Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
I'm several posts into my student-directed learning series now, and I'm finding that I may never reach an end. There is so much to say about student-directed learning. Generally speaking, when learning activities are truly student-directed, classrooms are transformed as are students. Student-directed learning, in short, gives students choice, voice, and autonomy. This approach to learning provides students with opportunities to develop important 21st-century skills, grow in knowledge, and develop the tools for lifelong learning.
The three learning tools of focus on this post do not necessarily have to be student-directed. They can all fall under teacher-directed if the teacher is making most of the decisions and directing the experiences. Guiding is much different than directing (check out my post to see what teachers do in a student-directed learning environment.) I chose the three learning activities that I did, not because they have to be student-directed in order to work, but because they have the framework in place to make student-directed learning possible and easy to implement. The following activities are great ways to start if you are looking to transform your classroom (and students) by way of student-directed learning.
3 Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools
1. Project-Based Learning (PBL):
I have written a lot of posts about project-based learning because it has been my dominant teaching tool for the past 11 years. Project-based learning is when students investigate a topic or driving question, create an end product to demonstrate learning, and present the final product. What distinguishes project-based learning from other pedagogies or projects in general is that the community plays a large role in the research process, end products must be innovative, and presentations must be authentic, meaning the information gathered or the product itself should meet and impact a relevant audience. Self and peer-assessment is also important. For details on how to start student-directed project-based learning and for PBL examples, refer back to some of my other posts on PBL.
So then how do you make PBL student-directed? Give students choice in as many ways as you can. Students can choose their own topic and learning objectives if you have the flexibility to allow that. If you are restricted to teaching specific topics, then choose the topic and allow student choice in other aspects of the project process. Students can choose how they will gather information, which community experts they will use and how they will utilize their expertise. Students can choose how they will demonstrate learning such as creating a comic or building a website. Students can and should choose their authentic audience. Students can even choose their own grading criteria by writing their own rubric or designing their own formative assessment.
Teacher-directed project-based learning would mean you would be doing all of that work for your students. Not only is that a lot on you, but learners are then robbed of the opportunity to develop those important skills themselves such as networking, communication, and collaboration.
Most of my TpT store is filled with various project-based learning resources. Many of my PBL resources start with a specific topic but give students choice in every other way. I also have a project-based learning toolkit that provides all of the guiding materials necessary for student-directed PBL that can be personalized to any topic.
The photo on the left is one part of the end product of a large and ongoing student business project. The picture is of skate decks for his skateboard company, all designs done by students. The photo on the right is of a student taking photos as a way of demonstrating learning. Photography was a passion of his, so taking photos to document his project was his choice.
2. Problem-Based Learning (PrBL):
I love problem-based learning for so many reasons, but one is the creative solutions that students come up with. Kids come into this activity with a fresh lens! Problem-based learning is when students examine real-world problems. They investigate the problem, research existing solutions, develop novel solutions, and propose a comprehensive plan to mitigate or eliminate the problem completely.
Again, problem-based learning has the bones to be student-directed as long as students direct the experience through a series of choices. I often introduce a problem and then have students choose how they will examine the issue, who they will talk to, resources they will utilize, collaborators, etc. They can also choose how they propose their plan.
True student-directed problem-based learning would be allowing students to choose the real-world problem they want to investigate and solve. This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires certain skills such as making observations about the world around them or recognizing when there is a problem at all. Students will get better at these skills the more opportunities they have to build on them.
I just started a problem-based learning product line on my TpT site. I have a problem-based learning toolkit that provides the framework and guiding materials to do student-directed problem-based learning from start to finish.
I do a lot of problem-based learning activities on environmental science because I am a science teacher. I give them a water pollution problem about fertilizers (available in my store), and organized a field trip to a nearby organic farm to talk with the farmer about how she grows crops sustainably.
3. Inquiry-Based Learning:
I use student-directed inquiry-based learning quite often because I am a science teacher. It's very fitting for science concepts, as one method of investigation is experimentation. Inquiry-based learning, however, is multidisciplinary. It can be used in any learning environment, for any subject, and any unit (if that's what you're looking for.) Inquiry is simply asking a question and investigating it through whatever means available and effective.
Again, inquiry-based learning is not defined by giving students choice. It falls on a spectrum, as I said in my last post. Feel free to go back one week to see my post on student-directed inquiry-based learning for details on how to guide inquiry activities. If the teacher asks the question, designs the investigation, and directs everything in between, then it is teacher-directed inquiry. Open inquiry is the opposite end of the spectrum where students observe the world around them, ask their own questions, and direct their own investigations. Guided inquiry lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
I have a few scientific open inquiry activities in my TpT store. I also have an inquiry-based learning toolkit with the guiding materials needed for student-directed open inquiry.
These photos are of my own children doing an inquiry activity on conduction. My daughter observed that a metal statue that she touched was cold and asked why. Her observation; her question. I guided the experiment. I do student-directed learning activities with my high schoolers, my preschooler, and even my toddler. It is an effective learning approach for all ages, skill levels, backgrounds, etc.
Of course there are other activities that can be student-directed, but these specific approaches to learning have worked well for me. Other popular learning activities right now that could be student-directed include STEM, STEAM, and making. You could even take something like reading and make it student-directed. Let students choose their own books to read and demonstrate learning in a way that works for them. I see lot teachers doing this on social media.
Student-directed learning is an exaggerated version of differentiated learning. Instead of "choice time" where students have choice for specific chunks of the day, or genius hour where students get one hour a week to choose a topic to study, or splitting kids up based on skill levels certain times of the day, transition to student-directed learning where students can choose to learn in ways that work for them for most or all of the day, not part of it.
If student-directed learning is simply giving students choices then you should be doing that with your students. You just should. I know that's blunt. You can still teach to the standards, you can still have structure, and should absolutely have high expectations of your students. All you have to do is give choice.
Project-based learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry-based learning are great ways to start doing that, and they are taking the educational world by storm. Implementing these types of learning experiences is not out of the question anymore. I got my teaching license 11 years ago. The teaching program that I was in insisted on heavy training in inquiry-based learning. The school where I was trained, the U of M in Mpls, is not ultra-progressive, the teaching program is not an alternative program, and student-directed learning activities like inquiry-based learning are not radical ideas. Not now, and not 11 years ago. Get on board if you haven't already.
I spoke with another teacher the other day that said her school is pushing project-based learning on her. She said she was scared, and I completely understood her sentiment. We as teachers are already spread thin. To take a teaching portfolio that she had spent her entire career developing to then be told that she won't be using that any longer is a blow. It sort of feels like starting over. Like going back to student teaching! Yikes. No one wants that. Just know that you don't need to start over. You just need to facilitate instead of direct. Your expertise, knowledge, network, etc. are incredibly valuable. Take the plunge, especially if your district is giving their full support. Keep coming back to this blog for tips on making the transition. You can do it, and I'm here to help!
P.S. I do have a bundle that includes all of the student-directed tool kits I mentioned above (PBL, PrBL, and inquiry-based learning.)
I would love to hear about any student-directed learning activities that you do with your students, or how your PBL, PrBL, and inquiry-based learning activities are working out for your students.
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.