There are a few elements that are important to include in project-based learning, otherwise your students are just doing projects. I vaguely talked about this in a post published last week, "What is Self-Directed Project-Based Learning Anyway" and now I'm back with details on specific elements of PBL, and how to modify those components to be self-directed.
I love project-based learning because it naturally presents a variety of opportunities for students to make decisions about the experience; to make choices that reflect who they are as unique individuals. Each PBL component mentioned in this post can be, and should be in my opinion, open for student choice. Opportunities for choices lie in the components highlighted right here. Check it out!
All of the resources in my project-based learning product line are deliberately designed to give students choice while also providing structure to avoid overwhelm.
Key Components of Project-Based Learning:
1. Innovative Final Product -
Students conduct research or gather information on a topic of their choosing or around a theme or standard that you present to them. They then assemble that information into a final product that demonstrates learning. An innovative final product moves away from the cut and paste approach of a poster board or Powerpoint. Examples include timelines, business plans, video promotions, skits, and more.
You can easily give students choice in how they demonstrate learning even if the class is focusing on the same topic or driving question. For example, if your students are studying habitats, rather than have every student create a 3D model of their chosen habitat, let them choose how to share new knowledge. Their choice might reflect their goals, their interests, hobbies, and more. Allowing students to determine this aspect of the experience makes it more engaging because it is relevant and personalized.
2. Community Experts -
Communicating and/or collaborating with community experts is a critical component of project-based learning. The idea is that students learn about their project topic from primary sources - real people specifically. Students might conduct an interview, shadow, intern, volunteer, or work directly on a project with a community expert on their topic. The community member might assist with student projects by providing materials, a work space, or knowledge.
This element of project-based learning, when self-directed, helps students build communication skills, develop and expand their community network, and gather authentic and accurate information. Give students the opportunity identify, communicate with, and coordinate interactions with their own experts.
3. Authentic Presentations -
An authentic presentation is one where the end product of a PBL project is shared with an authentic, relevant audience beyond the boundaries of the classroom. The purpose is to motivate quality work and make an impact on the community.
This is an easy component for students to take on themselves, to self-direct, especially if they choose their final product. Final products and authentic presentations are interconnected. If a student chooses to create an animation to demonstrate learning, for example, they wouldn't present their final product on a podcast. A more appropriate final product to share on a podcast would be a book of essays, for example, and the student would share an excerpt from that book.
4. Assessments and Consistent Feedback -
Project-based learning doesn't often have cut and dry, right or wrong answers, which can make some students uncomfortable. Providing regular feedback is critical, giving students security and validation.
I offer a variety of feedback opportunities throughout the project-based learning process, including self-, peer-, and teacher one-on-one evals. This can get tricky when the PBL experience is self-directed, because you may have 20 different PBL's going at once. I create a schedule, and this comes highly recommended. For example, I facilitate project progress circles every Friday where students have an opportunity to review each other's progress and offer feedback.
Scroll to the bottom of this post to see how I plan self-directed PBL's.
5. Project Reflection -
A reflection is so important to PBL. When a student has completed their PBL experience they should look back on it. The ability to reflect, adjust, and improve is an important life skill. Reflecting on a student-led experience is essential because they look at personal growth rather than data or grades. They reflect on challenges, strengths, implications of what they've discovered in the inquiry process, and more.
6. Final Assessments -
Again, project-based learning emphasizes self-evaluations. My students self-evaluate one more time, present their overall experience to their class, and have a final one-on-one eval meeting with me. The assessment piece of project-based learning can absolutely be self-led. Have students generate their own rubrics and lead their final evaluation meetings with you.
I also have my students build and manage their own project assessment portfolios. They add ALL learning outcomes, reflections, goals met, rubric scores, photographs of the experience, etc. over the course of a session to a ready-made digital PBL portfolio. Overtime they will have a robust, shareable portfolio of project-based learning experiences. This is a self-led endeavor that improves organizational skills, among others.
Grab that portfolio here for free when you join Experiential Learning Depot's newsletter:
My latest resource bundle is perfect for starting self-directed project-based learning right now. This self-directed project-based learning planning bundle includes my project-based learning tool kit and a PBL digital planner. The whole kit was designed to help you facilitate self-directed PBL today.
What is self-directed project-based learning anyway?
I facilitate a women's studies seminar every year, and as a seminar finale, students design and lead their own project-based learning experiences around a subtopic of their choice.
One year a student chose to do her project on domestic violence. She connected with the Sojourner Project, a domestic violence shelter in the Twin Cities. An educator from there came into the school to speak with her. This student also contacted a self-defense instructor to come into the school to teach her and her classmates self-defense strategies.
This student assembled all of the information that she gathered into a presentation and created a brochure that included signs of domestic abuse, community resources for survivors, tips for friends and family of abuse survivors and more. She placed brochures around the community from health clinics to bus stops to school counseling offices.
This student didn't gather statistics and info from a few websites online, copy and paste them into a Powerpoint presentation and regurgitate the information from her slideshow to her classmates. She collaborated with the community, reached out to experts in the field, made an impact, and shared her knowledge and insight with a relevant audience. That is self-directed project-based learning. She had choice in every aspect of the experience.
What is project-based learning?
My experience and philosophy of teaching are largely based around project-based learning (PBL). I have been a high school project-based educator for 13 years. There are a few misconceptions around project-based learning that I hope to clarify in this post, one being that PBL is the same as a project.
In short, project-based learning involves sustained inquiry, is innovative, relevant, and authentic. Students gather information on a topic or problem through questioning, learning activities, and community collaboration. They share their new skills and knowledge beyond classroom walls in such a way that impacts the local and/or global community.
What is PBL specifically?
What is self-directed project-based learning?
The level of self-direction varies among educators. ALL project-based learning experiences in my classroom are student-directed - designed and led by students. There are many opportunities in PBL to give students choice and autonomy. That's why I love it!
Self-Directed PBL Experience Planning:
A great way to get started with self-directed project-based learning is with my tool kit. This provides ALL of the guiding materials for ANY self-directed project-based learning experience. Students use the templates included to design and carry out PBL experiences on any topic, one assigned by you or one chosen by your students.
But what does a self-directed PBL experience look like when in action, especially with 25 students in your class? I use the PBL tool kit and plan my experience using a planner specifically designed for coordinating self-directed PBL. Over the next few weeks I will be going over what this experience looks like in steps using my digital, interactive calendar to walk you through it. Get a free sample of that planner by signing up right here.
Then, if you're looking for something more comprehensive, check out the full project-based learning calendar and planner here. It was intentionally created to guide you seamlessly and effortlessly through coordinating self-directed PBL in your classroom or home learning environment.
If this post has hooked you, continue following this blog series on how to execute self-directed project-based learning. I've covered the philosophy. Now it's time for details and tangible, actionable steps. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you next week, planner in hand!
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This post is part of a series on student-directed learning. If you are unsure of what student-directed learning is or what a student-directed learning environment looks like, go back and peruse previous posts. In short, student-directed learning gives students choice throughout the learning experience, and the learning environment should accommodate those choices.
Imagine you walk into a classroom. You look around and see students spread out around the room. Some students are quietly lounging in bean bag chairs, reading or writing. In the center of the room you see a small group of students chatting around a large table. You find students sitting at desks, working away on computers. One of the students is creating an animation and another student is writing an email. You scan the room and see a couple of students watching a live webinar streaming from Facebook.
This is my classroom. This is what my student-directed learning environment looks like for much of the day. Students design and lead their own learning experiences, usually in the form of project-based learning.
The student in the beanbag chair is reading books to gather information for his project topic. The small group of students chatting around the table is brainstorming how best to reach an authentic audience. Another student is creating an animation as her final product. The student writing emails is connecting with community experts. A small group of students is watching the live webinar to learn about their project topic.
Each student is learning in their own way, at their own pace. They may be driven by the same general learning objective that you set for them, but they meet those learning objectives by making a series of personal decisions.
The question, then, is where the teacher is in all of this. If the teacher isn't giving information through direct instruction or a structured activity then what is the teacher doing? Student-directed teachers still manage the classroom, provide resources, scaffold, organize learning activities, and provide input. What changes is their role. Rather than director of learning teachers are facilitators of learning. The teacher guides and supports, they challenge, they give feedback. They teach students how to learn. Keep reading for specifics!
What does the teacher do in a self-directed learning environment?
1. Teach students how to direct their own learning:
A lot of students have spent the bulk of their education being given information through direct instruction. Teachers that want to transition to a more student-directed learning environment are going to have to undo the mindset that student's have developed over the years that they're going to be given the "correct answers." Student-directed learning requires critical thinking, problem-solving, and failing at times! Students may be uncomfortable with that at first. I have many resources in my Experiential Learning Depot store that guide teachers and students through this transition by way of project-based learning, one of which is a PBL bundle and manual.
2. Get to know your students:
In order to serve your students effectively in a self-directed learning environment, you'll need to get to know who they are, what they're interested in, their learning styles, their passions and more. It is personalized. Knowing your students on this level will be critical when you're helping them design projects or work through learning activities.
The animation example that I used above was an actual project that one of my students did. She turned a subject that she found boring, neurotransmission, and made it more exciting and engaging by creating an animation that demonstrated this concept. I knew she was a creator and helped her design her project around that passion. Relationship-building is huge and sometimes you have to be deliberate about getting to know your students. Work it into not only your day, but your curriculum.
3. Guide students through the process of developing learning experiences that are challenging, authentic, and innovative:
Just because students make choices in student-directed learning doesn't mean they're always going to be great choices! They also might not have the means or experience to know how to coordinate these experiences. They need your guidance, expertise, connections, and advice. If you know your students, you will know if they're not challenging themselves, if their project design doesn't align with their goals, if they could expand their authentic audience, or if their project plan just doesn't match up with their learning objectives.
My students design their projects using a project proposal. I walk the room while they hash out their project plans, check their proposals, offer suggestions, and sign off on them. I have PBL project proposal and other helpful student-directed PBL templates in my store in a bundle called "PBL Toolkit".
4. Help students create and manage personal learning plans:
A personal learning plan is a great tool for student-directed learning. It is a plan that includes personal goals, interests, learning styles, project ideas, deadlines, etc. It can really include whatever you feel helps guide students. It's helpful to pull that plan out when students are designing projects or learning experiences. My job as facilitator is to help students write their plans and modify them as students learn and grow.
My personal learning plan is available in my TPT store. It is an editable Google Slides that can be copied and shared with each student. Click the image below.
5. Assist students in finding resources:
I think my biggest job as a facilitator is to help students find accurate and relevant information, connect with community experts, gather materials, and recognize learning opportunities. Student-directed learning really teaches kids how to be resourceful, especially if you do project-based learning. If you don't know what I mean by that, go back to my previous post on the principles of pbl.
I taught a biotechnology seminar a while ago. One of my students was really interested in algae as a biofuel. I connected him with the researchers at the algae lab of the U of M, and my student took it from there. I modeled how to find an authentic learning experience relevant to his interests and learning objectives, he learned from that, and eventually was able to find these opportunities for himself.
6. Provide input and feedback:
Giving students consistent feedback is not only critical for growth and improvement, but students need it, desire it, and ask for it. Because they're not getting immediate and concrete feedback, such as a red check mark over an incorrect answer to a worksheet, they can feel a little lost at times. It is your job as the facilitator to observe their learning process, give them pointers, ask that they go back to the drawing board, etc.
I have my students complete self-assessments periodically throughout the learning experience. Usually that assessment is a rubric. I then go over the assessment with the student one-on-one. Formative assessments or quick end of the day reflections are great also, and are a little more efficient. Find a system that works for you.
If you have not already snagged my Project Assessment e-Portfolio, I highly recommend that. Students add their learning outcomes throughout the course of a session into one portfolio. This is more of a summative assessment. It shows growth, which your students can observe firsthand as they build and manage this portfolio. This resource is free when you join Experiential Learning Depot's newsletter. I highly recommend it.
7. Organize events that showcase student work to the community:
There are so many interesting and creative ways to present final products to an authentic audience. One great default presentation option for students is to put final products on display at an organized event such as an exhibition night. I have a project in my store that is all about heritage. Every year my students complete this project and then we host a multicultural night for friends, family, and community members. Part of my job as a facilitator in a student-directed learning environment is to plan these events. I do, and I love it!
There are also a variety of virtual ways of doing this. My students have done virtual exhibition nights as well, using virtual museum platforms, such as artsteps.com.
8. Organize learning activities and sparks:
Not all time in my school learning environment is spent working independently on projects. We have group discussions, we do group projects, we go on field trips, do service learning, travel, watch the news together, invite speakers, host events, and do team-building activities. I even do direct-instruction at times. I'm not above that. I just limit it as much as possible.
Many of these learning activities are connected to student-projects in some way, but some of them aren't. Some of them are simply done to inform students, start dialogue about an important issue or concept, or ignite a spark in a student or two. A huge part of my job is to find, plan, and coordinate these learning opportunities for students.
The photo all the way to the left is a speaker, Dr. Fisch, a Holocaust survivor and artist. A coworker of mine arranged for him to come in to speak to the school. The photo in the middle is a field trip to the Wildlife Science Center. I brought students there to spark interest and gather information for their endangered species projects (look for this free resource in my store). The photo on the far right is of a student at a class team-building event that I arranged for my advisory.
9. Provide students with the tools to be successful student-directed learners:
Student-directed learning does not have to be chaotic. You can and should offer structure. It is your role as their teacher to provide the tools that they need to design and lead their own learning experiences.
Project-proposals, parameters and deadlines, guidelines for project reflections, graphic organizers, formative assessments, etc. are all great examples of devices that will help your students transition to great student-directed learners. They will need a system, at least right away. In time the hope is that they can become less dependent on you, as throughout the year they will be developing the skills to work more independently.
My experiential learning bundle and self-directed tool kits bundle include all of the guiding materials and templates needed to effortlessly implement self-directed learning.
10. Everything else that comes along with being a teacher:
You wear a lot of hats regardless of your teaching style or approach. You will always have a student that is distracting other students. You will have students that walk in the door with trauma that you can't (and do not want to) ignore. You need to manage tardies and absences, and grade and evaluate student work. The list goes on.
With student-directed learning, however, some behavioral issues are mitigated because students have choice and autonomy. Learning experiences are based on their lives and who they are as unique individuals.
Student-directed learning is powerful and it's worth considering if you don't already use this approach. If you do offer student-directed learning experiences in your classroom or learning environment, please share about your experience!
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Relevance is hugely important for students, not only to engage in learning but for them to care about the content. But why does it matter if they care?
Focusing on concepts that are part of the real-world, part of your students' worlds, helps them find purpose in the experience, which is an important piece of experiential learning.
How many times has a student asked you "Why are we doing this?" or "What is the point of this?" Your answer might be "because we have to", or "because it's on the test". Or maybe your answer is more along the lines of "because it's interesting." It might be interesting to you, but not to your students, possibly because they can't find a real-world connection. They don't see why it matters or how it is relevant to them, and if they can't see purpose, they're going to check out, or worse, feel that learning is a chore rather than joy.
So how do you make learning relevant, real-world, and purposeful (while focusing on specific content if need be)?
How to Make Learning Real-World and Relevant
1. Community Issues
Pay attention to what is going on in your school, neighborhood, city, national, and global communities. Students can connect with what they're experiencing in everyday life or issues that are impacting them directly. For example, if you're a science teacher that needs to teach about viruses, try using Covid-19 vaccines, an issue that literally impacts everyone, to drive the unit or inquiry experience.
One way to bring awareness to issues that are important to students is to have them study current events that interest them. You can even attach specific content or benchmarks to the experience, focusing on current events related to viruses or vaccines, for example. Check out my Current Events Project-Based Learning resource with all of the guiding materials needed to walk students through the experience from start to finish, .
2. Personalize Learning
It is hard to know what is relevant to students without learning about who they are, what matters to them, what they're experiencing at home, life challenges, interests, and more. I give my students personal learning plans on the first day of school. They fill in information about themselves, share their interests, write their goals, and more. I use that information throughout the year to drive learning experiences, focusing on concepts that are important to students. This grabs their attention, engages, and intrinsically motivates because students can directly apply the concepts to their lives.
This is my Personal Learning Plan, which students can print and add to a binder or fill in right on the Google Slides version of the resource.
3. Authentic Experiences
Students might not see right away how a concept impacts them or why specific content is relevant. If students, for example, are not paying attention to the news, they have stayed healthy, their parents or caretakers have managed to keep their jobs, etc., they may not see how Covid-19 vaccines impact them, and therefore, they simply don't think about it. They don't find it relevant.
One way around that is to organize authentic learning activities. Get them involved in and immersed in real experiences, such as speaking with a virologist and touring their lab (virtually, given the nature of the circumstances), restaurant owners that are struggling to stay afloat, medical workers, vaccine distribution employees, and more.
Student-led learning organically makes learning relevant to students. Students see purpose when they are calling the shots - when they are designing the experience, determining the direction, gathering information in ways that make sense to them, and organizing authentic learning activities that match their interests and life experiences. Students don't direct learning experiences for themselves that do not have a place or relevance in their lives.
To get students rolling on self-directed learning without spending a significant amount of energy or time yourself, use these self-directed tool kits created by Experiential Learning Depot.
If you're looking for precise methods of making learning relevant, here are a few ways, each of which encompass community, personalization, authenticity, and self-direction.
Teaching Methods that Make Learning Experiences Real-World and Relevant
1) Project-Based Learning:
Project-based learning is sustained-inquiry that is authentic in nature. Every step of PBL involves the real-world. Students gather information from community experts, they collaborate with community partners, they share their new knowledge with an authentic audience.
Grab my project-based learning tool kit and either have students design their own PBL experiences around a relevant topic, such as Covid-19 vaccines, or fill in the templates yourself to design the experience for them.
2) Problem-Based Learning:
Problem-based learning, also sustained-inquiry, focuses on real-world problems without necessarily having to fully immerse in the community.
For example, my parents live in Florida, where 65+ are now able to get the Covid-19 vaccine. Getting the vaccine right now, however, would require that my parents stand in a 1/2 mile long line. Speed of distribution is a real problem in their community, and indirectly effects everyone that lives there, 65+ or not. If I were a teacher in this community I might assign my students the task of designing a comprehensive plan to solve the problem. What is the source, and what can be done about it?
Problem-based learning is an easy go-to activity for any relevant real-world problem where students see purpose, make an impact, develop essential 21st-century skills and so much more. Grab my problem-based learning tool kit, templates for designing problem-based learning experiences easily and quickly.
Note: Spaces recently published a guest blog post that I wrote about the difference between Project-Based Learning and problem-based learning. Check that out here!
3) Community Action Projects:
This is my favorite way, and my students', to motivate and engage students through relevance and real-world connections. My students choose a community issue that is important to them. They then learn about that issue, explore solutions, plan a course of action, and take action. Community action projects blend project-based learning, service-learning, and problem-based learning. The experience is personalized, authentic, involves the community, and is self-directed.
Grab my community action projects tool kit, which includes templates that offer a seamless implementation process.
Making learning relevant and connecting concepts to the real-world isn't always easy, but try out some of these steps to simplify the process. Sell-directed learning experiences really take a lot of the pressure and work load off of you, while benefiting the students in enormous ways.
If you're interested in leading your team in implementing hands-on, self-directed, personalized, reflective learning experiences in your school, check out my experiential learning bundle. This bundle is your ultimate guide.
Thanks for reading! As always, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime with questions or comments about experiential learning, my blog posts, or any of my resources.
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I was heavily involved in the school travel program when I was teaching. I took students on a marine biology camping trip to the Florida Keys one year. A few months before the trip I began looking into campsites. Everything was booked and I panicked.
I managed to find ONE campground that had an available site and booked it immediately. It was clear upon arrival why this campground was the only one with availability. In short, this campground was NOT teen-friendly. It was SO not teen-friendly that my colleague and I sat outside of our tents the entire night to ensure the safety of our students. Luckily, there was a last-minute cancellation at a nearby KOA, so we were able to stay there for the rest of our trip.
This was an experience, yes. But was it a learning experience? I would argue that reflecting on the experience was where the learning came in. I looked back at it, processed it, picked it apart, and used it to do better for my students.
Deep learning is in the reflection. Or as John Dewey would say, " We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.
The ability to reflect is a skill - an essential skill - not just in an educational context, but in life. Your students will need to reflect on their parenting, careers, personal and professional relationships, and more.
If we as educators never pondered over botched lessons, analyzed specific interactions with students, or contemplated feedback from others, we wouldn't be very good at what we do. Let's give the same sense of continuous learning and improvement that we embody in our own lives to our kids by making intentional reflection a regular and expected part of every learning experience.
Reflection is an elemental piece of experiential learning, therefore, every learning experience is followed by reflection. Learners identify challenges faced in the experience, they note growth and progress, they identify their strengths throughout the experience and use those strengths as building blocks for future experiences, they determine next steps, and make goals for the future.
The new year is a great time to start building reflection into your curriculum. Make reflection habitual in your learning/teaching environment. Below you'll find a few great ways to incorporate reflection to strengthen and reinforce learning. You might find some of the following reflections more relevant or suitable for your students than others. Scroll through, feel some out, and give a few a try.
I encourage you to scroll back over my experiential blog series so far. Reflection is one important piece, but not the only one.
6 Ways to Enhance Learning with Reflection
1) Any Given Time Frame:
I have had my students write daily reflections and quarterly reflections. They reflect on completed seminars. They write end of the year reflections. They even reflect on their high school careers before they graduate. The idea here is that students look back on a designated timeframe in their personal and academic lives. In doing this they develop important skills that they can apply over the course of a lifetime.
I frame my school year with a personal learning plan. Each student has one. They build and manage their plan, which includes interests, project ideas, personal and academic goals, and yes, reflections. My students use a personal learning plan in the format of a digital portfolio, which is available in my store.
2) Learning Activities:
As I said above, my students reflect on all learning experiences. Projects, presentations, problem-based learning activities, STEM challenges, service learning experiences, science experiments, watching documentaries, reading novels are all examples of learning experiences that can (should) be followed by a reflection. If a follow-up reflection seems irrelevant or tedious, then a reflection might be necessary on your part to determine if it's a learning activity worth doing.
All of my experiential resources include a reflection. Check out TPT for those resources, and follow for new resource alerts and updates.
3) Educational Travel:
Travel is the mother of all learning experiences. I didn't include it in #2 because it is so much more than a "learning activity". Conducting a science experiment in the lab is a cool learning experience, of course. Giving a presentation for the first time is a huge accomplishment. Team STEM challenges help learners build many essential life skills. BUT TRAVEL. Travel is all of this combined and more.
I have found, in my own experience, that reflection comes naturally after travel. My students always seem to have epiphanies, not while on the actual trip, but upon reflection long after the trip has come to an end. That is the power of reflection.
Download my free trip reflection on TpT. All of my educational travel resources are free. You can also head back to the many posts I've written on learning through travel for tips and resources. Click on the "student travel" link in the archives.
4) Authentic Learning Experiences:
Authentic experiences are those that are relevant and are connected in some way to real-life. For example, rather than learn about habitats from a textbook, you might have students do a conference call with a wildlife field ecologist. My students were able to do this with Adelie penguin researchers all the way from Antarctica. Reflecting on such unique and consequential experiences like this not only encourages personal and academic growth, but also boosts the desire to have more experiences just as substantial.
5) Group Work:
Reflecting on group work is SO important. Rather than have students "grade" their partner(s), I have them reflect on the experience as a whole. It helps learners navigate conflicting personalities, understand the role that they played in the experience, come up with creative and effective resolutions to challenges, etc.
We all have to work side-by-side with others at some point in our lives whether we vibe with those people or not. That's the reality. The ability to analyze a group's dynamic, accept feedback from a teammate in a professional manner, DO something productive with that feedback, evaluate team progress, and modify when things aren't going according to plan, are skills that are fortified through reflection.
6) Personal Growth Reflection:
This is a really important one in my opinion. "Behavioral issues" on a high school level more often than not lead to out-of-school suspensions. This is a problem. In the case of my students, many either invited suspensions or feared them. For some, our school was their only safe place, so displacing them from it felt wrong and ineffective. About five years ago we stopped suspending students for this reason, among others. Instead, students reflected on their "offense". They either wrote reflections or participated in a restorative justice circle, depending on the situation. The results can be really powerful.
I know many homeschoolers read this blog, and although suspensions do not apply to your children, growing up does. ALL kids do things in the process of growing up that we wish they wouldn't. I'm not a child psychologist, so I'm not going to tell you how to parent, but I do suggest asking your children to reflect on those frustrating behaviors. Reflecting helps kids develop a healthy self-concept, figure out who they are and who they want to be, determine whether their relationships are healthy and positive, build self-confidence, establish a moral compass, and so much more.
I want to add before I go that "reflecting" can take many forms. Not all reflections have to be written. Get to know your students and what works well for them. I had many students who needed to verbally reflect. This was especially true after travel experiences. I often had one-on-one reflection meetings with my travelers. Just do what works well for you and your students! Good luck and happy reflecting!
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What is Personal Learning?
"Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." I believe Albert Einstein said this, but it's been debated. This quote has also been criticized for a few reasons, one being that by calling everyone a genius, especially children, that they may believe they don't have to work hard in life. I don't really see it that way.
What it means to me is that not all children are the same and shouldn't be treated as such. Every student walks into your classroom each day with a unique set of challenges, energy levels, reading and writing abilities, personal traumas, learning styles, etc. Ignoring this, in my opinion, is dangerous, putting learners at risk of checking out due to apathy, boredom, confusion, frustration, and loss of a love for learning.
Personal learning is the facilitation of learning experiences that are designed around the unique interests, backgrounds, skill levels, goals, strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and so on of EACH student. The teacher/facilitator builds a relationship with every learner and enhances learning by creating an environment that reflects and celebrates the uniqueness of every child. Yes, this includes high school students.
So how do you make learning personal for 30 middle or high schoolers? The same way you would make learning personal for 1 student. By building relationships with your students. That's easy for homeschoolers. But in addition to the relationship-building piece, I recommend moving toward a student-directed, teacher-facilitated model. Here's how.
How to Personalize Learning in a High School Setting
1) Build Meaningful Relationships With Your Students:
2) Organize Learning Experiences That Are Personal In Nature:
Make learning personal by organizing and facilitating learning activities that give students voice and choice; student-directed learning in other words. Student-directed project-based-learning is a wonderful tool for making learning personal because students design their own experiences.
I love project-based learning, and would start with that if you are trying to personalize your high school curriculum. But it is not the only way. You can make any learning experience personalized as long as students are given some autonomy and that the experience is designed with the child in mind.
Try some of these learning activities. You do not need the resources. The resources are intended to help guide beginners and save those that are not beginners time, which is hot commodity!
3. Personalize Assessments and Evaluations
Yep, you read that correctly. Testing is not personalized. That is not to say you should never give a test to check for understanding, but if you're going to personalize learning experiences, you should personalize evaluations as well. It just makes sense.
Transitioning from a didactic pedagogy to student-led personal learning wouldn't be an easy transition. Change is hard. But by cutting down on lecture and lesson planning, you free up time to build relationships with students, create learning plans, and facilitate learning activities that best suit the interests, needs, and goals of each child.
Thanks for stopping by. If you ever decide to make learning personal in your classroom through student-directed learning, I'd love to hear from you. How did it go? What have been some challenges? What has gone well?
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As someone with a background in biology, the first places I would think to go for scientific inquiry experiences is outside or in a lab. Next would be the kitchen. Winter weather in Minnesota can get extreme and those extremes tend to last awhile. Cooking is an indoor activity that is loaded with learning opportunities, particularly in science. Edit: Throw covid shelter-in-place orders in there, and it gets even more appealing!
Scientific inquiry is a method of gathering information and gaining scientific knowledge. The students themselves make the observations, ask the questions, make predictions, and experiment. It is a student-centered way for learners to make discoveries about the world in their own way. The kitchen is a great place to start!
Below is a list of winter-inspired dessert ideas for students to bake while learning about kitchen science through the process of inquiry. My recommendation is to have students conduct open inquiry. The student directs the inquiry investigation, starting with their own question, designing an experiment to test that question, and conducting the experiment. If your students are beginners to scientific experimentation, try my intro to inquiry resource.
Also check out my Inquiry Bingo: Food Theme, a fun and quick resource for the holiday season stir-craziness.
Enjoy the following winter-inspired kitchen science ideas! I have done all of these projects with either my own kids (pre-k and 1st) or my students (8-12 graders). Each is fun, doable, and because they are student-led, modifiable for a variety of ages and skill levels. Happy holidays, everyone!
Winter-Inspired Kitchen Inquiry Activities
The Question: Does speed at which eggs are added to the hot milk effect texture of eggnog?
In other words, how do I make chunkless eggnog? ;) My children and I made homemade eggnog. It wasn't good. My kids despise it in general, but our final result was scrambled, so I certainly wasn't going to convince them to like it that day! The fun in this activity it the trial and error.
The Science: In order to make smooth eggnog, you have to temper the mixture, controlled heating and cooling. Pouring the eggs into the hot milk mixture too quickly is not controlled. Heat coagulates the proteins in the eggs, so adding the eggs to the heat too quickly causes them to scramble. Tempering, slowly controlling temperature, keeps the protein structure at bay.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making eggnog. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. Click here for the recipe that we used. Or they experiment with the question posed here, trying and experimenting with different methods.
2. Tye-Dye Sponge Roll Cake
The Question: Which ingredients prevent a "roll cake" from crumbling when rolled?
This was such a fun recipe to make with kids. My kiddos made two different types of cake to see how particular ingredients (or lack thereof) might impact the cake texture, making it more or less suitable for rolling without cracking. We made a roll cake and a regular white cake.
The Science: A mixture of eggs and sugar provide structure, in part by trapping air bubbles during the whipping process. In addition, adding baking powder causes a chemical reaction resulting in carbon dioxide, increasing the amount of bubbles in the batter. Proteins and starch in the flour add stability to the air bubbles, but the high ratio of sugar to flour gives it that flexibility that roll cakes require.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making roll cakes. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments. They can make a variety of different types of cakes, experiment with baking powder, eliminate an ingredient from a standard roll cake recipe to see what happens, etc. I used this recipe for the roll cake.
3. Pie Crust
The Question: Which fat makes a flakier pie crust, butter or lard?
My high school advisory students started an annual holiday pie fundraiser many years ago, and part of the planning process was creating the BEST pie to sell. We asked around, talked with professional chefs, they surveyed consumers, perused caking blogs, etc. The ultimate influence was my grandmother! She said the secret to her flaky pie crust is animal lard. So we tested it.
The Science: Lard is fat. Period. Butter on the other hand, is fat plus some water. Lard has a higher melting point than butter, making it easier to handle in the making process. Lard also results in flakier crust because the 100% fat in the lard solidifies into crystals, separating the dough into layers, creating that flakiness we were testing for.
Inquiry Activity: Whether flakiness is desired is a matter of opinion. But we did find that lard, in fact, does make pie crust flakier, whether we prefer that texture or not. Learners can investigate their own questions about variables that inspire or interest them. They might investigate why pie crust recipes usually ask for cold water versus hot or room temperature water. Students might experiment with different types of flour such as whole wheat, all-purpose, and pastry flour. Students could play around with crust width, baking temperature, fillings, glazes, vents created for baking, and so on and so on. Find any number of pie crust recipes on Google.
Note: Lard is not required to make pie crust! Learn about your students and be sensitive to their needs. Allergies, food sensitivities, religious food practices, etc. need to be considered and respected.
4. Whipped Cream
The Question: Which milk product will result in the foamiest texture - skim milk, whole milk, or heavy whipping cream?
The Science: The heavy whipping cream turned out to be incredibly important. No matter how long we blended the skim milk and whole milk mixtures, they never became frothy. The fat in the heavy whipping cream envelopes air bubbles added from the whipping process, creating a network that stiffens the mixture. So, fat is what gives it the foamy texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making whipped cream. They can make observations, ask their own questions, and design their own experiments. This is open inquiry. Or they can design an experiment that tests the question I asked above. Click here for the recipe that we used. I let my littles played around with coloring the whipped cream as well (with food coloring).
5. Cream Puffs
The Question: Does the number of eggs affect the structure of cream puffs?
My kids and I have made many bread-type recipes, but this one called for an unusual number of eggs. We made three batches of cream puffs, some with the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, one with half of the number of eggs suggested in the recipe, and one with no eggs at all. The batch without eggs collapsed completely.
The Science: Cream puffs also have a lot of fat, so the egg protein is necessary to keep the structure. Eggs also act as a leavening agent and an emulsifier for a smooth and light final texture.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the process of making cream puffs. There is so much science involved in these little desserts! For this reason, I would encourage open inquiry. Otherwise you can offer up a specific question, such as the one above. I found there to be a few unusual cooking methods in this recipe as well, such as melting the butter in boiling water and milk first. Those types of investigations are fun as well. Try this recipe. Combine this cooking activity with the whipped cream inquiry above for a really tasty treat!
6. Hard Candy
The Question: Does the temperature of the sugar mixture when removed from the heat source impact the hardness of the final product?
This is a question that my high school students and I investigate every year. I am hesitant to make hard candy with my own children, who are 3 and 5, because of the burning risk. I burned myself making this candy three days before my wedding and it wasn't cool! This recipe is probably more appropriate for older learners, but regardless of age, safety should be a priority and taken seriously.
The Science: Hard candy ingredients include only sugar and water (and flavor extracts and food coloring if you wish). You combine the sugars and water and boil the mixture until it reaches 300° F (hard crack). Boiling the mixture to this specific temperature results in the evaporation of most of the liquid, leaving behind a lot of sugar, thus it sets as hard candy. If the mixture only reaches 250° F, in contrast, not enough water will have evaporated to harden the sugar, leaving a softer consistency such as that of toffee (hard ball), or 270° yielding a taffy-like consistency (soft crack). If the mixture over-evaporates, reaching 320° F, for example, the liquid sugar will caramelize. Temp is critical, and evaporation is the reason for that.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore different evaporation times (cooking temperatures) to test the question that I mentioned above. They could also investigate their own questions and experiment with variables other than temperature such as ingredient quantities or types of sugar (raw sugar vs. white, glucose syrup vs. corn syrup, etc.) Click here for the recipe that we use. I always add flavor extracts to get into the winter spirit, such as peppermint and cinnamon.
7. Gingerbread Cookies
The Question: Does the amount of time that the cookie dough chills in the refrigerator impact the shape and texture of the cookies?
This was a question asked by my kindergartener, only it was more like, "why do we have to put this cookie dough in the refrigerator, I want to make them now!" We were able to explore this question together with my assistance. We simply made two batches of cookies, one with dough that we didn't chill and one with dough that was refrigerated for two hours. It would have been better if we added a couple more batches, one chilled for 20 minutes and one for 12 hours, for example.
The Science: Turns out that the fats in the butter solidify when chilled, giving it more structure. This was important to keep its shape during the rolling, cookie cutting, and the baking processes. You can see an obvious difference between the cookies that were chilled and those that were not. The non-chilled cookie dough cookies were essentially shapeless blobs. It also takes longer for the butter fat to melt in the chilled cookie during the baking process, making the final product slightly chewier and softer.
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of gingerbread cookies. They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments to test the questions. Click here for the recipe that we used.
The Question: What gives marshmallows their smooth, foamy, stretchy consistency?
Making marshmallows came up once by accident while my students and I were making hard candy (mentioned above). Our candy thermometer was broken. We significantly underestimated the temperature of the sugar/water mixture when removed from the heat source, which resulted in a squishy, stretchy substance comparable to marshmallows. After some investigating, students discovered that marshmallows have a key ingredient, however, that other types of candies lack.
The Science: That ingredient is gelatin. Water, sugar, and corn syrup are heated on the stove. Some of the liquid evaporates. The remaining sugar/water combo is removed from heat, slowly added to a gelatin/water mixture, and beaten, which adds air bubbles to the mixture. As this blended foam cools, the corn syrup prevents crystallization and the gelatin turns from a liquid to a gel, trapping bubbles inside. This special and specific combo of ingredients and cooking method gives marshmallows their structure and consistency.
Inquiry Activity: Students can ask their own questions about marshmallows and conduct open inquiry experiments. Or they could explore something specific such as the importance of temperature, sugar quantity, gelatin quantity, the timing of adding gelatin in the making process, the type of sugar used, and more. They can even experiment with marshmallows that they have already made, such as the hot chocolate temperature required to melt a marshmallow, or how the amount of time in a microwave affects the shape and consistency of a marshmallow. Click here for the recipe that we used. There are many others!
The Question: Does the the blending speed impact the stiffness of meringue peaks?
My students and I discovered the answer to this question by pure accident. My high school advisory students participated in a school pie-baking contest. They decided on lemon meringue, but we didn't have a blender on hand. We hand-whisked the egg white mixture. It took a very, very, very long time, but we did eventually get those peaks. But I wouldn't call them stiff. I have made many meringues since, but used a blender. I highly recommend it.
The Science: As you blend egg whites, air bubbles form. The proteins from the egg whites break up from the blending and rearrange themselves, surrounding the air bubbles and securing them, leaving a foamy consistency. By blending too slowly or weakly, the proteins will not "denature", and thus will not incorporate the scaffolding necessary to keep air bubbles in place. Or by whisking limply, you may not be adding any air bubbles to the mixture at all! You can absolutely hand-whisk very quickly, but expect a labor of love!
Inquiry Activity: Ask students to explore the ingredients and the cooking process of meringue (cookies, pies, etc.) They can make observations, ask questions, and design their own experiments, such as why sugar is added slowly, the result of overwhipping, using whole eggs instead of egg whites, leaving out cream of tartar, the ideal baking temperature, etc. Click here for the recipe that we used.
10. Chocolate Dessert Bowl
The Question: Does the quality of the chocolate affect the texture after it has been tempered and hardened?
My own children and I tried to make a chocolate bowl using a Pinterest recipe, and it didn't work out. At all. We wondered where we went wrong, and if the type of chocolate matters.
The Science: There is cocoa butter in chocolate, which is fat. The fat forms crystals when the chocolate is tempered (controlled heating and cooling of the chocolate). Tempering chocolate breaks up crystals made from the fat and creates a new, more orderly crystalline structure, giving it a glossy look in the end. We wondered if a higher quality chocolate, one with better or different amounts of cocoa butter would make a difference.
Inquiry Activity: We never tested our question, but think it would be a great way to start kitchen inquiry, especially for beginners. For those that have more experience with inquiry science, encourage open inquiry investigations. Ask students to explore chocolate in general, not necessarily a specific recipe. What gives it its shape? What is the difference between chocolate syrup and the chocolate on a candy bar? How is chocolate made?
I mentioned on Instagram that I would be adding ice cream inquiry to this post. I decided against it because it is just not wintery! I'll save that for summer-inspired kitchen inquiry in a few months! Well, nine months ;) Happy holidays, all!
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I have had many people reach out over the past few months about making the transition to experiential learning curriculum in their classrooms or home learning environments, and from educators that are starting experiential learning programs. That is really exciting, yes, and from what I'm gathering, also a little scary and chaotic.
All of the questions that I'm getting revolve around what is needed to launch experiential learning, and most are looking for a curriculum or set of resources to do the trick. This post is to make recommendations for those exact tools and resources. I have written up two different resource catalogs in this post that will give you everything you need to start experiential learning seamlessly right now.
The resources recommended here promote personalized, student-directed learning experiences for middle and high school students. Check them out and reach out ANYTIME with questions. Also, continue to follow this current series on experiential learning for more tips and tricks.
Getting Started with Experiential Learning Resource Catalog
The following catalog of experiential learning resources is meant to be used by students to design and execute their own learning experiences. So the suggested set of resources here are for those of you that are ready and willing to dive right in into experiential learning.
Update: Upon request, I have added all of these experiential learning resources into one bundle to complete the package. Everything you need to launch and maintain experiential learning in your home or classroom learning environment is right here.
1. Resources that Personalize Learning
Experiential learning is personalized, meaning learning experiences are designed around students' unique interests, backgrounds, hobbies, learning styles, and more. Here are a few helpful tools that you can use to get to know your students and for your students to get to know themselves!
2. Student-Directed Learning Resources
As you've seen in my experiential learning blog series, student-led learning experiences are key. How do you make learning student-directed? By giving students choices based on their personal interests and experiences. I have several student-directed learning activity tool kits that can be used over and over and over again.
If you would like to check out these resources before investing in them, take a look at my free growing experiential learning resource library that you get exclusive access to when you sign up for my newsletter. I just added a problem-based learning brainstorming activity today.
Save money by bundling!
3. 21st-Century Skill-Building Resources
Developing skills and competencies for life is equally as important, if not more important, than gaining content knowledge. Content can be Googled. The skills to locate information that is not Googleable is more necessary in the 21st-century.
4. Resources to Showcase Learning
"Assessments" have a different meaning in an experiential world. In my 13 years in experiential education, I can safely and accurately declare that I have never administered a test. Yes, testing might have its place, but that place is not in an experiential learning environment. It simply wouldn't make sense.
So how do I evaluate learning?
Guided Experiential Learning Resources
If you are not a plunge-right-in-and-see-what-happens sort of person, try making a gradual transition to experiential learning with these guided resources rather than getting tool kits mentioned above. At least right off the bat.
Students can still use the personal learning plan and project assessment portfolio with these more guided resources. The only difference is that rather than use student-directed tool kits that make the learning experience entirely open-ended, students use projects that have been designed to help them get to the point of using the tool kits.
I hope that this has been helpful, and as always, reach out with questions. I have played around with the idea of offering a professional development course that would help educators launch experiential learning.
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.
Spaces recently published a guest blog post that I wrote about the difference between project-based learning and problem-based learning. Check that out here!
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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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.