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!
Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
Most of the inquiries that I get from educators are about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components.
There are, however, some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
1. Myth: Experiential learning takes place outdoors.
One common misconception is that outdoor learning and experiential learning are interchangeable. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be. Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors.
2. Myth: Experiential learning is only for corporate team-building.
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term experiential learning is in association with corporate team-building activities. Experiential learning in the world of education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students, and the application to learning doesn't stop at team-building.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can learn experientially starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Essential Components of Experiential Learning
The following features are essential to experiential learning. After you have read about the importance of these components, subscribe to Experiential Learning Depot to gain access to a free growing resource library. You will instantly receive an email with a password and instructions to access that library.
In the library you will find an experiential learning activity planner that includes all of the elements of experiential learning identified here. Use it to help design and facilitate experiential learning in your classroom or home learning environment. Good luck!
1. Students are Actively Involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as a science lab that includes a recipe to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean they are involved in the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student. Learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, and embrace failure and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-led.
2. Students Have the Freedom and Support to Make Mistakes:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners.
STEM, STEAM, and maker education, among others, are experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these activities can be implemented in any learning environment, inside and out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting and alternative setting.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges for an experiential learning resource that welcomes mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The Experience is Personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student.
Student-led project-based learning encompasses every element of experiential learning when implemented correctly, but it's also the easiest way to make learning personalized in my opinion. Check out past posts on project-based learning here if you missed them.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my personalized project-based learning bundle. Pair it with my free project-based learning e-portfolio when you subscribe and you will be well on your way to an experiential classroom!
4. Students See a Connection Between Content and the Real World:
Connecting an activity with real-world problems or ideas helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what they're learning applies to life.
That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help learners develop the skills that are pertinent to life in the 21st-century.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students Can See Purpose in the Activity:
Do you ever hear "Why do I need to know this?" You will never hear an experiential educator respond to that question with "you just do" or "sometimes we need to do things we don't like".
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The Experience is Student-Directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Check out my student-directed learning series for more info.
The bulk of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed, or at a minimum, student-centered. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT for new resource alerts.
7. Reflect on the Experience:
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning. They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
8. Authentic Learning Experiences:
Make learning authentic by adding experiences that are real and relevant to students. If students are studying the brain, for example, connect with the neurology department of a local university to arrange for a speaker, class visit, to borrow resources, etc.
Utilizing community experts and community resources in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for.
Go through a favorite activity and fill in the experiential learning planner included in E.L.D.'s free resource library to see if it is experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential.
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences. Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences.
But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners. Start with any student-directed learning activity.
Good luck! And as always, reach out anytime with questions. I would also love to showcase your experiential learning successes right here! Share your experiences with me anytime.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
Teachers and parents of the 21st-century have a challenge to face and the responsibility to confront that challenge. Technology is a prominent and permanent part of modern society. It is a blessing and a curse, particularly when it comes to social media and children.
We have all been faced with the need to make important decisions for our children when it comes to technology; at what age to allow them to have their first cell phone, whether to let them use social media as a research or presentation tool in class for school projects, how much time to allow them on social media each day if at all, whether to install child monitoring software to home or school computers.
These are all legitimate decisions to make as parents and educators. We want children to be able to utilize all of the amazing learning tools that technology has to offer, but also want them to be safe. Technology is evolving rapidly. Generation Z is all over it. They know the latest trends the moment they start trending. My four-year-old knows how to use a photo editing app on my phone better than I do.
It is illogical to think that I will always know what my children and students are doing on social media at any given time. Therefore, rather than obsessing over how to control it, Cory A. Jones, author of "Followed", contends that we should embrace it and help students learn how to navigate it. He does so through realistic storytelling. Cory wrote "Followed" as a teaching tool for young people, parents and educators to help navigate the social media scene responsibly and safely.
Cory Alexander is an educator, author, serial dreamer, and entrepreneur. He holds a Bachelor Degree in Deviant Behavior & Social Control from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a Masters Degree in Education: School Counseling from Liberty University. Now, Cory is a high school guidance counselor as well as the founder of Harlem Press, LLC. and Rise Career Academy, an on-demand career mentoring program. He is also the author of Followed: Who's Following YOU? A compelling story of a group of typical, modern-day teens navigating their way through social channels and personal emotions.
Using Storytelling to Talk to Kids About Safe and Responsible Social Media Use: Start the Conversation
1. You’ve written a book called “Followed”. What is the premise of the book?
The book's objectives are three-fold: 1) To encourage young people to think before they post, take a moment of pause, and proceed through a set of standards. Post with a purpose. 2) Be aware that their social media expressionism creates a digital footprint, a resume, and paints a picture about them whether they like it or not. 3) Be wary of strangers. Things aren’t always what they seem. There is a staggering amount of fake accounts and people with bad intentions trying to connect for the sole purpose of taking advantage of you.
2. What inspired the book?
Being a guidance counselor I wanted to really help young ladies. Overall, I have a sense of fairness and I don’t like people being bullied and taken advantage of. I’ve experienced girls finding themselves in compromising positions due to poor judgment in sending a nude pic or saying things online that cause massive disagreements, which lead to physical fights and ruined relationships. I also notice the self-esteem issues. I know it’s difficult growing up, finding your way, and trying to navigate friendships and family obligations. Social media adds a level of complexity to an overall complex time in their lives. Those middle and high years are rough on many levels. Helping young people and sharing a story that they can relate to with the hope of encouraging them to pick us some tips from the story is what inspired me to write Followed.
3. As a school counselor, you have likely seen social media risks at play. What can you say about those experiences? Was your plot line or were your characters based on true events?
As a school counselor, my heart has broken more than a few times. I’ve witnessed shame and stress caused by sexting and arguments escalate to physical altercations because of social media comments and post. Embarrassingly, fights are first videoed before anyone considers breaking them up. Still an act that I just can’t get used to. The characters in the book without question share traits with many of my students. The plot, not so much. Some of the behavior in the plot is general to any high school in the world. That’s why the book works. It’s real life and extremely relatable.
4. Your solution has been to teach kids about responsible use of social media through realistic storytelling. What inspired this avenue for educating students?
I’m such a respecter of persons regardless of age. I grew up in a single family household and I had to independently make decisions on my own so often. Because of this, I don’t look down on younger people like their trials and stresses are less than. With that, I wanted to “share” a story on what could happen to them or loved ones if they're not careful on social media, I want to do more than just state facts that they may or may not remember. I’m of the opinion that we learn in story form. Books, movies, and music are very good storytelling vehicles. I’ve read things that have stuck with me because of how it was presented. I’ve learned from movies because of how it was presented and I’ve gotten some of my best advice from observing what happened to someone else.
5. Does the book include resources for teachers and parents such as curriculum or discussion guides?
I so much believe that the advance in society as a collective starts when we dialog amongst each other, so I created end-of-chapter questions that a teacher or parent can use to help kids share what they’ve experienced online. This is best in group settings so that we can share and learn that we’re not alone in dealing with social media anxieties and an unhealthy attachment to tech in general. I recently did a group talk with my students titled, “Social Media & Cell Phone Over-Usage”. It was great how students shared what hurt about social media, what they would like to see changed, and what part they want to play in that change.
6. If you could give parents a tip to help them navigate the world of teens and social media, what would it be?
If I had just one tip I would say talk. Share stories you’ve heard, both good (i.e. someone raised money using social media), and bad (i.e. someone got hurt because…) Create an environment where you share what you’ve learned and ask them about the trends they're noticing. Interestingly enough, when you get kids talking, they really share (probably more than they planned).
7. If you could give teachers one tip to help them navigate social media when it comes to their students, what would it be?
One tip for teachers/educators is to get involved. No longer can we be passive on social media. We need to talk about it, help them navigate their way on it. It’s not going away. We have to embrace it. Our parents had to embrace the change in language and sexuality on T.V. and cable. Their parents had to embrace the change in music, etc. Every generation has challenges and new norms. By embracing social media, we can make effective change and common sense behavior for our students.
For resources and more information on Followed, visit Followedthebook.com
Check out these free chapters: Chapter 7 and Chapter 8
Take a look at these supplemental worksheets.
The book can be found for purchase on Amazon.
If you have read the book "Followed" and want to support the author, vote his book for a 2019 Author Academy Award! Click the link and find the YA category. Good luck, Cory!
What have been your experiences with teens and social media? What works in the classroom? What doesn't? Parents, what works for you and your children? Any resources, tips, suggestions are welcome!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out student-directed curriculum in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot.
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.