentors get involved in our students' projects, bringing their network and their collaborators to the table.
9) Start an Internship Program:
There are so many reasons to encourage student internships, and building collaboration skills is on the top of that list. The same coworker that works diligently on our mentorship program is also heavily involved in opening up internship possibilities to our students. Several of our students apprentice at Urban Boat Builders where a diverse array of collaborations are at play. Students can further strengthen collaboration skills by finding and arranging their own internship opportunities.
10) Organize Legislative Days:
Encourage learners to collaborate with their local representatives to make positive change in the community. Every year MAAP organizes "Legislative Day" where students from all over the state travel to Capitol building in St. Paul to discuss community issues with their legislators. These conversations often turn into long-term collaborations. One of my students, for example, worked closely with her legislator to create a bill that would help ex-convicts be productive citizens by making job opportunities more accessible.
Of course there are many more ways to help learners develop collaboration skills including problem-based learning, place-based education, hosting exhibition nights, educational travel, service-learning, etc. It can be as simple as taking what you are ALREADY doing with your students and adding community partnerships to the mix.
Next week I'm heading to Zion National Park with my family. I'm unsure at this point if I will have a post ready for next week. Keep an eye out. At a minimum, I'll post when I get home. Stay-tuned for a post on all of the ways to enhance learning while traveling.
Good luck to you, and as always, feel free to reach out for questions or comments. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Last night my three-old tried to climb out of the bathtub by herself. I helped her back in the tub and explained to her that the bathtub ledge is smooth and wet, and therefore, slippery. She then removed the bathmat from the tub floor and swung it over the ledge, and again, began to climb out. She explained that the rough texture of the bathmat made the edge of the tub less slippery so that she could climb out safely by herself. My 3-year-old did this. Toddlers have the capacity to problem-solve, as do preschoolers, elementary students, middle schoolers, teenagers, and so on. With a little guidance, they can be problem-solving champs!
Every facet of life necessitates the ability to recognize problems and come to solutions, such as building and nurturing healthy relationships, raising children, home maintenance, success in careers and college, personal health, and more complex global issues like pandemics and natural disasters. The world around us continues to evolve in profound and unprecedented ways. Educators have an imperative responsibility to help nurture and strengthen that skill. Twenty first-century humans, regardless of age, regardless of context, must know how to face problems, how to work through the unexpected in a world of perpetual uncertainty, and come to logical and effective resolutions.
As I've said in my other posts on 21st-century skills, content and skill development are not mutually exclusive. You do not need to put your content to the side while you work with learners on problem-solving. Check out the following learning activities that incorporate problem-solving by design. There are other options not listed here, but the ones mentioned below are those that I've spent time fine-tuning because I've seen powerful results.
If you happen to be interested in helping learners develop a variety of skills, check out 21st-Century Skills Portfolio in my TpT store. Otherwise, give some of the learning activities below a shot.
Learning Activities That Build Problem-Solving Skills
I choose experiential learning activities for my students as often as humanly possible, which means learning is student-directed, learners are actively involved, and reflection is built into every experience. The following activities, include each of these elements, which is why I turn to them to help learners practice problem-solving.
This is one of my favorite learning experiences for building problem-solving skills. In problem-based learning, students observe real-world, complex, open-ended issues and develop a plan to solve the problem. Learners come to solutions by researching different perspectives, conducting experiments, talking with experts, analyzing the variables, determining several options to solve the problem, and weighing the pros and cons of each option. The results is a powerful combination of content knowledge and many 21st-century skills, including problem-solving. It also crosses disciplines; always a plus.
For example, buckthorn is an invasive species that is devastating forest communities around Minnesota. As a problem-based learning activity, students would research the natural history of buckthorn as well as the structural and behavioral adaptations that have allowed them to be so successful. Learners would look into solutions currently in place. They would research ways to eradicate and prevent the problem. They might even develop original solutions to the problem. They would then weigh their options and develop a comprehensive plan to solve the problem of buckthorn takeover in MN. That is problem-based learning at it's finest.
Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for my problem-based learning resource on invasive species and other problem-based learning resources.
Inquiry-based learning is when students make observations about the world around them, ask questions, and come to their own conclusions through experimentation and/or investigation. Inquiry-based learning starts and ends with the students. When educators rely on lecture and other forms of teacher-centered relaying of information, learners aren't problem-solving. Open inquiry often results in dead ends, unanticipated results, uncooperative sources, etc. that demand that learners take a step back, reflect, analyze the problem, and try something else. For more posts on inquiry, click the inquiry-based learning link to your right.
You can also check out a variety of inquiry-based learning resourcesat my TpT store.
Project-based learning is a wonderful tool for developing problem-solving skills. Innovation, authenticity, and community impact all set PBL apart from other styles of teaching. Learners are immersed in the community by default, so have many opportunities to observe and identify problems that are relevant and close to home. This is especially true when projects are designed to impact the community. My community action projects on TpT ask students to identify problems/issues in their own communities and take action. Click here for other PBL resources on TpT, and here for most posts on project-based learning.
Design thinking is a great way to practice problem-solving skills, and "making" is one way to utilize design thinking. The best maker activities that incorporate problem-solving are those that ask students to design and create something that literally solves a problem. I had a student in my environmental science class that designed and created an entire line of clothing from upcycled materials to reduce clothing waste, for example. Making also naturally leads to problem-solving. Prototypes rarely match final outcomes. Students start with a vision, they try some things out, use materials that they think will do the trick, inevitably run into obstacles, reflect, try something else, and so on and so on, until they have created a working final product.
A few days ago I asked my kindergartener to build a contraption that could rescue a "monster" from lava. His goal was to make something using household items that could pull his monster toy to safety without stepping in the lava (crossing the line). I have had my high schoolers do a similar activity, but it was related to natural selection. They learned content while practicing problem-solving through trial and error.
Check out some of my maker PBL challenges that combine elements of project-based learning and design thinking.
Play, especially when unstructured, is highly influential when it comes to skill development. In play, children themselves create rules, they make-believe, work together, and work through their own dilemmas. Social emotional skills emerge such as empathy, compassion, self-control, and expression of feelings. Twenty-first century skills come onto the scene as well including team-work, communication, flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving.
My oldest child started kindergarten this year. I have had doubts about sending him to a play-based preschool. The transition from two diametrically opposed learning environments has been jarring for everyone. Then I remind myself that his ability to cope with this new experience, to persevere through the transition, to express his fears and worries, to communicate with his teacher, and problem-solve can in part be credited to his preschool experience. I urge you! Let them play!
There are of course many other ways for children to practice problem-solving such as travel, service learning, STEM and STEAM, nature-based learning, team-building activities, current events discussions, analyzing case studies, and even casual conversation. Not all learning experiences are organized and structured. We learn about the world around us by living in it. What will NOT boost problem-solving skills are lectures, drill worksheets, and textbook readings. Those methods of instruction involve very little independent thinking. I understand that they have their place on occasion, but not when it comes to fostering generations of problem-solvers.
Ask yourself what you are doing with your students to help them build problem-solving skills. If your answer is "not much", consider trying out some of the activities here, or asking yourself another question; why not? If you need convincing, head back to some of my other posts about 21st-century skills. If your answer to the first question is a resounding "so many things!" I would love to hear about your experiences! Happy problem-solving!
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Several years ago a student in my psychology seminar came to me with an idea for her psychology project. She had made an interesting observation about her own family. Those observations lead to a question; she wondered why her and her siblings were so different from one another. She settled on a project about birth order theory, developed by Alfred Adler.
Her original project idea was to research birth order theory and conduct her own study. She put together a survey, passed it out, collected it, slapped her results on a poster board and called it a day. We went through her board together. I asked her questions about the topic, most of which she couldn't answer. Her survey was only distributed to her classmates, which made her sample size less than 20 students. No graphs, no charts, no conclusion was included. I asked her if she thought this was her best work. She didn't answer me, and stormed off, fuming.
The following day she came into school ready to try again. We discussed what might be missing and how she could improve her final product. She decided to organize an activity for my psychology students. She separated the class into groups - first borns, middle children, youngest, and only children - and had each group draw a picture of their ideal vacation. Every year thereafter (until this student graduated), my new psychology students did the drawings as well. When drawings were compared to the drawings of prior years, all of the middle children drawings were almost identical to each other, same with the first borns, and so on.
If I hadn't insisted that she improve the quality of her final product she wouldn't have had nearly the same learning experience nor the same outcomes. Asking her to try again, make some adjustments, and turn it into a project that she could be proud of was an important lesson. There is not a quick fix, nor one simple trick that will result in quality projects across the board. The key is a combination of several elements, which when implemented together will get you closer to the results you are looking for.
***The project that my student did on birth order theory was part of my psychology class. Each student conducts their own psychology experiment as their final project for the seminar. Check out that resource here.
How to Improve the Quality of Student Work
1. Cultivate a classroom/homeschool culture of high expectations:
Let students know your expectations from the start. You'll have to model those expectations. It is true, and vital in this particular situation, that actions speak louder than words. If you allow students to turn in low quality work, for example, then that is exactly what they'll continue to do. If you give students a pass because you don't feel they can do any better, then they will think the same of themselves; that they can't do any better.
Build a culture that frames quality work as the norm. Praise effort and work ethic. Give consistent feedback. Build time into your schedule for students to go back and improve their work. Be cognizant of your actions. Ask yourself whether your own behavior is promoting quality projects or stifling them. If you cultivate a classroom/homeschool culture of high standards, you not only promote high quality work, but instill an eagerness in students; a hunger to improve.
2. Develop (and stick with) a system that works:
There is not a specific system that will work for everyone. Find a system that works for you and your learners and stick with it.
My students do PBL projects. Part of our system for ensuring quality final products is by having approval and evaluation meetings. All projects go through an approval process, where students propose their project plan to a small committee (made up of teachers, school staff, other students, community members). Committee members offer feedback and suggestions, fill in any missing pieces, and approve the projects once they are deemed quality plans. Students also have their final products evaluated by the same committee.
This project approval/evaluation system ensures checks and balances and promotes high quality projects. This system has always been a challenge to stick by because it takes teachers and other staff members away from other tasks that often feel more important than approval meetings. But if this system were to go to the wayside, which it has before, project quality would (and does) dip as a result. Although this system is a challenge at times, it makes sense for us. Find a system that works for you, and stick with it. You'll thank yourself later!
3. Supply consistent feedback:
Providing regular feedback to students throughout the process is critical if you expect tremendous final results. Offer many opportunities for feedback from you, peers, community experts, and more. The necessity for steady feedback is one reason for having project approval and evaluation meetings like we do. An eclectic group of people pool together to offer ideas and suggestions from different perspectives that students may have overlooked or simply didn't know the opportunity existed.
For example, I was in on an approval meeting last week with a student who wanted to do a project on horror films. I posted on Instagram about this project. Within minutes, a community member contacted me to see if this student would like to work with him on a horror film festival that he would be curating. This opportunity instantly improved the quality of his final product and the learning experience as a whole.
4. Nurture a self-directed learning environment:
Student-directed learning is when students are given the freedom to lead their learning experiences. They have choice and voice in process and outcome. Click the "self-directed learning" link to your right for past posts on student-directed learning. My students are self-directed project-based learners. They choose their project topics, community experts, how they will gather information, how they will demonstrate learning, and who they will share their work with. They even have choice in evaluation criteria by writing their own rubrics.
When students have choice and take ownership of their learning, they care about the topic and process. They take interest in creating their final products. They develop an intrinsic motivation to do their best because they believe in themselves. They have a newfound sense of self-worth. All of this paves the way to quality projects.
Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for a variety of student-directed learning resources, including project-based learning.
5. Facilitate learning activities that emphasize trial and error:
I've recently developed an appreciation for projects that utilize design thinking (empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing.) Students brainstorm, generate rough ideas, and test those ideas. The original vision does not typically culminate as expected, at which point learners reflect, problem-solve, and try a different approach. Maker education is an example of a learning activity that habituates this type of thinking, among others. Reflection, problem-solving, drafts, redos, second tries, becomes second nature. Producing a high quality outcome is the essence of the activity.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges on TpT, my latest on designing and creating Halloween costumes from trash.
6. Encourage innovative final products:
One way to inspire quality work is to have students create innovative final products. This is one of the key elements of project-based learning; to demonstrate learning in an innovative way.
Poster boards are boring to make and boring to look at, regardless of how cool the project topic is. Get learners thinking beyond poster boards and Powerpoint presentations.
Encourage students to learn about a new software or online design program. Ask them to create a final product that considers their unique skills and interests. A student with a love for painting, for example, might demonstrate learning by painting a mural. A writer might rather demonstrate learning by writing a short story about the concept at hand. When content and/or learning activities are relatable and interesting to students, learners are more likely to put in the effort to create something that they are eager to share.
7. Organize opportunities for authentic presentations:
Authentic learning experiences in general will light a fire under learners. But authentic presentations, where students share their final product with a relevant, often public audience, compels learners to give it their best.
In project-based learning, an authentic presentation or the final product itself should benefit the audience. For example, a final product for a disease project might be a brochure. An authentic presentation might be the distribution of the brochures to clinics across the community. In this case, the brochures can't just be high quality, it would need to be of professional quality. The idea isn't to embarrass kids. Their audience is relying on them to share accurate, helpful information. The idea is to urge learners to do their best for their audience and to feel great about their results.
8. Prioritize self-reflection:
Self-reflection is an essential piece of every learning activity that I do with my students. Reflecting on progress and their final products IS a form of feedback, but because the feedback doesn't come from you or their peers, students critically think and learn to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. It gives learners perspective. Completing a self-evaluation half way through a PBL project, for example, helps learners take a step back, analyze their progress, make adjustments, and move forward in a way that improves outcomes.
Organize regular opportunities for self-reflection such as periodic self-assessments, casual daily check-in forms that learners can use to reflect regularly, one-on-one discussions about how things are going, etc. Each of these methods of reflection should be student-led, otherwise it's not self-reflection at all.
ALL of your students producing professional quality final products ALL of the time is unrealistic. Even getting some of your learners to produce quality products some of the time is an arduous journey, but is one worth taking. It is a skill to want to improve; to STRIVE to improve. Anyone can develop this skill with proper direction and support. Be that direction for your learners. Be that support!
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How to Teach Critical Thinking
A few months ago some tadpoles fell into my lap, figuratively and literally at times! I had reservations initially, but thought, well, this would be a good learning experience for my kiddos. I'm an experiential educator afterall. I am attuned to opportunities that get children involved, and this would do just that.
My kids observed the frogs' life cycle, learned how to keep a tadpole alive and problem-solved when unprecedented events inevitably arose. When their solutions failed, they tried something else. They observed tadpole behaviors, asked questions, designed and conducted experiments. They interpreted unexpected behaviors, hashed out possible explanations, talked with a variety of experts, and drew conclusions from their experiences and research.
My five and two year olds did this. Of course their observations and questions may have been slightly different than that of a high schooler, and their research and experimentation would look different for my kids than it would for a teenager. I mean, my 5 and 2-year-olds can't read or leave the house without a parent, and they have a pretty narrow worldview. But they can critically think. They can problem-solve, evaluate, speculate, analyze, reflect, consider alternatives to the obvious, make predictions, examine deviations from what is expected. Their solutions might not be completely rational, and their analysis may only touch the surface, but skill in those areas will come with time, brain-development, and practice.
I would love to give my high school students this same learning experience. I know lecture, note-taking, textbook reading, and worksheets have their place in some of your classrooms. I'm sure you can even justify them. But that is not what this post is about. This post is about critical thinking, and none of those teaching methods will help your learners transition into adulthood as competent critical thinkers. If you value critical thinking and/or expect your learners to critically think, you'll have to set the stage for success. There are many ways to do that. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
5 Ways to Engage Students in Critical Thinking
1. Organize Learning Experiences that Promote Critical Thinking:
Offer activities, such as our tadpole project, that challenge learners to observe, analyze, create, fail, evaluate, problems-solve, reflect, interpret, and more. There are many learning activities that involve critical thinking by nature, such as STEM/STEAM, activities that use design thinking such as maker projects, inquiry-based learning, place-based learning, project-based learning, and yes, play. If you are working with young children unstructured play might be the best thing you can do to encourage critical thinking. You too, kindergarten teachers!
One of my favorite activities for critical thinking is problem-based learning. In problem-based learning students are asked to identify complex real-world problems. Solutions aren't always clear, or there may not be just one, thus costs and benefits must be analyzed and weighed. A variety of perspectives are examined and considered when coming to the most effective solution(s).
For a variety of resources that promote critical thinking, head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT. There you can find problem-based learning, project-based learning, and inquiry-based learning toolkits. You can even find a project specific to 21st-century skill building called 21st-Century Skills Portfolio.
2. Questions, Questions, and More Questions:
Encourage your students to ask questions! Inspire students to ask questions that are open-ended, those that don't always have a clear answer. Give your students the confidence to ask deep questions by inviting those questions, pushing learners to dig deeper, and by answering their questions with another question, such as "what do you already know about that?", "how could you find out?", "what do you notice if you look at it from this perspective?".
To empower learners to ask their own questions, create a learning environment that gives them the space, time, resources, and encouragement to do so. Inquiry-based learning and project-based learning are great learning tools for this.
3. Observations, Observations, and More Observations:
Observations more often than not give rise to questions. My children observed that our tadpoles rarely moved. They were surprisingly lethargic all of the time. This one observation generated a plethora of questions such as whether this behavior is normal, if tadpoles are this immobile in the wild, if they were hungry at the time, if they were going through a specific phase of their life cycle that required more energy than others. Making observations, asking questions, exploring those questions, experimenting and analyzing results is critical thinking. Student-directed open-inquiry is a great way to practice using these skills, and open-inquiry starts with observations.
Examining and evaluating others' work is one way to practice making consequential observations such as dissecting current events, perusing scientific publications, interpreting music lyrics, analyzing debates, and even conducting peer evaluations. Project-based learning is one such learning tool that promotes peer feedback. By teaching learners to make observations they are in turn building critical thinking skills.
4. Allow Students to Direct Their Own Learning Experiences:
When given choice and autonomy, learners make decisions for themselves, which in itself requires critical thinking. To design a project, for example, students need to evaluate their skills, consider their interests, ask relevant questions, find sources and analyze credibility. Throughout the project process learners reflect on their experiences and plan accordingly. In contrast, when learners are given a specific task that is put together for them, a task that has a right/wrong/yes/no answer, critical thinking is not at play. Teach students how to critically think by giving them the tools to think for themselves. One of those tools is choice.
Look back at posts from my student-directed learning series for help getting started. It can seem a daunting transition to go from teacher-centered to student-directed, but it's not so bad if you have direction and support.
5. Establish a Culture of Critical Thinkers
Show your students that you value critical thinking by establishing a learning environment that promotes it. If critical thinking is the expectation, if you vocalize it's value, if it becomes a part of your every day lexicon, if you provide experiences for learners that endorse critical thinking, and if you uphold its importance by demonstrating critical thinking yourself, you are engaging your learners in this very critical 21st-century skill.
These are just six of many ways you can engage your students in critical thinking. All educators should be making 21st-century skills a priority, not just advisors, career counselors, and life skills instructors. I'm a science teacher. It is my responsibility to teach the content, yes, but content and 21st-century skills are not mutually exclusive. Learners can have it all.
Okay, this is no longer a rhetorical question. How are you engaging your students in critical thinking? I'd love you all to share some strategies that have been effective, and even those that have not. Let's share!
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Content knowledge and 21st-century skills? Can educators teach both? The answer is yes, they can do it all, and they must. Not long ago my husband and I got into a conversation about the importance of 21st-century skills. What is more valuable, skills or content knowledge? I argued (and have argued here before), that you can't have one without the other, and it is one of our greatest responsibilities as educators to provide opportunities for development in both.
To be a wildlife ecologist, my career before teaching, I needed to understand concepts such as carrying capacity, predator/prey relationships, symbiotic relationships, migration behaviors, etc. - the content. An ecologist might also need to know how to utilize mapping software, write a technical report, read and produce charts and graphs, and present their findings to their scientific peers - hard skills.
Once learners have memorized the buzzwords, have a basic understanding of the content, and have developed some relevant hard skills to get them started, are they in the clear? Will they succeed in their careers, live a happy life, be competitive, be creative, healthy, responsible, productive citizens?
To make it as a wildlife ecologist, I also needed to be able to problem-solve. I needed to be able to communicate and collaborate with stakeholders, even those that I didn't always agree with. I needed to know not just how to solve a problem, but how to identify one. I had to accept failure and grow from it. I needed to be able to ask important and relevant questions. It is a rare occurrence to be handed information, discrete facts, outside of a classroom environment. I have had to troubleshoot, find answers, and reach conclusions on my own as a wildlife ecologist, educator, blogger, curriculum writer, mother, daughter, friend, citizen and everything else I am or have become.
These are important skills that are often forgotten about or glossed over in modern day classrooms. Some educators lack the confidence to teach content AND skills, don't find value in including skills in their curriculum, or don't believe there is enough time to do both. I find this to be particularly accurate in secondary classrooms. The pressure on teachers is high. Lack of time is a misconception, though. It's easier to work around time constraints when you choose learning activities that promote both skill and content development. Project-based learning is one example. Students learn content while also engaging with the community, networking, problem-solving, presenting, and locating credible resources, all essential skills that wouldn't be gained from lecture, worksheets, or textbook readings.
I see many educators trying project-based learning as well as STEM, STEAM, experiential learning, design activities, inquiry, nature-based learning, and play-based learning, among many others. The students of these educators will thank them later. These are all strategies that help learners develop content knowledge AND build the skills they need to be happy, confident, passionate lifelong learners. Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for resources that offer the best of both worlds.
Whether you are a primary teacher, middle or high school teacher, an alternative educator, a home educator, a traditional or progressive educator, you need to ask yourself, "What am I doing to engage my students in 21st-century skill-building?" Do some serious, honest reflection. If you are delivering content, and content alone, reassess and make some changes. Learners deserve better. It's never too late to start!
As I said earlier, I believe another reason for glossing over skill development in classrooms is lack of confidence on the part of the educator. I for one have always been intimidated by STEM. That insecurity held me back for a long time. Eventually I just decided to go for it. I slowly started adding a few STEM activities here and there until both my students and I had more confidence. STEM activities help students practice team-work, critical thinking, creativity, tech literacy and more. So, over the course of the next month I will post about specific skills along with tips, tricks, learning activities and other resources to engage students in those skills. Stay-tuned for that.
How do you incorporate 21st-century skill building into your curriculum or routine?
If you are looking for a resource that specifically focuses on skills, check out my 21st-Century Skills Portfolio. Otherwise, keep your eyes out for posts on engaging learners in 21st-century skill building throughout September and October.
Thanks for stopping by!
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Take Learning Outdoors
I have always been an avid outdoors-woman. I was raised with parents that valued and encouraged outdoor play and experiences. An appreciation for the outdoors was so instilled in me as a child that I went on to get my degree in wildlife ecology and spent the first part of my career working with endangered species. Then I became a bio teacher, and now I am a stay-at-home-mom raising two young children to love and appreciate nature as well.
I have been feeling on edge and foggy brained lately, and when I feel that way I know it's from one of three things: 1) stress, 2) not enough physical activity, or 3) not enough time spent outside. In this particular case, it was all three. So! My family and I hopped in the car and headed south to Whitewater State Park. It was just what I needed and just what my children needed.
Study after study has shown the benefits of spending time outdoors, especially for young people. Harvard Medical School published a report in 2010 stating that spending time outdoors may be the prescription for better health. Stanford reported in 2015 that taking regular nature walks may lower risk of depression. Amazon is loaded with books dedicated to the simple idea that the human brain is wired to be outside: "Go Outside and Come Back Better" by Ron Lizzi, "The Nature Fix" by Florence Williams, "Balanced and Barefoot" by Angela J. Hanscom, "Vitamin N" by Richard Louv, and "Last Child in the Woods", also by Richard Louv. The list goes on and on. National Geographic published an awesome article titled "We are Wired to be Outside". I just started reading "Place-Based Education" by David Sobel who also wrote "Beyond Ecophobia". I'll let you know how I like it!
It's odd that we live in a time that books need to be written about the benefits of being outdoors. Why do we need convincing? At any given moment we find ourselves with screens at our fingertips. Many students in the US study nature using online simulations and textbooks rather than experiencing it first hand. I am not saying that screens should be completely thrown out of the picture. As I sit here writing this blog, I clearly have some appreciation for technology. But screens should not replace outdoor time, physical activity, or opportunities to create, imagine and explore, in the home or at school.
As I flip through photos of my recent adventure in Whitewater State Park, I appreciate the number of learning experiences packed into two days. My children put their hands in the dirt, bonded with their father whom they get little time with, inhaled fresh air, gazed at the stars free from city lights. My 5 year old walked close to four miles and my darling 2 year old climbed on everything. They learned how to build a fire! They found and made their own walking sticks. They practiced reading a map. They observed and inquired about the natural world. In just two days my children were able to do all of this with no plan, textbooks, lesson plans, PowerPoint lectures, note-taking, or testing. Just them. Just us. Just the great outdoors.
When I was still teaching at a public school, much of my curriculum focused around being outside of the building. As a small, project-based school, we were fortunate to have the encouragement and resources to take learning beyond the walls of the classroom - out to the parking lot, to the local river basin, and even trips abroad through our school travel program (check out some of my past posts on student travel).
Homeschoolers, experiential educators, and stay-at-home-parents like myself have the flexibility to embrace nature-based learning. If you are home with your kids, get them outside if you don't already! If you are a public school teacher that has the flexibility and support from the district to take learning outside, I sure hope you're doing so. If you are an educator that is confined to the classroom, check out some outdoor learning activity ideas below that could be done right on school grounds.
The photos in the slideshow below are of my students enjoying various outdoor learning experiences. Many of these photos are from trips taken through our travel program.
Books that Inspire
Want to get your children and/or students outside? Inspire the urge to explore, or simply the desire to chill in some fresh air for a few minutes, with books. Check out this list of great reads that inspire a love of (or at least a respect for) the outdoors. The lists vary by age and purpose.
How to Work Outdoor Learning Activities Into Your Curriculum
Take every opportunity to get your students outside. If you have a lesson that could just be moved out onto the grass, do it. Best case scenario is that your lesson incorporates natural surroundings. This is easy for project-based learners and life science teachers. For math teachers, maybe not quite as easy. Or is it? Check out some of these fun integrated outdoor learning activities.
Take Reading Outside:
Take Writing Outside:
What's great about writing is that you could do it just about anywhere as long as you have a pen and some paper. With phones, Chromebooks, Kindles, and iPads on the rise, we can even bring along our mobile devices. Taking your writers outdoors is a great way to inspire writing topics, remove disturbances and distractions, and give them the space and peace that they need to focus.
Take Social Studies Outside:
Take Math Outside:
There are a lot of resources out there for implementing math activities outdoors. Most of them are for elementary aged students, a few for more advanced math concepts.
Take Science Outside:
Science outdoors is a no-brainer, especially bio. Simply bring students outdoors, let them observe their surroundings, ask questions, and design experiments. If you're looking for some other creative science activities to do outside, check these out:
You might be thinking, "How do I get my students outdoors in the winter?" I know this conundrum better than anyone. I live in Minnesota where it seems to be below zero four months of the year and we get blizzards in April. Here's what I'll say; even bringing students outside for 10 minutes per day is better than nothing. You might also consider again starting a student travel program at your school. Finally, if at all possible, incorporate the weather into your lessons. Test snow or rain for acid using a pH kit. Calculate relative density of snow, ice and water. Paint in the rain. Write in the outdoors on a snowy day! Even tough weather days inspire curiosity and creativity.
With that said, we are down to very few nice days! Get outside now, enjoy the fall colors, get your students inspired BEFORE the weather takes a dramatic turn. Good luck!
Check out Experiential Learning Depot on TpT for student-directed learning resources that take learning outdoors:
I also have a handful of free resources on student travel.
How do you take learning outside? I would love to add ideas to this post! Have a great fall everyone. Happy outdoor learning!
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How to Make Learning Personal In Your Classroom
I recently came across a comment on LinkedIn, a tirade really, about personalized learning. I thought to myself, "personalized learning? Of all things!" What could possibly be wrong with that? Personalized learning is what I have done, or thought I was doing, with my students for a decade, learning about their interests, their personal challenges in and outside of school, learning about their strengths and building off of those, planning deep and meaningful projects that reflect every inch of their individuality.
I spent some time trying to discern this mystifying LinkedIn comment, but was unsuccessful. I found what I expected to find; a variety of definitions, all with the same basic idea, that personalized learning is instruction designed around the unique needs of every individual learner. I also discovered that several terms appear to be used interchangeably including individualized learning and differentiated learning. Differentiated learning is not the same as my perceived definition of personalized learning at the time, by the way. I'll get to that in another post.
I moved on. I chalked it up as a comment from an individual that was either completely misled somewhere along the line or that we just fundamentally disagreed about the value of personalized learning. Then I came across an article written by Alfie Kohn. Not a recent one! It was written in 2015. This article finally uncovered the logic behind the comment. Personal learning is what I do. Personalized learning has taken on new meaning while I've been sitting here in the dark.
Four Reasons to Worry About Personalized Learning by Alfie Kohn
Personalized learning, according to Alfie Kohn, is the customization of learning FOR students by rather than BY the students themselves. Personal Learning, Inc. is software (for-profit) that analyzes student test scores to then produce a "personalized" set of basic-skills drills with the intention of improving test scores. This my friend, is NOT what I do. I now fully understand the sentiment behind the LinkedIn diatribe, and with this new frame of reference, completely agreed with it.
What I do is PERSONAL learning. What then is personal learning and how can you do it with your own students?
What is Personal Learning?
Personal learning is the facilitation of deep, meaningful, and authentic learning experiences designed around the unique interests, backgrounds, skill levels, goals, strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and so on of EACH student. The teacher/facilitator builds a relationship with every learner and enhances learning by creating an environment that reflects and celebrates the unique attributes of each child.
"Everyone is genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." Albert Einstein is commonly given credit for saying this, but I've read he didn't actually say it. Regardless of who said it, there is truth in it. Obviously a fish climbing or being able to grasp the concept of its own intelligence is hyperbole. But there are parallels to children, and the point remains - not all children are the same and shouldn't be treated as such, especially when it comes to their education. To cast an umbrella over all of your students, to expect all 5 year olds to be able to read at the same time, for example, is nonsense.
Every student walks into your classroom each day with a unique set of challenges, levels of energy, reading or writing abilities, amount of sleep they had the night before, personal traumas, learning styles, etc., than their peer sitting next to them.
Those differences matter. They matter when it comes to learning. You may get irritated when one of your 15-year-old students falls asleep during your lecture on transcription and translation, but they are kids, and what inspires one may not inspire another. It's not a personal attack on you, but it is personal for them. They may not have an interest in the topic. They may be hands-on learners. They may simply be exhausted from football practice the night before, then to work from there to help support their family, and home to finish up school assignments.
There is a lot to take into consideration here when you're talking about deep learning experiences. This student might do what she's told, get the grades, get into a good college, but did she learn anything? Was it meaningful? Is she leaving school with a passion for learning? Not likely. Making learning personal leads to real, deep, authentic learning that will carry with them through college and their careers. This is what I want for my own children and my students.
So how do you make learning personal for 30 students? The same way you would make learning personal for 1 student, such as a homeschool scenario. By building relationships with your students and moving to a student-directed, teacher-facilitated model.
How Do I Make Learning Personal?
1) Build Meaningful Relationships With Your Students:
The photo below is me working with a student on her student-directed, interest-driven project. Every element of her project was designed with her interests, goals, strengths, weaknesses, etc. in mind. She is dissecting several marine organisms. Her interests and career goals at the time revolved around marine biology.
In the past our students have completed personal learning plans in Powerpoint format. The photos below illustrate a few of the slides. The students then hang onto this personal learning plan and revisit it with their teachers often. Below is a snapshot of an old personal learning plan created by Jennings Community School. I have my own version of a PLP that is included in my PBL bundle mentioned above.
You are likely wondering when in the world you're going to have time for all of this in addition to teaching content. A personal learning plan meeting with each kid, multiple times per session? Yikes. This is a valid concern. You will do this with student-directed learning. Hear me out!
2) Organize Learning Experiences That Are Personal In Nature:
Make learning personal by organizing and facilitating learning activities that give students voice and choice; student-directed learning in other words. Student-directed project-based-learning is a wonderful tool for making learning personal. There are many points in the PBL process where students have choice. Students can design their own projects based on their interests. If you don't have the flexibility to allow students to choose their own topics, students can still design the rest of their projects.
For example, if you need to cover the topic of photosynthesis, students can still choose how they will gather information, how they will demonstrate learning, and what authentic audience they will share it with. One student may want to work on tech literacy, so may choose to demonstrate learning by creating an animation. Another student might prefer to work with their hands, so chooses to demonstrate learning by creating a moving model.
All of my project-based learning resources in my TpT store are designed to give students choice while still providing structure. My project-based learning bundle and instruction manual is a great way to start student-directed project-based learning. This bundle also includes my personal learning plan. You could also try out my PBL Tool Kit if you have specific topics you would like to create projects around.
You are the facilitator of student-directed learning activities, not the director. You are guiding, offering feedback, providing community connections, etc. This gives you the freedom to work the room, talk with students independently, have PLP meetings, and even have that organic, casual dialogue with individuals or small groups of students. By cutting down on lecture and lesson planning, you free up time to build relationships with students and create learning plans that best suit the interests, needs, and goals of each child.
Alfie Kohn said "If the child is off-task...maybe the child isn't the problem...,maybe it's the task." Transitioning from a didactic pedagogy to student-led personal learning wouldn't be an easy transition. Change is hard. But with the right tools, support, and determination, you can do it, and it will be worth the time and energy. You will start to see some of those "behavioral issues" disappear that likely stem from boredom and confusion. You will have students that have lost their love of learning somewhere along the way find that passion again.
Thanks for stopping by. If you ever decide to make learning personal in your classroom through student-directed learning, I'd love to hear from you. How did it go? What have been some challenges? What has gone well?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
A few weeks ago I received a private message from a follower on Instagram asking me where she could find my project-based learning resource, "Plan a Trip Around the World". I knew that she homeschooled her preschooler. This particular TpT resource, like all of my resources, is geared toward high schoolers. My follower was confused, understandably, because the cover photo of this product is a picture of my toddler daughter observing a massive globe, not a teenager. I messaged her back to tell her that the product as is wouldn't be a good resource for a preschooler, but could be modified to work for younger audiences by simply changing the language and level of guidance. I would make it my personal mission to adapt it to work for a 5-year-old. And I did. I knew it could be done because it's project-based learning, and PBL works for everyone!
Every learner is their own person. I have found project-based learning to not only be the most effective way to accommodate for the unique qualities of every child, age and skill level included, but to celebrate those unique qualities.
(scroll to the bottom to check out my preschoolers trip around the world.)
Who Can Benefit From Project-Based Learning?
The beauty of project-based learning is that it's not designed for or exclusive to any particular learner. I often get comments about my resources and how wonderful they would be for the "gifted and talented". I don't doubt that, but they are certainly not limited to "gifted and talented" students.
Project-based learning ALSO works for learners that are behind because of personal setbacks along the road. It works well for learners in large classrooms and small, in traditional and alternative learning environments, for those learning from home, and for those outschooling, unschooling, and worldschooling! Project-based learning works for the young, the old, the artistic, the scientific, English language learners, the introverts, the extroverts, the kinesthetic, the visual, the dreamers and idealists, the concrete thinkers, the abstract thinkers, those that have experienced trauma, and so on and so on. This is true when the projects are student-directed; when learners have choice.
How Does Project-Based Learning Accommodate All Learners?
When I say project-based learning "works for" all learners, what I mean is that project-based learning effectively promotes deeper learning of content, independent thinking, and the development of 21st-century skills for all. The result of project-based learning is passionate, lifelong learners. All children have access to the same learning opportunities. The difference is in how each student develops the skills and knowledge. Learning experiences, or projects in this case, are designed by each individual student to accommodate their unique needs and qualities.
This is how it works:
Project-based learning, when child-directed, allows learners to design projects around their interests, learning styles, skill levels, strengths, goals, and more. The elements of project-based learning include a driving question, research sub-categories or questions, the use of community experts, an innovative final product, and authentic presentations. Some project-based instructors also have their students create their own rubrics (see my student-generated rubric and criteria word bank).
Each of these elements presents a new opportunity for student choice. Each student can choose their experts, their research method, their final product, and who they will share it with. If one student prefers hands-on learning experiences, for example, they may gather information on their topic through interviews and shadowing experiences. Another student may really like to read, so may research their topic by perusing publications. One student may love to draw and may choose to demonstrate knowledge by illustrating a children's book. Another student may have set a goal of improving their writing, so may choose to demonstrate an understanding of the same concept by writing a research paper.
The elements of project-based learning make adapting and modifying curriculum to fit the needs of each unique learner seamless. As a bonus, the learning experiences are fun for the students because the students have a role in creating those experiences.
***I highly recommend going back through posts from my project-based learning series to learn more about PBL if you haven't already or are not that familiar with how it works.
How Do I Implement Authentic, Student-Directed PBL?
My advisory students do something similar to "passion projects" throughout the year - independent, student-directed, project-based learning. Each student determines their own project topic based on interests, they choose their own experts, decide their outcomes, and many even design their own assessments.
This type of project-based learning is useful and common in homeschool environments, project-based schools, advisory programs, alternative schools, elementary classrooms, and even large traditional learning environments where educators are given the support and flexibility to be creative with their teaching.
How Do I Implement PBL in a Subject-Specific Learning Environment?
I also teach subject-specific seminars, which are also project-based. That type of project-based learning would be facilitated by educators that teach subject units, such as a high school history or biology teacher. To accommodate all learners in this scenario, where you have specific topics and learning objectives in mind, you present the topic or driving question, and your students design their own projects around that theme. They would have choice in some or all of the other PBL elements - how to gather information, which experts to use, how they will demonstrate learning, and who they will share their final product with.
Some teachers will deliver "project-based learning" in a way that doesn't give students choice. The teacher chooses the experts and makes all of the arrangements. The teacher assigns a specific final product, such as a research paper, to ALL students. This is technically still project-based learning, but this approach does not accommodate the needs of diverse learners. It also puts a lot on you. Student-directed PBL takes all learners into consideration. Without student choice, project-based learning is just more teacher-centered pedagogy, which is fine if you're not interested in modifying curriculum to fit the needs of all students. I assume you are interested in that, however, if you're reading this post.
Trip Around the World Project by C.S. (5-year-old)
As I said earlier, I have a follower who was hoping one of my high school resources would work well for her preschooler - planning a trip around the world. By adjusting the expectations, modifying the level of guidance, and offering the 5-year-old choice (in this case my son), this mission was accomplished! Check it out:
The first strip of photos below shows my 5-year-old son doing a modified version of my "Plan a Trip Around the World" PBL project. The photo strip below that one is the same project, the one in my TpT store, completed by older students.
My child gained so much from this project. The project integrated content, helped my child develop essential skills appropriate for him at this time in his life, gave him voice and choice, and pumped him up because the project was designed around his unique needs and interests.
For student-directed project-based learning resources, check out my TpT store, 25% on all products today only. If you are a beginner, start with my PBL Bundle and Implementation Guide. For templates that guide through the student-directed project-based learning process on ANY topic, check out my Project-Based Learning Tool Kit.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
I almost failed out of my freshman year of college. I struggled to stay afloat academically, with grades that nearly put me on academic probation. I did well in high school, so why were the same efforts inadequate in college? I studied for my college exams, wrote the papers, prepared for debates. I did everything I thought I was supposed to do. Something was amiss, and I wasn't sure what that thing was.
One day I got a test back from my conservation bio teacher, one that I was certain I aced. This class WAS my major after all. I failed the test miserably. But why? I studied all night for this test. I went to talk with my professor about my score. She told me that I would never make it in the field of biology if I didn't change my approach. My answers to the questions on her test were not what she was looking for. She wanted me to be able to show her that I understood the material by applying the concepts to real-world situations. I needed the skills to be able to look deeper than theory alone, and apply theory to real conservation issues. It wasn't enough to memorize facts and regurgitate them on a test. I needed to know the content, as well as be able to problem solve in an unpredictable environment, to think critically and creatively, to be able to locate information when the answer wasn't right in front of me, and be able to adjust my thinking when thrown a bogie, because that is the reality of this career and life in general.
I developed some of the skills I needed as I went through college and was thus able to pull myself out of my college rut. I did this through trial and error, a lot of hard work, mentorships with professors, asking a lot of questions, reading books about my field outside of the required readings, and taking on independent studies and research experiences that were not required for my degree. I had to seek out these learning opportunities, they weren't handed to me, which is an important skill in itself. I resented my college professor for a long time for suggesting that I might not make it in the field of conservation. Now I thank her. She changed my path and my life in the best possible way.
My story is almost 20 years old, and it still applies. Today more than ever, in fact, in a rapidly evolving world where information is readily accessible, skills are as essential as content, arguably more. Twenty first century learners need a combination of content knowledge and skills. People often ask if my students, experiential learners, go off to succeed in college and their careers. The answer is a resounding yes, because our curriculum is heavily skills focused. They problem-solve their way through tough college assignments and exams. They are resourceful and observant. They know how to identify problems, brainstorm solutions, and find information. They know HOW to learn. They have developed the skills to persevere through the realities of college, their careers, and their lives in general.
The skills I am referring to are often called soft skills, the 4 C's, 21st-century skills, or at my school, transformational outcomes. These transformational outcomes are at the forefront of our mission, teaching philosophy, and even every activity. The good news is that there are a lot of learning activities that organically foster skill development. You can also make those "skills" part of your daily lexicon. Give these skills whatever term you desire, 21st-century skills, for example, and bring attention to them often, before every activity, in the goal-making process, throughout learning experiences, and at the reflection and assessment phase. Create learning activities AROUND the skills, and the content knowledge will naturally follow.
For more details on the benefits and value of 21st-century skill building, check out some past posts by clicking the "21st-Century Skills" category to your right.
How to Add 21st-Century Skills to Your Curriculum
Bring skill-building to light right from the start. Educators can and should make goals part of the process for any learning activity. My project-based learning resources, particularly my Tool Kit and PBL bundle, include goal writing in the project-development phase. Encourage students to create at least one goal per activity that is skills-based.
Ex: I will work on communication and collaboration skills by contacting at least one community expert for this project to shadow or interview.
2) Learning Experiences:
Growing in 21st-century skills is far less likely to occur as a result of lecture, worksheets, packets, and other teacher-centered learning activities. I talked with a parent the other day that defended worksheets with repetitive math problems. He said, “well it’s practice right?” My answer was that that depends on what it is he would like his son practicing? What he would be practicing is rote memorization, a strategy that might result in the "correct" answers, but not necessarily an understanding of the concepts. Rote memorization is unnecessary and ineffective if deep learning is dominant objective.
There is a plethora of teaching methods and learning activities out there that emphasize content AND promote 21st-century skill building, an ideal combination of outcomes. You don't need to choose content or skill building. Take them both on by trying some of these tactics.
My TpT store is loaded with resources that promote 21st-century skill building through student-directed, experiential learning. These resources are designed to make sense in any learning environment - the classroom, at home, in your backyard, or traveling around the globe.
Work 21st-century skills into any assessment. Rubrics are great assessment tools that can include relevant skills as an assessment category such as public speaking, use of new tech, creativity, etc. My generic project-based learning rubric includes skills categories as well as content. My student-generated project-based rubric leaves room for self-directed learners to add their own assessment criteria. Students would consider their goals made in the design phase of the project as a category in their self-generated rubric.
Reflecting is an essential part of the experiential learning process. If students are making goals about 21st-century skills, those goals aren’t relevant unless they’re revisited and reflected upon. Include reflection opportunities in as many learning experiences as you can, experiential or not. All of my resources have a reflection piece.
There are many ways to build 21st-century skills. Life in itself is the best learning tool, which is clear from my personal story above. Because I wasn’t given the opportunities in high school to build these important transformational skills, I had to figure out how to so on my own. Give learners an advantage, a head start, by making 21st-century skill building the norm in your curriculum. Help students build the skills they need to succeed in their academic, career, and personal lives as they relate to the 21st-century. This is not the same world that it was 100, 50, or even 20 years ago. Give them the tools to adapt as the world continues to evolve.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
I talk about experiential learning a lot in my life. It's in the name of my blog and my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I consider "experiential educator" to be my job title and path of focus. "Experiential learning" is strongly built into my daily lexicon and philosophy of education. I get a lot of inquiries about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum, especially in a traditional learning environment. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components. There isn't really any bad news other than there are some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
The Instagram hashtag, #experientiallearning, is loaded with photos of company team- building retreats, groups hiking, traveling, or digging around in the dirt. One common misconception is that experiential learning has to happen outdoors. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be. Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors.
I worked at an experiential high school for almost 10 years. Although we had a travel program and provided daily authentic experiences for students, 90% of my time was spent in the building, in my classroom. Don't use the fact that you're confined to your classroom as an excuse for not providing experiential learning opportunities to your learners. If you're a homeschooler, you have no excuses! ;)
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term experiential learning is in association with corporate team building activities. Experiential learning in the world of education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can do experiential learning starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Components of Experiential Learning
1. Students are actively involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as a science lab that includes a recipe to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean they are involved in the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student, that learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, and embrace failure and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-led.
2. Students have the freedom and support to make mistakes, and outright fail at times:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners. STEM, STEAM, and maker education, among others, are experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these activities can be implemented in any learning environment, inside and out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting and alternative setting.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges for an experiential learning resource that welcomes mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The experience is personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student.
Student-led project-based learning encompasses every element of experiential learning when implemented correctly, but it's also the easiest way to make learning personalized in my opinion. Check out past posts on project-based learning here if you missed them. If you want to incorporate experiential learning into your curriculum, especially if you are confined to a classroom, project-based learning is a great place to start. Check out some of my PBL resources here.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my PBL Bundle and Implementation guide. If you're ready to dive right into student-directed PBL, I would recommend my PBL Tool Kit.
4. Students see a connection between content and the real world:
Connecting an activity with real-world context helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what their learning applies to life. That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help learners develop the skills that are pertinent to life in the 21st-century.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. It can also be done beyond the walls of the classroom, in the community, or right in the classroom. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students can see purpose in the activity:
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The experience is student-directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Check out my student-directed learning series for more info.
All of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies.
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning. They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
Bonus: Use the community as a resource:
Community outreach is a huge plus when it comes to experiential learning. It might mean bringing students out of the classroom to utilize a community resource, or inviting community experts into your classroom. You could bring community members in as speakers, helpers, or teachers. Utilizing community experts in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Experiential Learning in the Classroom and Beyond
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for.
Go through the checklist with a favorite activity to see if it's experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential. The outcome is learners that have a lifelong passion for learning and actually understand and absorb the content.
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences. Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences. But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners.
Start with any student-directed learning activity. All of my resources are child-led and are designed in a way that makes implementation seamless. Personalization, authentic/real-world connections, purpose, student choice, and reflections are all a part of each experience.
Good luck to you as you launch into the new school year!
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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.