Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
If you were to ask me, "how can I make my summer school session fun and engaging?" (and not just fun and engaging for the kids), I would say, "make personalized, self-directed project-based learning the foundation of the session".
It doesn't matter what subject you teach, if you're a classroom teacher or a home educator, if you're a rural or urban educator. My answer would be the same across the board. No question.
In my experience, which is 13 years in high school education, students are engaged when learning is personal. Personal learning takes students' interests, strengths, challenges, goals, and more into consideration when planning learning experiences over the course of a session. In other words, it is customized learning; interest-led and self-directed.
This concept is easily captured with project-based learning. I have tried a variety of directions, and find PBL to be best suited for my high school students. Each student designs, develops, and leads their own project-based learning activity.
So why develop your summer school session around self-directed, personalized PBL? In short, because students are engaged, it's fun, they develop content knowledge across disciplines, and gain essential 21st-century skills in the process. The biggest bonus? It's also fun for you.
Let's get into some specifics. This post outlines the reasons for a self-directed project-based learning summer program in a way that will make it easy to pitch the concept to whoever needs convincing (your director, for instance).
Before getting any further in this post, consider going back a few posts to get a good handle on exactly what self-directed project-based learning is. Check out the following posts, and then come back and keep reading!
Benefits of Project-Based Learning: Summer School and Beyond
Let's get started! Why take a self-directed project-based learning approach to your summer school session? Run through this list and then tell me you aren't jumping out of your seat to get started planning right now!
1. Self-Directed PBL Engages Students
Project-based learning, when self-directed, is highly engaging because students drive the experience based on personal interest. They choose the topic (or subtopic around an assigned theme or set of standards) based on interests and personal relevance. Students choose how they will demonstrate learning, using their skills and aspirations to drive their final product choice.
Students design their PBL experiences by making a series of choices all based on who they are as unique individuals. Every project experience and outcome is different for this reason. This ownership of learning promotes personal investment and the desire to learn. Students take interest in the experience and therefore the content that comes along with it.
2. Self-Directed PBL Results in Deeper Learning
Project-based learning is authentic, so real-world, relevant, and place-based learning experiences naturally develop. Students study meaningful topics, those that students can connect with on an authentic level, therefore, the content is understood and retained on a deeper level than they would from a lecture or textbook reading, for example.
3. Project-Based Learning Crosses Disciplines
I love project-based learning for many reasons, but the fact that it is cross-disciplinary is high up on my list of reasons to make summer school programs (or any other program) project-based.
Project-based learning, student- and teacher-directed, brings in a variety of subjects and skills. Let's look at a self-directed project-based learning example:
A student might choose predator/prey relationships as the focus of their PBL experience (life science). The student might connect with an ecologist who is studying local predator/prey relationships (field ecology), learns about GPS tagging and telemetry to track the movement and migration of local populations (technology), conducts a point count with their expert (math), and their project final product is a map of the predator/prey demographics using ArcGIS (math, geography, tech). You get the picture.
Students can design their projects around specific required standards, gain a deep understanding of those concepts through authentic learning, and acquire a variety of other skills and knowledge in the process. In life, learning doesn't happen in discrete units. It's a great idea to prepare students for that now.
4. Project-Based Learning Builds Character
This is such an important one, especially for teenagers. Because project-based learning is authentic and community-based, students are immersed in character-building opportunities such as integrity, empathy, compassion, and more. On top of that it promotes the development of a healthy self-concept. Students analyze their priorities, desires, values, and more simply based on exposure.
5. Self-Directed PBL Promotes 21st-Century Competencies
Teaching 21st-century skills is a must for 21st-century learners. Employers look for an understanding of the content, but these days, they also require soft skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, organization, communication, decision- making, responsible citizenship skills, and more. Project-based learning, especially when self-directed, naturally presents opportunities to gain 21st-century competencies.
Check out the following project resources that specifically target skill-building:
6. PBL Instills a Passion for Learning
What's not to love about this? A love for learning connects with the "engagement" piece a little, but I'm also referring to a lifelong passion for learning. Because self-directed project-based learning is authentic and gives students choice, they develop not only an intrinsic-motivation to learn, but the desire and excitement to learn.
Project-based learning also gives students the skills to find information, promoting lifelong learning. Students know how to learn so can take on anything long after they have left my class or graduated high school.
7. PBL Encourages Relationship-Building
Self-directed project-based learning promotes relationship building on so many levels because it is so collaborative. I become very close with my students because the learning experience is personalized. In order for me to guide students in the process of designing and leading their own project-based learning experience, I need to get to know who they are as individuals.
Project-based learning is also community-based and highly collaborative, so students build relationships and network with community members. Finally, students build relationships with each other. They evaluate each others work and offer feedback. Sometimes they conduct PBL's in pairs or teams.
I am not a theorist. I am not in research. I am a self-directed project-based learning teacher; a practitioner that has experienced and observed the outcomes firsthand, and they are powerful.
Watching students succeed and observing how much they gain academically and personally is enough of a reason for me to do project-based learning. I have been doing PBL for 13 years, and if I didn't think it was an effective learning strategy, I wouldn't continue with it. Self-directed PBL is not only an effective learning tool, it literally changes lives.
9. PBL Makes Your Job Fun and Uplifting
It can be a challenge to sign on for summer school. It is time-consuming, limits your opportunity for self-care before the next school year begins, and is not often exciting. Your students likely don't want to be there either, which makes it even harder to want to be a part of.
BUT, self-directed project-based learning made summer school enjoyable for me. I signed on for summer school every single year because I loved it. I loved walking into work everyday imagining what my students would teach me that day.
As I said before, next week's post will be a walk-through, a tutorial of sorts, on how to set up a self-directed PBL system or program, summer school or otherwise. In the meantime, peruse some of these helpful teacher tools for launching PBL now.
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Did you know there is an experiential learning Facebook group? Check that out - Experiential Learning Community for K12 Teachers - and join in the discussion about experiential learning ideas such as citizen science.
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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.