Student-directed learning is largely interest-driven. A couple of weeks ago I published a post on the common challenges that student-directed project-based educators face, one of which is apathetic students. It's generally not enough to say, "Hey, pull out a project proposal, write one up, and get started", or even to sit down with a student one-on-one and say, "What are you interested in?" A common answer is "nothing", especially from learners that are new to student-directed learning and are accustomed to having their learning experiences neatly designed by someone else and placed before them.
How do you change that answer from "nothing", to an enthusiastic laundry list of interests? You do it by throwing "sparks" out there. I don't know if that is a commonly used word in the world of education, but it is a word I have used for 12 years because that is what my boss called them, so i'll continue to use that word here. A "spark" is really exactly what it sounds like. It is a "thing" that sparks the interest of a student. A "spark" could be a speaker, a movie, a current event, a magazine article, a billboard, a post on social media, or even something you said in casual conversation. It is a "thing", anything, that gets a student's attention, elicits questions, and causes a deep down yearning to learn more about this "thing".
Some "sparks" happen organically. A student might be researching information on one topic and fortuitously come across an idea that creates that spark. It is the job, however, of a student-directed educator to facilitate learning experiences, and part of that duty is creating opportunities for sparks. There is so much going on in the world, so much knowledge at our fingertips, and because of that, a student settling on one topic to learn about can be daunting and overwhelming. There is also an exorbitant amount of topics that students aren't aware of...at all. Exposure to these foreign concepts is important in order to broaden the scope of learning possibilities.
Organizing "sparks" is a regular part of my job at this point. I've come to love this part of my role as an educator. That one kid that gets excited about a topic that you introduce makes it entirely worth the commitment. Here are some ways that I help learners find that spark; that interest that they are searching for as the starting-off point for student-directed learning experiences:
How to Spark Student-Led Learning Experiences
1. Group Share:
One way to inspire project ideas is to have students share their projects with one another. Student A might have done a project on their heritage, for example, inspiring Student B to learn about their own family history. If you are a homeschooler or have the flexibility at your school, consider tracking down some community presentations for learners to observe such as a local science fair or a convention where people are demonstrating some kind of final product. These experiences might inspire project ideas.
2. Share Your Life:
Many of my students' projects have launched because of a story of mine or a project that I had going on at home. My students were always fascinated by stories of my life when I worked in the field as a wildlife ecologist. At my school, a staff member presents on a "project" that they themselves are working on in their own lives such as a rebuilding their deck, reading books on a particular topic, participating in community events, volunteering, writing poetry, etc. We present on our own life projects for a couple of reasons, one of which is to demonstrate lifelong learning, and the other is to help inspire student project ideas.
3. Casual Conversation:
Many educators fill every minute of the day with academic rigor, from the second the students walk into the door to the second a bell rings. I won't go into detail on my views on that today, but I will say that by doing miss out on some pretty amazing learning potential, those learning experiences that are authentic and have personal meaning to the learner. You also miss out on the very important relationship building piece. Student-led learning requires relationship building. Period. It's mandatory. One of the best ways to do that is to simply chat with learners. It doesn't have to be about something specific or with the intention of developing a project. Casual conversation brings up interesting topics organically. Take the time to chat with your students. You won't regret it!
4. TED Talks:
TED Talks are great "sparks"; the talks are an easy, convenient, and free way to discover topic ideas of interest. If a student is struggling to find interest in anything, have them hop on TED.com and peruse the talks to find something that evokes some excitement.
I have a FREE project topic brainstorming activity in my TpT store that includes TED Talks. This is great for student-directed project-based learning and passion projects.
I keep a stack of magazines in my room at all times, from National Geographic to Sports Illustrated. When I have a student that claims that they don't have any interests, I will sometimes send them to the pile to peruse magazines for topic ideas.
6. Volunteering/Community Involvement:
My students do a lot of service learning, which typically organized by me. Students eventually take the reigns. Quite often students will feel really inspired by the experience and branch out with their own projects. I call these projects "Community Action Projects".
7. Group/Class Projects:
Sometimes group projects can help provoke interest in a learning topic. I have my advisory do one large group project every quarter. If you are homeschooler, try to organize a project that includes all of the siblings and you, a small group of community members, or a group of learners from a homeschool coop. My children do projects with their neighborhood friends all of the time. Beginners self-directed learners aren't going to know what to do right away. A group project helps them gain confidence, better understand the process, and provides exposure to new topics.
One of the coolest group projects that we did was on the Syrian refugee crisis. My PBL students learned about the issue and decided to organize a holiday pie fundraiser to raise money for refugee aid. This project helped learners develop essential skills such as critical thinking, empathy, creativity, teamwork and so on. They gained content knowledge from a variety of disciplines. The experience was authentic. But, as it relates to this post, one of the coolest outcomes of this project was the number of student-directed project spin-offs emerged from this experience.
8. Community Events:
Help learners develop topics of interest by engaging with their community. They might attend a city council meeting, participate in a march, check out a variety of cultural events around the city, meet with community experts, check out local speakers, and more.
9. Interest Survey:
Sometimes you'll get a student that says that they don't have any interests. They very likely do have interests, but are not skilled enough at this point to recognize them or might simply struggle with communication. An interest survey is a great way to pull out those underlying sparks AND gives you a chance to get to know your students.
10. Current Events:
I set aside time everyday to discuss current events with my PBL students. Talking about what is going on in the world not only encourages informed, responsible citizenship, but also provides exposure and inspires questions. I like to do Vice News with my high school students because it's gritty. So many projects have come out of watching these episodes. Check out my Vice episode worksheets and extension activities.
We have book clubs at our school, which in itself has inspired so many student-led projects. One of the most dramatic projects that I've seen in my career came out of a young adult novel that I read with my students called "Sold". This book is about human trafficking. Several students were inspired to do an elaborate project on women's issues. My students invited a self-defense instructor to come to our school to give an introductory course. These students connected with a local sex trafficking shelter and invited a survivor to come speak to students. They organized a food and clothing drive for the organization. They started an awareness campaign to bring the very real (and relatable for some of my students) issue to light. It was a year-long service learning project that started with a novel.
Sometimes when my students tell me they don't have any interests I have them conduct interviews. I tell them to write questions that would pull out the stories of someone's life. They then go interview a neighbor, grandma, a friend, a teacher, their parent, etc. The stories they uncover are fascinating, and those stories often lead to project topics. Students can also attempt to uncover their interests by writing down their own stories. It might be the story of their life or a particular moment or even that they want to tell. Storytelling not only helps bring potential project interests to the surface, but also helps learners develop a health self-concept and interpersonal skills.
Start a speaker series at your school or simply organize speakers that you believe could be relevant and interesting to your students. We have had a Holocaust survivor and artist, the Chief of Police, a vermiculturist, a horticulturist, an HIV researcher from the U of M, an educator from a local animal shelter, a biotechnologist, a neurologist, a counselor from an eating disorder clinic, a volunteer coordinator from a domestic violence shelter, a magician, a sculpturist, dancers, local legislators, and so many more. Even if one speaker inspires one student, that's great!
14. Field Trips:
Field trips really spark interests, bottom line. If you can't get learners to a museum, a nature center, a zoo, etc., at least take them outside to observe the world around them. Sometimes a little observation and inquiry is all it takes to stir up some topic ideas. Homeschoolers, take advantage of your flexibility! Hop online and look for free outings in your neck of the woods. You might literally find yourself in the woods, and woods have so much learning potential!
So many interests, questions, and topic ideas come out of my students' (and own children's) travel experiences. There is no other way that I can think of that provides the same level of exposure to new concepts and ideas. I have my students keep a journal when they travel, which serves two purposes: 1) They reflect on each day, 2) They jot down questions, interests, and project topic ideas as emerge throughout the adventure. They typically head home with a few dozen project ideas.
16. Theme Projects
Again with "exposure". Sometimes newbies need a little guidance. It doesn't make them poor self-directed learners. They just require some basic training before they can be expected to dive in head first. Beginner student-directed/interest led educators benefit from the same sort of gradual transition. I often start student-led learning with theme projects, those that have a general topic and guiding templates. I have many project-based learning resources like this in my store. Check those out here. I also have a PBL bundle with twenty theme projects that offer students choice on many levels, and help students and educators make the transition from teacher-directed to student-directed learning experiences.
In an ideal world, all learners would have the wherewithal to guide the learning experience from start to finish. But the fact of the matter is that most learners are not trained to do this. In fact, by the time they get to high school - to me - they have become so habituated to taking a back seat in the learning process, that directing their own learning experiences makes them uncomfortable. Help them get to a point where they are eager to take on their own projects by providing exposure and authentic learning experiences. That is the role of an educator in a student-directed learning environment; the role is facilitator. So get out there and facilitate, starting with creating "sparks" for students.
For more tips and tricks on student-directed learning, click here.
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Every season is prime time for experiential learning, but fall is one of my favorites. Fall is unique in so many ways. The weather begins to change, wildlife prepares for winter, many farmers harvest their crops, seasonal illnesses begin to creep in (not my favorite), kids gear up for winter sports, fall flavors make a brief appearance, and the holiday season comes on strong.
There is so much to learn and an unlimited amount of questions to ask. Experiential learners are self-directed. That is one characteristic of experiential learning that sets it apart from other approaches to learning. They direct the experience by asking their own questions, they choose how and where to gather information, they get involved in learning by organizing authentic experiences, they choose an innovative way to demonstrate learning, and they reflect on the experience.
Although I would prefer to have all learning experiences outdoors, that isn't always an option. For some, it's never an option. As I've said before, experiential learning doesn't have to be "teambuilding" or "outdoor education", two common misconceptions. Experiential education is learning through experience, indoors or outdoors. It is inquiry-based, hands-on, child-led, and reflective. As wonderful as it would be to grab your kids and head out into the community to shadow climate scientists, study the animal behaviors associated with the changing seasons firsthand, and visit farms to participate in fall harvest (I think you should do all of these things if you can, by the way), there are other options for those that have less flexibility.
Check out some indoor and outdoor experiential learning resources below from Experiential Learning Depot that are perfect for fall. You can either take the ideas and roll with them or head to the links provided for a ready-to-go resource.
Head to earlier posts on experiential learning for more details about the method.
Fall Experiential Learning Resources for Secondary Students
Enjoy the last of the fall colors and mildish temperatures with these projects. Again, if you're not able to purchase the resources, head to my store to check out the freebies, and/or use the basic ideas and run with them. Experiential learning is child-led, so the resources help you facilitate those experiences. Happy autumn!
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I have received comments lately from other parents and educators that follow Experiential Learning Depot that I appear so collected and have everything together all of the time. I assure you that I'm not, and I don't, especially when it comes to my own children. Kids will always throw us curve balls. They're wired to do so!
The same goes for my students. My educational approach is experiential education, thus, child-led learning. I blog about project-based learning more than any other experiential learning activity because it is where I have the most experience and I've seen powerful outcomes.
But it's not perfect. That is the reality. As with any pedagogy, there will be snags at times, mishaps, challenges, and disappointments, but I try to look at those setbacks as opportunities - for students AND educators - in disguise. What feels like defeat just may be an opportunity for learning and growth.
For those of you that are transitioning to project-based learning either on your own or with my Project-Based Learning Bundle and Implementation Guide or PBL Tool Kit, you have likely come across some pitfalls. I've listed some challenges below that come up the most often in my learning environment, and I hope to shed some light on the "why" and "what to do".
One way to overcome some of these challenges is to give students autonomy and accountability. Let them design their own projects and manage their own learning outcomes. When you join my newsletter you get a free project-based learning assessment e-Portfolio, where students can add project descriptions, evidence of learning, rubric scores, reflections, standards and goals met, and more. Grab that here for free! Then read on.
Common Project-Based Learning Challenges and Troubleshooting Tips
Student-directed learning activities give students choice in process and outcome. When it comes to student-directed PBL the hope is that students choose to do projects on topics of interest. That becomes challenging when students tell you that they don't have any interests. This problem comes up often, and it is truly painful at times for everyone involved, including the student. Don't take it personally and don't give up! There is hope!
Everyone has interests. If you have a student saying they don't have any, start digging around for the source of this declaration. If the student is new, they might not feel comfortable with you yet. Other students might have interests but don't have the skills to identify them (yet). Others may bring personal struggles through the door. Before labeling your students as apathetic, first try to understand the source of their disinterest. Sit down and talk to them. Learn about them. Relationship-building is the key to this problem. By knowing each student on a personal level you can help them figure out the struggle, set personal goals, AND identify their interests and skills for potential projects.
2. Low Productivity
This is one of the most common problems with anything that is student-directed. You are giving them choice and freedom, which is wonderful in so many ways. Having choice and autonomy is empowering, but students may not know what to do with this freedom, especially if they are new to student-directed PBL. They often, then, choose not to do anything with it.
This is another challenge that can be largely resolved with relationship-building. Learn what drives and motivates them and what does not. Students new to PBL may be unproductive because they simply do not know what to do. Student-directed project-based learning is child-led, yes, but it's also structured. Your job is to provide them with the tools to direct the experience. Give them the appropriate templates, implement consistent checkpoints, and provide feedback often. Another student might have all of the tools and experience, and still be unproductive. Do some observing and digging. Are they easily distracted? Are they overwhelmed with tasks? Are they exhausted? Work with students one-on-one to determine the source of low-productivity. Once the source has been identified, tweak expectations and/or help students create relevant and attainable goals.
3. Poor Quality Projects
Pretty simple. Students produce projects that are well below their capabilities. There are many problems with that and if you recognize it as a pattern in a student or two, nip it in the bud quickly.
I wrote an entire blog post a while ago about how to boost PBL project quality, so I won't get into too much here. Check out the link for specific tips and tricks. But generally, if students are producing poor quality work, the root of the problem is likely you. It took me years to understand this, and my students still test my boundaries and expectations. As my post emphasizes, establishing a culture of quality work from the start is critical, and that is on you.
4. Burning Bridges
Project-based learning is different than a standard project for several reasons, one of which is the use of community experts. Students rely on the community as a critical source of information. Occasionally a student doesn't show up for a meeting with a community expert that you organized. Regardless of the reason, it reflects poorly on you and bridges are burned.
The solution? Don't stop trying. It can be frustrating, but guiding meaningful connections between students and community members is part of your job as a facilitator. You can also ask that the student deliver an apology letter and write a personal reflection, depending on the situation. Help the child empathize. You can also ask that the student arrange their own community experts for a while. Let them take ownership.
5. Shortage of Willing Community Participants
Cooperation between students and community members is not always seamless and is not entirely on the shoulders of the students. Occasionally, students or myself will get rejected by a community expert when asked to get involved in a student's project. One of my favorite local artists flat out said "I don't work with teeangers."
At first I was furious with this artist, feeling very defensive of my students. Everyone has a right to their opinion, however, and in some situations, all you can really do is move on. You might also consider pushing a little more by tactfully helping them see that children bring something to the table. Organize collaborations with community members that are mutually beneficial. Give AND take is essential for building strong community connections.
6. Incomplete Projects
Projects fizzle out. Students start a project, work diligently on it for all of one day, and never return to it again. Pretty straight-forward.
You may have noticed a theme throughout this post; student-directed project-based learning is not a one-size-fits-all model. One student may ditch a project for an entirely different reason than another student. Handle the issue on an individual basis. Observe their behaviors and ask yourself if lack of project completion is a pattern for the student or an isolated incident. If it's a pattern than they may be struggling with organization, get easily distracted, lose interest easily, or lack specific skills that would normally promote follow-through. Sit down with these students and talk one-on-one. Identify potential sources of the problem and write goals together. Organize regular check-ins and offer consistent feedback.
If a student ditching a project is an isolated incident, however, you might just give them a pass. But you should still sit down and go through the details to understand their motivation. Keep an eye out to ensure that bouncing between 5 projects at a time and not finishing any of them doesn't become the norm. Communication between you and your students is key.
Let’s recap. Yes, PBL is challenging to implement at times, especially if you are a beginner. Even seasoned project-based educators make mistakes. We reflect, grow, and learn just as we ask our students to. The key to troubleshooting is relationship-building. Learn what drives and motivates your students. You'll figure it out together.
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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.