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. Self-led learning experiences, in short, give students choice, voice, and autonomy.
These learning experiences can also be done just about anywhere on earth - in a classroom, remotely, out in the backyard or school yard, on the road, traveling around the world, and more because they are designed around personal interests and circumstances.
My current blog series is focused on experiential learning, and student-direction is an important piece of that. I encourage you to go back and read What is Experiential Learning Anyway? and What is Student-Directed Learning Anyway? before moving on.
There are many ways you can add student-directed learning to your otherwise teacher-directed activities, simply by giving students choice. But to really utilize the benefits of student-directed learning, consider making it your curriculum, not just adding a few opportunities for choice here and there. There are a few very powerful strategies for doing this.
I chose three specific learning activities to mention here, 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 incorporate. Check them out below!
I have tool kits for all of my go-to self-directed learning experiences, including those that I describe in this post (as single units or in a bundle). By signing up for my newsletter, you get a free project assessment e-Portfolio where students can independently manage their own learning outcomes from these self-directed learning experiences.
3 Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools
Before launching into these three teaching strategies, it's important to know that there is a significant amount of overlap between them. Project-based learning and problem-based learning both fall under the umbrella of inquiry experiences. However, there are some inquiry-based learning experiences that ARE NOT PBL or PrBL. So don't limit yourself.
I would also consider project-based learning a type of problem-based learning. They both tackle real-world problems. They differ in process of gathering information and showcasing learning outcomes.
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.
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.
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 the flexibility is there. If you are restricted to teaching specific topics, then choose the topic and allow student choice in all other aspects of the project process (subtopic, research questions, sources, community experts, final product, authentic audience, how to share final product with that audience, etc.)
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.
I have many PBL resources that focus on a specific theme. The guiding materials leave room for student choice in every other way. I also have a project-based learning toolkit, which gives students choice in every facet of the experience. My PBL assessment e-portfolio opt-in gift is the perfect resource for to wrap up and showcase the entirety of these PBL experiences.
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 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):
Problem-based learning is when students examine real-world problems. I implement PrBL by having students investigate a 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.
True student-directed problem-based learning would ask students to identify and choose a problem that they are interested in and want to investigate and solve. This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires specific 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 have a problem-based learning product line in my TpT store with a problem-based learning toolkit for student-directed experiences, as well as theme-based PrBL resources.
I do a lot of problem-based learning activities on environmental science because I am a science teacher. I give students a water pollution problem about fertilizers, and take students 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 concept. Inquiry simply asks a question which students investigate 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. Check out inquiry posts, including how to implement student-directed inquiry-based learning for details.
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.
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, as well as a variety of other inquiry-based learning resources.
Share your student-directed learning experiences with us! Comment on the this post or send me an email anytime at email@example.com!
Several years ago I showed a news segment to my advisory/PBL students about the Syrian refugee crisis. A student of mine approached me after the activity expressing her interest in the topic.
This student chose to design and conduct a project-based learning experience about Syrian refugees. She wrote the driving question for her project, decided to create an interactive, animated timeline to demonstrate the events that led up to the crisis, organized and executed a pie fundraiser to raise money for the cause, and distributed her timeline and marketing materials to neighboring community members to raise awareness and raise some money. All her choices.
What is Student-Directed Learning?
Experiential learning, the focus of this current blog series, is self-directed, one of many elements that distinguishes it from other teaching strategies. Last week's post talks about what experiential learning is exactly. Make sure to check that out.
The Syrian project described above is the epitome of a student-directed learning experience. This student called all the shots from the beginning to the end. I provided guidance, but the learning experience as a whole was designed and managed by her. Student-directed learning by definition involves student choice.
Make STEM, problem-based learning, scientific inquiry, or any other learning experience child-led by giving students opportunities to make choices. They direct, you facilitate.
This post offers suggestions for ways to make project-based learning self-directed. Again, modify any learning experience to give students choice, I just use PBL as an example here because it has been my go-to teaching strategy for 13 years. I highly recommend it. Check out posts from my project-based learning series for more details.
Ways to Make Learning Experiences More Student-Directed
Learning experiences are student-directed when students have choice.
Let students choose...
1. What they want to learn.
It is wonderful if your students have the flexibility to choose ANY topic to study at any given time, but understandably, many of you do not have that option. Standards are an unfortunate hurdle. But don't let that stop you from sneaking in student-directed learning experiences. Your students can have it all - content knowledge and a passion for learning.
One way to get around the standards obstacle is to have students design project-based learning experiences around specific sets of benchmarks. Grab my Student-Directed Tool Kit Bundle (PBL, PrBL, scientific inquiry, & design projects) for guiding materials.
You can also assign guided project-based learning experiences. For example, I have a PBL resource on habitats. Each student chooses one habitat type to study. This channels the students' research around specific parameters or ecological standards, but still gives students choice, boosting that intrinsic motivation factor.
2. Their own learning goals and objectives.
Because learners are unique in their skills, interests, strengths, challenges, and so on, their learning goals will also be unique. Students can and should choose and write their own goals. Knowing how to create tangible goals, manage them, and meet them is a skill that is essential long after graduation.
My personal learning plan is a great way for students to create and manage their goals.
3. How they will gather information.
Some learners love podcasts, others love to read, some enjoy networking with professionals, some enjoy classes, others experimentation, and so on. To control how students research or investigate a concept limits learning potential. True student-directed learning experiences allow learners to determine their avenue(s) of exploration.
If we use the habitats project as an example once again, students are all focused on the same ecological principles, but different habitat types. Insisting that every student use specific books, or even the same expert as everyone else in the class, narrows their reach. Branch out, and better yet, let your students decide how they will learn about the topic, because what works for one student, may not work well for another.
4. Community experts and collaborators.
In many experiential learning activities, project-based learning included, students are encouraged to reach out to community experts for information, expertise, and resources. Make the learning experience student-directed by asking them to identify, locate, and connect with their own community experts.
Choosing which community experts to work with helps students develop communication and collaboration skills, while also getting the most accurate and up-to-date information about the concept at hand.
Check out my free community expert planner.
5. How they will demonstrate learning.
I have found that encouraging learners to decide how they will showcase learning is incredibly impactful. I provide a few final product suggestions to my students, and they either choose from those options or choose their own way of demonstrating learning.
Habitat project students might create topographical maps, a moving diorama, an interactive animation or physical exhibit, a photo journal, a magazine, a portfolio of infographics, etc. I offer suggestions in my resources, including this one, or students can choose their own. Check out my blog post with a laundry list of project-based learning end products for students to choose from. You can also scan these digital final product options!
6. Their authentic audience and method of reaching that audience.
Experiential learning is authentic, meaning, students use and share their outcomes in a meaningful and relevant way. Project-based learning emphasizes authentic presentations rather than simply presenting a final product to the class. Learning outcomes should solve a problem for a relevant audience or impact the community in some way.
For example, a student creates a portfolio of infographics about the habitat that they chose to study. They donate their infographics to a nature center located in the habitat studied to put on display.
Let students choose how they would like to share their new skills and knowledge and who to share it with. Again, my guided project-based learning resources provide authentic presentation suggestions for students to choose from, or the option to choose their own way of sharing.
7. Assessment method and criteria for evaluation.
All students are unique in how they learn, their interests, their career goals, and so much more. Why cast an assessment blanket over every child, especially if the learning experience is personalized by way of student choice?
Give students input on how they are evaluated. If you would like to give a formative assessment, consider offering a few options, each requiring a different skill set than the other. Let students choose which one to complete.
Project-based learning is an experience, so is usually evaluated with a rubric. I have a generic PBL rubric that I use with beginners. In time, students can begin to develop their own rubrics, choosing evaluation criteria based on the details of their projects.
Have students add to and manage their own project-based learning assessment portfolios. They add project descriptions, rubric scores, reflections, standards met, etc. after they have completed each project. By the end of the year they will have a robust portfolio of student-directed learning experiences.
Get that PBL assessment portfolio as a free gift when you subscribe here!
There are so many amazing student-centered learning activities that I see educators implementing such as STEM, project-based learning, problem-based learning, and more. You can teach in a traditional environment and still implement student-directed teaching activities. Start small. If your curriculum is largely teacher-directed right now, consider adding a few student-led learning activities in here and there. See how they go. If that goes well, add more until your entire curriculum is student-directed!
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Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
Most of the inquiries that I get from educators are about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum. 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 are, however, some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
1. Myth: Experiential learning takes place outdoors.
One common misconception is that outdoor learning and experiential learning are interchangeable. 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.
2. Myth: Experiential learning is only for corporate team-building.
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, and the application to learning doesn't stop at team-building.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can learn experientially starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Essential Components of Experiential Learning
The following features are essential to experiential learning. After you have read about the importance of these components, subscribe to Experiential Learning Depot to gain access to a free growing resource library. You will instantly receive an email with a password and instructions to access that library.
In the library you will find an experiential learning activity planner that includes all of the elements of experiential learning identified here. Use it to help design and facilitate experiential learning in your classroom or home learning environment. Good luck!
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. 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:
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're just starting out, I recommend my personalized project-based learning bundle. Pair it with my free project-based learning e-portfolio when you subscribe and you will be well on your way to an experiential classroom!
4. Students See a Connection Between Content and the Real World:
Connecting an activity with real-world problems or ideas 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 they're 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. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students Can See Purpose in the Activity:
Do you ever hear "Why do I need to know this?" You will never hear an experiential educator respond to that question with "you just do" or "sometimes we need to do things we don't like".
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.
The bulk of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed, or at a minimum, student-centered. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT for new resource alerts.
7. Reflect on the Experience:
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.
8. Authentic Learning Experiences:
Make learning authentic by adding experiences that are real and relevant to students. If students are studying the brain, for example, connect with the neurology department of a local university to arrange for a speaker, class visit, to borrow resources, etc.
Utilizing community experts and community resources 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.
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 a favorite activity and fill in the experiential learning planner included in E.L.D.'s free resource library to see if it is experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential.
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.
Good luck! And as always, reach out anytime with questions. I would also love to showcase your experiential learning successes right here! Share your experiences with me anytime.
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How I Came to Be An Experiential Educator
I almost dropped out of teaching school. I don't like to say that because I'm not a quitter. I never have been, but it's the honest truth. I wondered if I could have a full time career doing something that just wasn't sitting right with me. My own experience was telling me that learning comes from direct involvement, but I wasn't observing that in practice.
Here's my story:
I got my undergraduate degree in biology and proceeded to work with environmental protection programs for almost four years following graduation. Education wasn't on my mind at that time. I was dedicated to the world of science and nature.
Working in the field was amazing for so many reasons. I met wonderful people, saw places I wouldn't otherwise have seen, and gained practical experience for a career in environmental science. I learned more about science in three months in the field, immersed in the content, than I did over the course of my lifetime. Content that I studied in college, paired with active involvement in the field, was a powerful learning experience for me.
Several years of working in the field was exhausting, however. I was constantly getting hurt. I literally had a handful of near death experiences, one of which was rolling an ATV down a mountain with me inside, another getting chased down by a nesting female alligator. I'll save the details of those stories for another day.
I felt like my personal life was a revolving door. My coworkers became like family just to go our separate ways after a few months together. All of the jobs were temporary assignments. I was exhausted, hurt, emotionally and physically broken, and I was lonely. I decided enough was enough. It was time to go home.
I went back to my hometown in Minnesota. I applied to get my teaching license at the University of Minnesota, was accepted, and started the program within days of returning home. The program itself was great, but things went downhill when I started my high school student teaching experience.
I was torn. What I was learning in my teaching program at the U was starkly different than what I was observing as a student teacher. My teaching program trained us to take a student-centered approach. We spent almost the entire year practicing inquiry-based learning strategies. Then I would go student teach under the supervision of an instructor that was very teacher-centered.
I don't believe this to be the fault of my cooperating teacher. She was doing what she felt she needed to do to fit in all of the standards, meet testing requirements, stay under budget, and "educate" the 180 total students that walked into her classroom each day.
We talked occasionally about how she felt a little stifled and restricted. The logistical nightmare it would have been to transport 180 students to the science museum, for example. There was limited learning beyond the walls of the classroom. She was a seasoned teacher and she was intelligent. I have to believe that she felt there was no other option.
I knew I couldn't operate that way for the rest of my career. My experience working in the field was always in the forefront of my mind when trying to work out my educational philosophy, along with the "student-centered" theory I was learning in teaching school.
I knew as a student myself, that a strictly teacher-centered, lecture-based philosophy would not be effective, especially with 21st-century students. What the students need, I thought, is to learn how to learn, as I did in the field - how to problem solve, think critically, navigate sources of information, question current lines of thinking and adjust thinking based on new input and experience.
I decided I needed to check into some things. What other options did I have? A lot of options it turned out. Not only were there a lot of schools and educational organizations doing things differently, but teachers in traditional classrooms were mavericks as well, trying to promote active and involved learning experiences while under the same restrictions as the rest of us.
Those educators that went above and beyond, that were creative and reflective, that tried new educational approaches that were supported by research despite restrictions and obstacles, turned out to be my inspiration and mentors over the course of the next decade.
As I was researching my options, I came across a website for an experiential learning school in St. Paul. I called them up, asked if they were hiring, and started teaching there a few months later. I stayed at that school for almost 10 years.
The students in these pictures are engaged, observing, problem-solving, creating. Of course it wasn't perfect all of the time. But I watched the impact that experiential, student-directed learning had on my students, the same impact experiential learning had on me when I was working in the field.
I started this blog about two years ago, and in that short time have discovered through research and networking, the abundance of experiential learning going on out there right now. I'm floored by the speed and force by which project-based learning, inquiry, problem-based learning, student travel programs, maker education, STEM, and other forms of experiential learning are appearing on the educational scene.
The dramatic emergence of these experiential learning approaches is because we know from experience and research that they're effective learning tools. If you hop on a search engine to find educational quotes, none of them will be about the profound greatness of direct-instruction.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram. You can also Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TPT for experiential learning professional development and awesome experiential learning activities for high school learners. Follow here for new resource alerts.
I also encourage you to subscribe to Experiential Learning Depot! Subscribers have access to my free and growing experiential learning resource library AND my experiential learning assessment e-portfolio where students can showcase and manage their own learning outcomes.
My husband and I made the goal of visiting every US national park as a family before our children turn 18. My children are also distance learning at the moment and my husband and I both work from home, which makes road tripping, especially to outdoor destinations, appealing. We are, as I write this, in Great Smoky Mountains National park. I am literally typing away as my two exhausted children are passed-out beside me.
I have been heavily involved in my school's travel program since I began teaching there 13 years ago. I have taken groups of high school students to California, Hawaii, Colorado, Florida, Texas, New York City, Costa Rica, and more. I have seen how travel can impact a person. Learning, relationship-building, character development and more emerge in a way that is entirely unique to travel.
I always pair travel experiences with student-led project-based learning. Each learner asks a driving question about their destination and explores that question while traveling. They organize authentic learning experiences, interview local experts, include the community, and so on.
For example, my biology students and I took a trip to Costa Rica to study tropical biology. One of my students focused her independent PBL experience on the problem of primate death from electrocution. She found a primate sanctuary called the "Sibu Sanctuary", organized a visit, interviewed the sanctuary staff, and used their expertise to develop an awareness campaign.
Try starting with the following FREE resources. You can also look back at the dozens of educational travel posts right here on this blog by clicking on the "Student Travel" link to your right.
Grab my student-led project-based learning tool kit, a guide that helps students design, plan, and execute their own project-based learning experiences
You can also subscribe here to get my digital project-based learning portfolio where students can showcase all of their project-based learning experiences and outcomes, as well as access to my experiential learning resources library. Here you can find an experiential learning activity planner, which would be helpful for educational travel.
10 Free Educational Travel Resources
1. Educational Trip Planner
This resource is a guide to planning an educational trip. I work at a school that is student-led and project-based, so our students often play a large role in planning the trips. They use this guide to do so. It includes purpose, budget, itinerary, fundraising plans, etc. You could also use this resource hypothetically and/or for family trips with your own children.
2. Trip Project Proposal
A project proposal is a template for designing a project. Students ask a driving question or choose a topic of focus, determine research questions or categories, plan the use of community experts and authentic experiences, choose an innovative way to demonstrate learning, and more.
3. PBL Cheat Sheet
This is a helpful tool for beginner project-based learners. It gives a few ideas for innovative final products and authentic presentations. This is helpful for any project-based learning experience, travel projects included.
4. Community Expert Planner
An important part of project-based learning is connecting with real people with real expertise. This is especially pertinent when it comes to traveling experiences. It makes learning more meaningful; more personal. A community expert might be an interpreter at a National Park, a museum curator, business owners, or even locals of whatever destination you happen to be visiting. This resource is a guide to help students plan community expert meetups.
5. Educational Travel Reflection
This travel resource is one of my favorites. As an experiential educator, I find enormous value in reflecting on learning experiences, especially an experience as profound as traveling.
6. Travel Brochure Mini-Project
this learning activity can be completed at home or at school. It does not require travel. Students create a brochure for one travel destination of interest. The intention is to get students excited about traveling.
7. Ecology Scavenger Hunt
This is another activity that does not require travel, but would be a great supplement to any nature trip, such as this family trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
8. Endangered Species Project
Yet another project that doesn't require traveling, but would be an awesome addition to an outdoor travel experience where students can connect with conservationists, naturalists, politicians, landowners, and more to learn about local endangered species and protection efforts. They might even collaborate with local experts. My family and I came across California condors on our hike through Zion National Park today. California condors have a long and complicated history and have been on the endangered species list for decades. If I were doing a project on this endangered species in Zion I could talk to the naturalists, hunters, landowners, park visitors, bird enthusiasts, and more to gather information from various interests.
We don't have condors in Minnesota, so traveling to where they are and studying them in their natural habitat makes the learning experience more meaningul.
9. Graphic Organizer for Student-Led Fundraisers
Get young travelers invested in the experience by asking them to play a role in fundraising. Traveling isn't cheap, which is one of the reasons my travel resources are free! Let students take some ownership by organizing their own fundraisers. They can use this graphic organizer to brainstorm ideas and organize details.
10. Project-Based Learning Check-In Form
This free resource is a digital check-in form for project-based learning experiences. Students can communicate periodically with their instructors about project progress from home or from abroad. This feels especially important right now when distance learning families are hitting the road for vacations and/or remote learning, like my family is doing right now. Consider assigning students self-directed project-based learning to do while traveling, and use this check-in form to communicate their progress with you.
Find many more PBL resources at Experiential Learning Depot as well as my PBL Toolkit with the necessary templates for unlimited student-directed PBL projects in school, in the home, out in the community, on field trips, traveling around the world and much more.
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.
Has anyone else binge-watched "Down to Earth" on Netflix since Covid began? If you haven't, do it! Down to Earth is the epitome of project-based learning on the road and/or abroad. Zach Efron (yes, I know), travels around the world where he focuses his energy on ONE global issue. For example, he visits Paris, where he dives deeply into the issue of clean and healthy drinking water. He talks with engineers, city planners, and local political figures. He talks with locals and visits a water treatment facility.
Zach confronts a problem, gets involved in the concepts by arranging authentic learning experiences and talking directly with experts. He educates the rest of us about his findings. That is brilliant project-based learning at work. This is a good framework to follow when planning your own project-based learning experiences as you travel.
Project-based learning is a fun and interesting way to enhance learning on any trip. Below is a list of end product ideas for PBL experiences on the road. However, project-based learning is much more than producing an innovative final product. In addition, 1) students reach out and engage with the community, 2) they organize relevant learning experiences, and 3) they share their new skills and knowledge with the world.
Encourage learners to participate in service learning projects on their trips, engage in cultural experiences, immerse themselves in ecological and human ecosystems, set up interviews/shadowing experiences/exchanges with locals, and more.
I suggest using my project-based learning tool kit as a guiding tool through student-led projects, and to snag my free PBL e-portfolio for students to showcase learning (when you subscribe).
Click here for more blog posts on PBL.
45 Project-Based Learning Experiences for Student Travelers
1. Travel Journal:
Have students write a travel journal as they go. Have them publish it for personal use and as a keepsake for later on in life.
2. Travel Blog:
Students can keep a blog of their adventures, posting at the end of each day. I like this one because they can share the link with friends and family from home who can then follow along on their travel adventures with them. My students kept a school wide travel blog. Check it out at thejenningsexperience.weebly.com.
3. Climate and Culture Project:
My students did a group project on this in Hawaii. They coordinated interviews with locals, business owners, tour companies, surfers, park rangers, and more about how climate influences Hawaiian culture. Check out my Climate and Culture PBL project on TpT.
Students can create their own trivia game with questions relevant to their trip.
5. 21st-Century Skills Portfolio:
This is a project that my students do regardless of whether they travel. The idea is that they make a portfolio with evidence of skill-building and reflect on those experiences. Travel would significantly bolster this portfolio. Check out this resource here.
6. Open Inquiry Experiments:
Have students design and conduct ecological open-inquiry experiments. They can test water quality from various water sources, conduct animal behavioral studies, edge effect experiments, soil experiments, and more. Because I am a science teacher, my students do this almost everywhere we go. Their final product is a lab report or science fair style presentation. Check out my open-inquiry tool kit to help guide students through the process.
7. Google Tour:
There are so many cool things to do with Google Maps. Students can drop points anywhere in the world, add descriptions and photos from those points, and publish their "tour". Check out my blog post dedicated to all of the ways kids can use Google Maps as a final product of PBL projects. You can also check out my "hometown tour" PBL resource but rather than complete their project on their hometown, they focus on their travel destination.
8. Behind the Scenes Projects:
This type of project is a great way for students to really immerse themselves in the place they are visiting. They connect with residents, businesses owners, city planners, etc. to fully experience the inner workings of the community. Check out my Hometown Behind the Scenes projects, one on a community event, the other on a local business. The projects are both written about students' hometowns, but could easily be adapted to any location.
Host, produce, and publish a daily podcast on the trip for friends and family to follow along on the adventure.
10. Student Exchange:
Connect with another school, student organization, homeschool co-op, etc. to arrange for your students to experience a day in the life of a local student. Have them journal, video document, or blog about the experience.
11. Write a Memoir:
Have learners document their experience by writing a book about it.
12. Plan the Trip:
I don't plan our school trips. Our students plan them with my guidance. Trip planning is a profound learning experience. It includes lessons on finance, fundraising, geography, culture, geology, biology, etc. etc. Check out my free trip planning project guidelines or see my Plan a Trip Around the World PBL resource for all of the guiding templates needed to plan a trip.
13. Biography Project:
Read a biography or memoir about one person from or relevant to the destination and arrange authentic learning activities while traveling. Complete a project on this person. Check out my Biographies PBL project for guidance and templates.
14. Pinterest Profile:
Students create a Pinterest profile about travel. They create boards related to traveling such as budget travel, travel bucket list, authentic experiences while traveling, etc. Learners designate a board per destination visited and design and create their own pins to add to those boards on their travel experiences.
15. Tour Guide:
Students write a tour guide about their travel destination. They can add photos of their experiences, write reviews (restaurants, excursions, lodging, etc), and add insider tips for future visitors. Try using my free resource on creating a travel guide or my project-based learning resource on creating a hometown tour, only the tour would be created around the destination rather than the students' hometown.
16. Make a Travel Product:
Students design and make a product that solves a travel problem such as young kids kicking your airplane seat. They test their prototypes on the trip and even consider asking other travelers around them to test their products. Check out my Maker Tool Kit for any maker project, which includes a guide and design templates.
There are so many directions kids can go with this. They will choose a theme such as landscapes or environmental portraits, work on a specific camera function or photography technique, or do a photojournalism project, photographing an event taking place in their travel destination.
18. Habitats Project:
Students visit different ecological landscapes in the area they are traveling and design projects around these habitats. My students have conducted biodiversity surveys in Costa Rica. Another group gathered and mapped out climate data from various biomes in California. Check out my habitats project for guidance and templates.
19. Artistic Performance:
Students write a song, poem, skit, screenplay, etc. about their travel experience or specific content relevant to their travel destination, such as climate in their region.
20. Digital Animation:
Create an animation on any number of things related to the trip. Students can create a cartoon of their experience or an animation about something specific that they learned on their trip.
Students create a physical or online storyboard about their travel adventures. They could also create a storyboard about some aspect of their destination's history.
22. Learn a New Skill:
This could be something that is specific to the place or the culture. For example, when we visited Cambridge, England, we learned about punting and how to do it. When in Costa Rica we learned how to make traditional, wood-fired, pottery. In Italy we learned how to make authentic cannolis. Check out my pbl resource on this concept.
Create quality infographics about some of the concepts learned on the trip. If students spend a lot of time in national parks, for example, they might create infographics on what they learned about each the park's geology, history, biodiversity, etc. This can be done with any number of subjects. They can post infographics on a blog, Instagram, Pinterest board, etc. day-to-day as they travel.
24. Design a Set:
Upon return from a trip, students create a "set" that demonstrates where they were. It should be something that someone could walk through as if they were touring the destination themselves. Host an event for people to tour.
Students design and make their own postcards using photos from the experience. Students can later donate them to the places where the photos were taken such as a visitor center of a local park or gift shop of a museum.
26. Moving Diorama:
Students design and create a diorama that moves. It could be of an ecosystem, landscape, famous street, museum, etc. Use my maker tool kit to help learners through the design process.
27. Interactive Timeline:
Students design and make an interactive timeline on one piece of their travel destination's history. "Interactive" could mean moving, pop-up, reveal flaps, manipulating parts, etc.
28. Heritage Project:
I have my students do heritage projects in school all the time. They are asked to organize authentic experiences about one culture of their choosing. When traveling, authentic learning experiences are much easier to arrange because students are immersed in the culture they are studying. Check out my heritage project to get learners started.
29. Video Promotion:
Create a short movie that summarizes your trip. Produce it as if it were a promotion for your school or homeschool. Or produce it as a campaign that encourages parents, educators, and students to embrace travel as a learning tool.
Students make mini-documentaries on their travel experience. This final product idea could go with any number of driving questions or research topics. The documentary could be about the travel experience itself. Or it could be about a political, social, economic, environmental movement taking place at their place of travel. It could be about specific content such as a piece of the history, ecology, geology, geography, art, and more.
Make a calendar about the travel experience itself or about some aspect of the travel destination. Original artwork and/or photographs of the destination should be included for each calendar month.
32. Make a Magazine:
This is a great group project. Students come together to determine the theme of the magazine, what to include, student roles and tasks, and more. The content should reflect the travel experience as a whole or features of the place itself.
This is a fun one for 21st-century learners. Chances are your students already "vlog" to some capacity. Students will record significant moments, learning experiences, activities, etc. during their travels and post those videos to a blog, website, or social media outlet such as Youtube, Twitter or Instagram. Family and friends from home can follow along. Students should have a focus question or topic, as all project-based learning experiences do. Check out my pbl tool kit (link in intro) to help learners organize this experience.
34. Citizen Science:
Turn any number of citizen science projects into a project-based learning experience. Connect with the organization that has started it, collect data on their behalf, and create a final product to demonstrate learning.
35. Community Action:
My community action project is a combination of project-based learning and service learning. Students identify an issue in the community where they are visiting, plan a course of action that solves the issue, and act on it. Check out my community action project tool kit for guidance.
Create a topographical map of your destination's demographics, species distribution, population dynamics, specific landmarks, parks, museums, or whatever else you're interested in mapping.
Survey members of the community about any number of topics. Your survey could be about how local's feel about tourism to their town, top hot spots for locals, favorite restaurants in their community and so on. Choose your own topic, make sure that it is relevant to your destination, and go with it!
Identify community events, issues, or developing news. Interview relevant experts and write a an article about the current event.
Interview locals about any number of topics. My students did this when we visited Hawaii to study climate. My students wrote a book of essays with perspectives from locals about if or how climate change has impacted their lives, businesses, etc.
40. Write a Lesson Plan:
Write a guided project-based learning lesson plan for an age group and topic of your choice. Try using the project-based learning tool kit mentioned in the intro of this blog. Make sure your plan gets into the hands of those that could use it such as parents, teachers, and students.
Write a cookbook with authentic recipes from your trip. Meet with professional chefs, farmers that harvest local ingredients, and more. Make the cookbook and donate or sell it to a relevant audience. Try this "Plan a Dinner Party" PBL maker experience, but focus the cuisine on YOUR destination.
42. Write a Historical Fictional Book:
Write a novel or children's book based on historical facts about your destination.
43. Product Creation:
My students do a lot of maker projects using design thinking. They create prototypes of a product that could fix a problem, test it, and tweak it, until they have a functional, effective product. Students could do this with any number of problems relevant to their destination. For example, if they are visiting a mountain town where buildup of ice on driveways is a consistent problem, students would develop a product that solves this problem. Check out my maker tool kit that includes all of the guiding materials for any number of maker experiences like this one.
44. Project-Based Reading!
Read a variety of books about your destination before you go on your trip. Your destination should be the setting of your book. Your book does not necessarily have to be non-fiction. For example, Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" is a fictional novel, but they cite a number of real landmarks in the book in Paris, London, and so on. When you are at your destination, visit a variety of the landmarks mentioned in your book.
45. Put them together!
Combine a variety of these to make a comprehensive, authentic, project-based learning experience. Subscribe to my mailing list to receive a free project-based learning editable e-portfolio where students document and manage their project-based learning experiences into one handy, user-friendly document.
One of my favorite ways to combine learning and travel is to engage students in the planning process. My high school students coordinate fundraisers for travel, connect with community experts at our destinations, organize and plan authentic learning experiences once we arrive, the route, the budget and so much more.
I highly recommend my project-based learning resource on trip planning. The idea is to plan a hypothetical trip around the world, but the templates can be applied to any trip, real or hypothetical, around the world or one destination.
How to Write Deep and Meaningful Inquiry Questions
Introducing Driving Questions for Inquiry Activities:
Last week's blog post was about making detailed observations to inspire inquiry investigations. These observations lead to driving questions.
But what is an inquiry question? How is it different than any other kind of question? How do you write questions that lead to a deep and meaningful inquiry learning experience? Keep reading!
Check out some inquiry-based learning resources from Experiential Learning Depot, including an introductory to experimental design resource that helps transition students to self-led inquiry investigations.
Let's Walk Through an Example:
A couple of days ago my children and I were walking around our neighborhood observing the fall colors. My son noticed a bald eagle flying above us. It eventually perched in our neighbor's tree directly next to another eagle. Right at that moment we watched a battle ensue between the eagles and then heard a thump! Upon inspection we saw that the eagles had been fighting over (what we believe was) a rat.
One of the eagles flew away, while the other continued to sit in that same tree, likely waiting for us to leave so that it could snag the rat that we were standing next to. Eventually the eagle flew away, and when we came back to our neighbors yard hours later, the rat was still there. The eagle never came back to get it.
Those that observed the interaction started spouting off questions. My four-year-old said she felt sad for the rat, and my son's response was "don't eagles need to eat?" This opened the door for an inquiry investigation about the food chain and predator/prey relationships.
My son also asked why the eagles were fighting. Simply put, they were fighting over food, but this surface question could easily turn into a deeper exploration into intraspecific competition and population dynamics.
I wondered if our presence cost the eagle its meal. If we hadn't been standing there would the eagle have returned for the rat? This question could be refined into a more detailed driving question about animal behaviors, the influence of humans on local ecosystems, whether humans should interfere with natural phenomena, and how that interference may affect the natural balance of the ecosystem.
Arriving at the Big Questions:
This post is about asking those big questions that lead to big investigations. So how do students write those questions? Some questions are better than others when it comes to asking effective inquiry questions. Let's go over a few...
1) Is an eagle a predator?
"Is" - This question only gets at the surface of the concept. The student can easily answer the question with one Google search and the experience is over.
2) Do eagles eat rats?
"Do" - Same idea. Do eagles eat rats? Yes. Investigation over.
3) What do eagles eat?
"What" - This sort of question, ones that begins with "what", "who", and "when", can be answered easily with little room for interpretation. You discover that eagles eat rats, rabbits, other birds, and road kill. But the why isn't addressed, which makes the question pretty basic.
4) How did the eagle get that rat?
"How" - You do a little research about the hunting techniques of an eagle, and maybe even dig into its evolutionary history. Asking "how" goes slightly deeper than "what" or "where", but is still not quite what we want.
5) Why does the eagle want to eat the rat?
"Why" - This "why" question encompasses all of the questions asked before it. This question would take time to answer. It gets into the interconnectedness of life on earth, the food chain, animal behaviors, the eagle's evolutionary history, and so on.
6) Should humans interfere with the predator/prey relationship?
"Should/would" - This "should" question is more philosophical, but it gets at a deeper exploration of how species are connected, niche, adaptations, symbiotic relationships, the complexities of predator and prey relationships, coevolution, and yes, the role that humans play in the natural world.
This question is specifically directed toward the effect that humans might have on the natural balance of the ecosystem, if they were to protect a rabbit from the talons of an eagle, for example. This question requires critical thinking and analysis, an understanding of the predator/prey relationship, ecological communities and populations, evolutionary history, and an examination of the scientific research that is already out there as well as the varying perspectives among community members and experts. This is a great inquiry question.
Try This Exercise with Your Students:
Encourage these deeper questions by having students go through this exercise. Have them make a simple observation, such as "The leaves on the tree are turning yellow." Then they can begin to ask questions starting with basic "what", "who", and "when", then move onto "how" and "why", and finally ask those rich questions starting with "should" or "would" that can become the driving question to a comprehensive inquiry exploration.
I have put together an easy to use template for this exercise that can be copied and assigned to students digitally. You can find it in my free resource library accessible to subscribers. After you have signed up for my mailing list you will receive an email from me with the password to this library as well as a project-based learning assessment e-portfolio.
Applying Questions to Specific Learning Experiences:
Not long ago I wrote a post about teaching methods that embrace and promote inquiry. Project-based learning and scientific inquiry experiments were two of several mentioned. I'm going to stick with these two methods here.
How to Write a Project-Based Learning Driving Question:
The backbone of a project-based learning experience is the driving question. You could simply ask students to research a specific topic, but a driving question offers purpose. PBL driving questions include a who, an action, and identifies the purpose of the experience or the audience that is impacted by the experience.
1. How could my class educate the local community about, and include the community in preventing human interference with local wildlife?
The big difference between this driving question and simply researching the topic of eagles as a local predator, is in the purpose. The purpose is to bring the community together to work toward a common interest, which is protecting local wildlife.
Check out Experiential Learning Depot's guided project-based learning resources here.
How to Write a Testable Question for an Scientific Inquiry Investigation:
Scientific inquiry investigations are my favorite! I'm a science teacher, so yes, I may be biased. But experimentation does not have to be limited to science. Sometimes the best way to investigate an idea is to test it. Students can test concepts in psychology, sociology, consumerism, economics, cooking, and more.
Experiments require a testable question. Questions are developed with cause and affect in mind. How does this affect that.
For example, "What is the effect of the presence of humans on the likelihood of an eagle returning to its prey?"
I am in the process of putting together an introduction to experimental design resource. This resource includes a step-by-step guide for student-designed experiments, including writing testable questions. Students then design and conduct their own experiments on the theme of consumer products. I will be launching this resource in the next couple of days! Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT to get an alert when it has been published.
Asking questions is inquiry. I hope this has been helpful in paving the way for purposeful student-asked inquiry questions that launch outstanding inquiry experiences. Reach out anytime with questions.
In what ways do your students find the questioning process challenging? What are some successes or favorite inquiry questions you have heard in your time as an educator? Share your stories!
Experiential learning is student-centered. The child learns from experiences that are personalized, hands-on, meaningful to the child, and student-led. They construct meaning through exploration of their own passions and ideas. Inquiry is a great experiential learning activity that hits these points.
Questions steer inquiry-based learning experiences. For example, a testable question is needed for a scientific open-inquiry experiment, a driving question is a catalyst for project-based learning experiences, and so on. But developing a good driving question starts with observations. Look back at this post to learn more about great inquiry-based learning experiences such as project-based learning.
Making observations seems like a fairly straight forward concept. "What do you observe?", right? But children need a little scaffolding and direction. There are ways to set the stage for successful observation-making, which ultimately motivates driving questions that students care about (next weeks post will be about asking questions for inquiry-based learning experiences).
If you're looking for ways to get students making detailed observations that lead to inquiry learning experiences, then you've come to the right place.
Click here for inquiry resources + my latest resource on student-led experimental design.
Making Observations that Lead to Inquiry-Based Learning Experiences
Practice Making Detailed Observations Using Senses
You could simply say, "Okay, take a look around. What do you notice? What do you see?" That's great, and might work for a minute. But kids tend to focus on the obvious at first.
"I see walls", for example.
Okay, what do the walls look like? What colors are the walls? Are they tall or short? Are they all the same length? Are there windows? Is there anything on the walls? Does anything about the walls surprise you? Now feel the walls. Describe the texture. Are there any inconsistencies in the texture? Are they hot or cold? Tap on the walls. What sound do you hear? Does the sound change when you tap on different spots?
You get the point. It's easy to say "I see walls". Yes, your student is technically making an observation. But what question(s) could that lead to? Help them practice making detailed observations so that asking questions for future inquiry investigations becomes more fluid and natural.
How to do this:
Scaffold and Facilitate
A huge part of teaching students how to make observations is to be there to support the process. The job of an experiential educator, and therefore, facilitator of inquiry-based learning experiences, is not to tell students what to observe, but to help them develop the skills to make these discoveries on their own.
How to do this:
Set the Stage
Ideally you would spark observations by setting up a stimulating environment. Sure kids could observe their school walls, but there are much more interesting ways to engage learners in making observations.
How to do this:
Check out these other posts on inquiry-based learning from Experiential Learning Depot, as well.
Where do you struggle with inquiry-based learning? What holds you back, prevents you from doing more, or presents the biggest challenge?
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I went through my teaching licensure program in 2007. At that time, the main objective was to train us to be leaders in inquiry-based learning. I never questioned why inquiry was so heavily emphasized, I just did what I was told (ironically).
Inquiry allows learners to construct an understanding of the content or concepts through observation, questioning, exploration, experimentation, and so on. As you saw in my last blog post, there are many ways to implement inquiry-based learning experiences into your curriculum.
After 13 years in education, I now understand why my professors were obsessed with inquiry. I knew the what and the how; what inquiry was and how to facilitate inquiry learning experiences. But I didn't know why, and I didn't ask.
But the "why" is equally as important. If you don't know why you're doing something, why would you do it at all? I trusted that my professors had a great reason for harping on inquiry, and I'm glad I did, because the "why" is powerful, especially when it comes to teaching 21st-century learners.
Inquiry-based learning offers so much more than content development. It creates opportunities for building skills that are CRITICAL to thrive in this fast-paced, technology heavy, information inundated society that we live in. This picture that I've painted is the now and it is the future for our students.
So the "why" do inquiry-based learning for me lies heavily in the skills that come out of it. Inquiry experiences help students build a hefty portfolio of skills, but I'm going to go over a few of my favorites. Before getting into this post, it might help to go back and read my inquiry intro post.
Top Five 21st-Century Skills Gained Through Inquiry-Based Learning
Inquiry encourages resourcefulness. The process requires students to gather information on their own rather receive information through direct instruction. Some inquiry experiences, such as project-based learning, ask students to explore topics and investigate questions by reaching out to community experts and organizing authentic learning activities. Utilizing and collaborating with the community is one way to practice being resourceful.
This is absolutely one skill that cannot be acquired through didactic instruction. For students to be self-directed, they need to self-direct, to make their own choices as part of the learning process. Inquiry-based learning sets the stage for self-direction. Students can choose their questions and determine how they will gather information. This is especially true with self-directed project-based learning and scientific open-inquiry investigations.
3. Critical Thinking:
This 21st-century skill comes up often. Critical thinking is arguably the most important 21st-century skill because it applies to so many facets of life. Inquiry-based learning is an effective way to advance critical thinking skills. Problem-based learning, scientific experimentation, STEM, and project-based learning all pave the way to questioning. They encourage students to challenge what they think they know. Students objectively evaluate their experiences, observational phenomena, and real-world issues.
I often hear people say that they're not creative, they weren't born that way, or they're not the creative one in the family. This just isn't true. Creativity is a skill that can be developed with practice and opportunity. Inquiry-based learning is that opportunity. STEM and maker education are two great learning experiences that promote creativity.
For example, one of my STEM challenges is for students to develop a plant prototype that can successfully "cross-pollinate" with "wind". Students design and build their own prototypes, try them out, fail, make creative adjustments, and try again. There would be little opportunity for creative thinking if I had given a PowerPoint presentation on wind pollinator adaptations instead of facilitating this STEM activity.
There are so many great learning experiences that promote problem-solving, problem-based learning being the most obvious. With PrBL, students heavily investigate and assess one issue, question people on a spectrum of perspectives related to the issue, and figure out the most effective way(s) to solve the problem. STEM and design thinking are also great inquiry activities that utilize problem-solving skills. Students investigate the concepts and put those concepts into practice. If something doesn't work as they thought, they ask how the problem can be solved and fix it.
Before I go, check out this simple inquiry activity. The video below shows a mixture of cornstarch and water. When handled, it feels like a liquid at times and a solid at other times. It is a non-Newtonian fluid. A Newtonian fluid is one described as having the properties of an ideal liquid. A cornstarch and water mixture is not that! This challenges our observations and experiences around states of matter, inspiring questioning and the desire to explore the concept!
This video along with the guiding questions is an example of an inquiry activity that offers the opportunity to practice resourcefulness, self-direction, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving, among others. Try it out and use it as inspiration for your own inquiry activities!
If you appreciate this kind of guiding prompt, subscribe to my email list to gain access to my free experiential learning resource library, which includes short activities like this one. You also receive a free Project Assessment e-Portolio that students can use to showcase their cumulative work in one space.
1. What do you observe?
2. What does this video make you wonder?
3. What do you believe the mixture is made of?
4. Does the content of this video remind you of something else or an experience that you have had in the past?
5. Do you think the material is a liquid, solid, both, neither, something else entirely?
6. If you aren't sure, how could you find out?
There are so many more skills that can be refined by doing inquiry-based learning. I encourage you to check out my 21st-century skills portfolio resource (printable and digital options) where students can compile evidence of skill-building and showcase their achievements. Inquiry activities could be that evidence!
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Almost every learning experience that I facilitate with my own children and my high school students centers around inquiry. Direct instruction is rare.
Inquiry-based learning is a powerful learning tool for so many reasons. It is a child-centered learning experience where students construct their own explanations of variety of concepts. Students do this by making observations, drawing on their own experiences, identifying assumptions, asking questions, experimenting (in some cases) and comparing their personal assessment of the information to current expert thought.
The benefits? Students are engaged. Isn't this THE educator conquest, to engage students? My kids' eyes glaze over when I talk at them. Talk with them, or better yet, don't talk at all. Let them do the talking; the exploring. Inquiry is an experience. Lecture is not.
If children are not experiencing the content, they're not invested. The passion for learning fizzles and students become disinterested, apathetic, bored, and yes, disengaged. My goal as a teacher is to create a learning environment for my students that offers the exact opposite of all of those barriers to deeper learning.
So let's take a look at exactly what inquiry-based learning is, and some great activities to get you started.
Before moving on, let's clarify the different levels of inquiry. Inquiry falls on a spectrum.
If you and your students are new to inquiry, it often helps to start with structured experiences, then move onto guided, until they are confident and ready for open. That's one way to do it. Or they can just dive right in and embrace the trial and error!
So without further ado, let's go over some awesome instructional methods that emphasize inquiry.
5 Game-Changing Inquiry-Based Learning Activities
Inquiry is at the heart of each of the following instructional approaches. These are the ones that I use the most often, but there are certainly others. Peruse your options and try out a few that get you excited. Good luck!
1. Project-Based Learning:
Students investigate a topic, which includes asking a driving question, reaching out to community experts, and arranging authentic learning experiences. Students demonstrate learning in an innovative way and present their information to an authentic audience. Get PBL details by perusing these posts.
Students are not given information directly from the educators mouth during PBL. They make their own discoveries by engaging with the community in a deep and meaningful way. My PBL advisory students spend the bulk of their time doing open-inquiry PBL. They determine the project topic, design the experience, and lead it from start to finish. I do more guided-inquiry PBL experiences in my subject classes, such as env. bio. I offer a theme or set of standards to focus on, and the students plan the rest of their experience. Check out some of those resources here.
I commonly use scientific-inquiry in my science classes. Rather than give students a recipe lab experiment, where they follow step-by-step instructions and the results are uniform and expected, students design and execute their own experiments based on their personal observations and questions.
This is not a strategy reserved exclusively for science classes. I have a psychology PBL resources that includes conducting an experiment and writing a lab report as a final product option. I also have an intro to inquiry resource coming out this week about consumer products.
An example of a guided-inquiry experience would be asking my psychology students to design and conduct experiments that fall under the theme of social norms. My students do this to practice experimental design. Check out my introduction to experimental design resource to prepare students for student-led open-inquiry experimentation. Down the line they conduct open-scientific inquiry experiments by choosing their own topics. Check out my open-scientific inquiry tool kit. This is for students that ALREADY have the skills to design their own experiments.
3. Problem-Based Learning
Problem-based learning is when students investigate real-world and relevant issues in an authentic way. They talk to people from every point of view, question experts, research old and new strategies for tackling the issue, and add novel ideas of their own. They formulate a hypothetical comprehensive plan to solve the issue, or if you choose, it does not have to be hypothetical.
These experiences make a profound and lasting impact on students because they have become such a part of the issue. You can take it a step further and have students conduct community action projects, where their plans become a reality rather than a hypothetical.
Again guided vs. open is simply a difference in the guidelines that are offered. To see an example of a guided-PrBL experience, check out this one on invasive species. For open-PrBL experiences, check out my tool kit.
4. Making/Design Thinking:
Making has become one of my favorite inquiry activities. Sometimes you just need a quick, but powerful learning experience. This is it. Maker education is more than crafting or DIY. The experience should incorporate principles of design thinking, which includes building, yes, but takes it a few steps further than that. Students make a prototype, test it out on a relevant audience, tweak their design, test it again, and the cycle continues until they have a useable, effective final product.
Inquiry comes in as students create their prototypes and during the trial and error phase. They ask questions while researching effective designs. They ask questions while creating their prototypes: "what is working well?; what isn't working well?; "what could I change or alter to make my prototype more effective?"; and so on.
For more information about maker education and design thinking check out these posts. You can also check out my guided-inquiry maker projects and my open-inquiry maker tool kit.
STEM is another instructional approach that incorporates inquiry. STEM activities can span several weeks of deep exploration or cover a one-hour class period. I like the flexibility of STEM.
STEM activities follow a similar pattern as the one I described in #4, maker/design thinking. During this process of trial and error students ask questions and test their prior understanding of a concept. Their assumptions get flipped upside down. What they thought they knew is challenged. Your students then alter their line of thinking based on what they're experiencing, and this goes on and on until they have constructed an understanding of the concepts on their own, without you having to deliver it verbatim.
For more on STEM, take a look at these posts. For an example of a STEM resource, check out my students' favorite STEM challenge, Wind Pollinator Adaptations.
There are other ways to execute inquiry-based learning beside the ones that I mentioned here. I have an inquiry activity about climate drivers that does not seamlessly fit into any of the categories included above.
Inquiry does not function on strict rules. That is the beauty of it. Do what you want! Try some things out. Look for what inspires curiosity and gets your kids excited. Organize learning experiences that ask students to actively think, explore, and investigate, vs. passively sitting back while information flies through one ear and out the other. You will not regret it!
When you subscribe to Experiential Learning Depot you get instant access to a growing free resource library. There you will find inquiry prompts that inspire curiosity! Subscribe to receive a welcome email with the library password.
Visit us next week or our second post in our inquiry-based learning series.
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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.