Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
This post is part of a series on student-directed learning. If you are unsure of what student-directed learning is or what a student-directed learning environment looks like, go back and peruse previous posts. In short, student-directed learning gives students choice throughout the learning experience, and the learning environment should accommodate those choices.
Imagine you walk into a classroom. You look around and see students spread out around the room. Some students are quietly lounging in bean bag chairs, reading or writing. In the center of the room you see a small group of students chatting around a large table. You find students sitting at desks, working away on computers. One of the students is creating an animation and another student is writing an email. You scan the room and see a couple of students watching a live webinar streaming from Facebook.
This is my classroom. This is what my student-directed learning environment looks like for much of the day (not all of it). Our students lead their education through student-directed project-based learning. For details on student-directed PBL, go back to this post. Each student in the example above is working on some component of a student-directed project. One student decides he wants to gather information for his project by reading books on the topic. The small group of students chatting around the table is brainstorming how best to reach their authentic audience. Another student is creating an animation as her final product to demonstrate learning. The student writing emails is connecting with community experts to utilize for his project. The small group of students watching the live webinar is using this modern technology to learn about their project topic.
Each student is learning in their own way, at their own pace. They may be driven by the same general learning objective that you set for them, such as a standard that needs to be met (or not), but they meet those learning objectives by making a series of personal decisions based on their passions and needs.
The question then is where is the teacher in all of this? If the teacher isn't giving information through direct instruction or providing a structured lesson plan or activity, then what is the teacher even doing there? Teachers wear A LOT of hats. ALL educators know this and experience this, regardless of pedagogy or philosophy. Student-directed teachers still manage the classroom, provide resources, scaffold, organize learning activities, provide input, and even teach students how to direct their own learning. What changes in a student-directed learning environment is your role. You are far from obsolete. You are a facilitator of learning. You guide and support, you challenge, you give feedback.
What does the teacher do in student-directed learning environment?
1. Help students learn how to direct their own learning -
A lot of students have spent the bulk of their education being given information through direct instruction. Teachers that want to transition to a more student-directed learning environment are going to have to undo the mindset that student's have developed over the years that they're going to be given the "correct answers." Student-directed learning requires critical thinking, problem-solving, and failing at times! Students may be uncomfortable with that at first. I have many resources in my Experiential Learning Depot store that guide teachers and students through this transition by way of project-based learning, one of which is a PBL bundle and manual.
2. Get to know your students -
In order to serve your students effectively in a student-directed learning environment, you'll need to get to know who they are, what they're interested in, their learning styles, their passions and more. It is very personalized. Knowing your students on this level will be critical to when you're helping them design projects or work through learning activities. The animation example that I used above was an actual project that one of my students did. She turned a subject that she found boring, neurotransmission, and made it more exciting and engaging by creating an animation that demonstrated this concept. I knew she was a creator and helped her design her project around that passion. Relationship building is huge and sometimes you have to work at it.
3. Guide students through the process of developing learning experiences that are challenging, authentic, and innovative -
Just because students make choices in student-directed learning doesn't mean they're always going to be great decisions! They need your guidance, expertise, connections, and advice. If you know your students, you will know if they're not challenging themselves, if their project design doesn't align with their goals, if they could expand their authentic audience, or if their project plan just doesn't match up with their learning objectives.
My students design their projects using a project proposal. I walk the room while they hash out their project plans, check their proposals, offer suggestions, and sign off on them. I have that blank PBL project proposal and other helpful student-directed PBL templates in my store in a bundle called "PBL Toolkit".
The picture above shows one of my students learning about history through photography. Getting to know this student I discovered she was interested in photography. She needed history credit so she decided to stage major events in history, take and edit photos, and write a description of the events. She eventually developed an entire gallery of recreated historical events. She CHOSE her final product, a way of demonstrating learning that was of interest to her. I guided her through this process. I was so impressed by her results that I created a guided PBL project around this idea and it's available in my store - History Through Artistic Expression.
4. Help students create and manage personal learning plans -
A personal learning plan is a great tool for student-directed learning. It is a plan that includes personal goals, interests, learning styles, project ideas, deadlines, etc. It can really include whatever you feel helps guide students. It's helpful to pull that plan out when students are designing projects or learning experiences. My job as facilitator is to help them write this plan and modify it as they learn and grow. My personal learning plan template is also included in my PBL Toolkit.
5. Assist students with finding resources -
I think my biggest job as a facilitator is to help students find accurate and relevant information, connect with community experts, gather materials, and recognize learning opportunities. Student-directed learning really teaches kids how to be resourceful, especially if you do project-based learning. If you don't know what I mean by that, go back to my previous post on the principles of pbl. I taught a biotechnology seminar a while ago. One of my students was really interested in algae as a biofuel. I connected him with the researchers at the algae lab of the U of M, and my student took it from there. I modeled how to find an authentic learning experience relevant to his interests and learning objectives, he learned from that, and eventually was able to find these opportunities for himself.
At the time when the Syrian refugee crisis reached its peak, a group of my students chose to raise money by having a holiday pie fundraiser. This was their plan for their student-directed community action project that I assigned. Also in my store. I helped them locate resources, in this case, ingredients for pies, by connecting with and arranging deals with local orchards.
6. Provide input and feedback -
Giving students consistent feedback is not only critical for growth and improvement, but students need it, desire it, and ask for it. Because they're not getting immediate and concrete feedback, such as a red check mark over an incorrect answer to a worksheet, they can feel a little lost at times. It is your job as the facilitator to observe their learning process, give them pointers, ask that they go back to the drawing board, etc. I have my students complete self-assessments periodically throughout the learning experience. In most cases with my students it's a rubric for project-based learning. I then go over the assessment with the student one-on-one. Formative assessments or quick end of the day reflections are great also, and are a little more efficient. Find a system that works for you.
7. Organize events that showcase student work to the community-
There are so many interesting and creative ways to present final products to an authentic audience. One great default presentation option for students is to put final products on display at an organized event such as an exhibition night. I have a project in my store that is all about heritage. Every year my students complete this project and then we host a multicultural night for friends, family, and community members. Part of my job as a facilitator in a student-directed learning environment is to plan these events. I do, and I love it!
8. Organize learning activities and sparks -
Not all time in my school learning environment is spent working independently on projects. We have group discussions, we do group projects, we go on field trips, do service learning, travel, watch the news together, invite speakers, host events, and do team building activities. I even do direct-instruction at times. I'm not above that. I just limit it as much as possible. Many of these learning activities are connected to student-projects in some way, but some of them aren't. Some of them are simply done to inform students, start dialog about an important issue or concept, or ignite a spark in a student or two. A huge part of my job is to find, plan, and coordinate these learning opportunities for students.
The photo all the way to the left is a speaker, Dr. Fisch, a Holocaust survivor and artist. A coworker of mine arranged for him to come in to speak to the school. The photo in the middle is a field trip to the Wildlife Science Center. I brought students there to spark interest and gather information for their endangered species projects (look for this free resource in my store). The photo on the far right is of a student at a class team building event that I arranged.
9. Provide students with the tools to be successful student-directed learners -
Student-directed learning does not have to be chaotic. You can and should give structure. It is your job as their instructor to provide the tools they need to direct their own learning. Project-proposals, parameters and deadlines, guidelines for project reflections, graphic organizers, formative assessments, etc. are all great examples of devices that will help your students transition to great student-directed learners. They will need a system, at least right away. In time the hope is that they can become less dependent on you, as throughout the year they will be developing the skills to work more independently.
10. Everything else that comes with territory of being a teacher -
You wear a lot of hats regardless of teaching style. The same goes for teachers in student-directed learning environments. You will always have a student or two that are distracting other students. You will have students that walk in the door with baggage or trauma. You need to manage tardies and absences, and grade and evaluate student work. The list goes on. With student-directed learning, however, some behavioral issues are reduced because students have choice and autonomy. Their learning experiences are based on interest and real-life.
That was long! Thanks for hearing me out. Student-directed learning is powerful and it's worth considering if you don't already use this approach. If you do student-directed learning in your classroom or learning environment, please share about your experience!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
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.