Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
I have been on a project-based learning posting spree this summer in hopes of inspiring some movement in that direction. Up to this point I've written a post on each specific component of PBL, the benefits, tips and trick and now the "how to". For those of you gearing up for the upcoming school year, consider adding project-based learning to your curriculum. Start strong right away in the fall! For those of you that do year-round school, unschooling, world schooling, outschooling, and every other type of "schooling" it's never too late to start PBL. All you need is the right tools and the confidence. This post will give you that confidence, as will time, consistent reflection, and willingness to adapt and modify as you go.
Not long ago my children and I got on a cheese-making kick. It all started from a simple question: "Where does cheese come from, Mom?" We hit up the library, took a look at children's books on the subject, checked out some cheese-making cookbooks, met with a cattle farmer, visited a creamery, and even got to meet a one-day-old calf. My son learned about the process of turning milk into cheese. He learned about the properties of milk and how heat and time impact the outcome of the cheese. The number of concepts involved in an activity like this is endless and could be modified for all learners of all ages and skill levels if PBL is the approach. After gathering information we made cheese, failed, adjusted, and made more cheese, a learning experience in itself. My daughter and I used the cheese that we made to make cannolis and pizza, which we served at a community gathering.
This is project-based learning - asking a question, learning through experience, creating an authentic final product and sharing that information with a real-world, relevant audience. A simple question led to a full blown PBL experience for a 5 and 2-year-old. I have spent the past 10 years applying this same concept with middle and high school students. Project-based learning works for everyone. That is one reason I stand by it. I am an advocate for integrated, community-based, authentic, experiential learning opportunities for all. Project-based learning encompasses all four.
Introducing Student-Led Project-Based Learning
If you are homeschooler, a teacher doing an entire course on passion projects, an authentic project-based educator, etc., where you have flexibility to give your students choice in subject and topic, your first step will be to begin to understand EACH student and who they are as individuals - their interests, goals, long-term pathway, skills, strengths, hopes and dreams, etc. - to help them develop and design personalized projects. Students ask the question and design their own projects based on their interests.
You can learn about your students in a variety of ways. I have each of my students do a personal learning plan that includes goals, interests, project-ideas, etc. You can also have students start with an interest survey. Check out my free download here. After students have shared interests and brainstormed project topic ideas, move onto the steps written below.
For subject-based instructors that do not have the flexibility to allow students to choose their own topics, you can choose the main ideas for them. Students design their projects around that given topic. I teach seminars throughout the year on specific subjects. These content specific seminars are still project-based. I choose the project topics, my students choose how they will gather information, demonstrate learning, and share new skills and knowledge. This allows students to take something that is subject-specific and make it multidisciplinary. Once a topic has been established, your students will go through the following steps, and you will facilitate the process.
Project-Based Learning in 7 Steps
Once students have a project topic, whether determined by the teacher or the student, continue on with the following steps. An important thing to note is that these steps don't necessarily have to go in this order. Step one is an important first step, but the others may overlap.
Step 1: Project Design
My own children went to storytime at the local library. One of the books was about how cheese comes from milk. My son wondered how to make cheese from cow's milk, the driving question, and a project was born.
At this time students will complete a project proposal which includes a driving question, research categories or questions, a final product plan, a community expert plan, and an authentic presentation plan. You can all of this and more from my Project-Based Learning Toolkit. This kit includes all templates essential for implementing project-based learning on any topic.
If you choose to have students create their own assessments, this is a great time for them to do that. Check out last week's post on student-led assessments.
Take a look at PBL rubrics available in my store including self-generated.
Step 2: Research, Collaborations, and Learning Activities
After making a project plan we (me mostly, as my son is 5) researched how to make cheese from cow's milk. We went to the library to check out more books and took home some cookbooks with cheese recipes. We attended a community event for children where he was able to talk directly with a farmer AND meet her one-day old calves. He talked with several chefs about different kinds of cheese and how the cooking process differs among them. Finally, we made several rounds of cheese together.
Once students have a project proposal completed and approved by you or an approval committee they can begin their research. An approval committee is a small group of teachers/students/community members, etc. that approves projects. The purpose of this is a greater flow of ideas from various perspectives.
Project research will be on the driving question and categories and/or questions written in student project proposals. Set aside PBL time for students to work freely on this research.
At this time, student-led project-based learners and you, the facilitator, will find and contact community experts and arrange for interviews, meetings, shadowing experiences, etc. Learners would work with their community experts in any number of ways either inviting those experts into the classroom or meeting with those experts outside of the school walls or home. If you are able to bring your students to the source, wonderful. If not, bring the source to you!
Students will also take this time to review a variety primary resources such as books, publications, articles, and more, as well as participate in community events or activities that would deepen understanding of the topic. One of the major roles of a project-based educator is to organize authentic learning experiences relevant to the project topic at hand.
For tips and tricks on using the community as a resource in PBL, go back to this post.
Step 3: Progress Evaluations
Throughout the project process students will self-assess and peer-assess using a generic project assessment or the student-generated assessment. As I said earlier, I typically stick with rubrics. You can organize this process in a variety of ways. One option is to outline checkpoints, times at which students will self and/or peer assess. You could also have regular project circles, which is when the whole group gets together to share progress and offer feedback and suggestions to each other.
You can also ask that community experts involved in the project assess student progress periodically. Invite them to walk the room during designated PBL time. They offer an authentic lens. You can also organize student/teacher check-ins throughout the project process as well.
Step 4: Authentic Final Product Assembly
Making cheese and creating a video tutorial on the experience will take more time and effort than putting together a poster board on how to make cheese. Students would have to actually make the cheese, get it on video, edit the footage, and make a professional final product to be shared with the community. Give students ample class time to work on creating high quality final products. Peruse the room offering consistent feedback as they work. My children and I made cheese, several rounds of it because we didn't get ideal results the first few times. We also made recipes with our cheese, pizza and cannolis, and assembled platters for serving samples.
If you go back to earlier posts in my project-based learning series you will find several that mention authentic final products. This is how students assemble information and demonstrate learning. It might be a blog, an advertisement, a documentary, photojournal, etc. For more details on final products check out Key Elements to Project-Based Learning. You can also check out my post 100 Final Product Ideas for Project-Based Learners for final product ideas.
Students can begin creating their final products at any point in the project process. If the final product is authentic, which it should be in order to be considered project-based, creating the final product will take some time.
Step 5: Authentic Presentations
My children shared their cheese making experience, along with samples of the cheese that they made and recipes they made using their cheese, at a neighborhood event.
One element of project-based learning that separates it from other teaching approaches is the authentic presentation piece. In short, an authentic presentation is one where students share their new skills and knowledge with an audience that is relevant and can benefit in some way from the information or the final product itself. For details on this go back to my post on Authentic Learning.
Once students have completed their projects and assembled their final products, they can share that product or information with their authentic audience.
Step 6: Reflections
After students give their authentic presentation they will write a final reflection. The reflection piece is critical. They will not only look back on the content and what they've learned, but the experience in itself. They will analyze their own strengths and weaknesses throughout the process and build on that moving forward.
My project-based learning bundle and toolkit both include a reflection template. Scroll down for links.
Step 7: Final Evaluations
Once students have completed projects, presented to an authentic audience, and reflected on the experience, they will present to you, the class, and if you wish, their community experts. Audience members can provide feedback and if you wish, you may complete their final rubric at this time.
I prefer to meet separately with each student after their presentations to go over their rubrics one-on-one. The students bring a self-evaluated rubric and their reflection to the meeting. We go over it together, determine credit, and make goals for the next project.
Project-Based Learning Resources
In the future I hope to start an online professional development course on student-led project-based learning. If you are interested in something like that now, I'd love to hear from you. I'd also love to hear updates from those of you that decide to give PBL a shot either this upcoming school year or with your own children at home.
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.