I'm several posts into my student-directed learning series now, and I'm finding that I may never reach an end. There is so much to say about it. Generally speaking, when learning activities are truly student-directed, classrooms are transformed as are students. Student-directed learning, in short, gives students choice, voice, and autonomy. This approach to learning provides students with opportunities to develop important 21st-century skills, grow in knowledge, and develop the tools for lifelong learning. These learning experiences can also be done just about anywhere: trapped at home on a rainy day, out in the backyard or school yard, on the road, or traveling around the world. The options are limitless because the experiences are designed and led by the students themselves.
The three learning tools of focus on this post do not necessarily have to be student-directed. They can all fall under teacher-directed if the teacher is making most of the decisions and directing the experiences. Guiding is much different than directing (check out my post to see what teachers do in a student-directed learning environment.) I chose the three learning activities that I did, 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 implement. The following activities are great ways to start if you are looking to transform your classroom (and students) by way of student-directed learning.
I have tool kits for all of my go-to self-directed learning experiences including project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, maker projects, and community action projects (PBL + service learning). I have compiled several of these into a bundle, or they can be found independently at my TPT store. Each tool kit provides all of the materials to help guide students through student-led learning experiences, and helps parents and educators facilitate them. Click on the photo below to get to the resource.
3 Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools
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. Self and peer-assessment is also important. 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.
So then 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 if you have the flexibility to allow that. If you are restricted to teaching specific topics, then choose the topic and allow student choice in other aspects of the project process. Students can choose how they will gather information, which community experts they will use and how they will utilize their expertise. Students can choose how they will demonstrate learning such as creating a comic or building a website. Students can and should choose their authentic audience. Students can even choose their own grading criteria by writing their own rubric or designing their own formative assessment.
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.
Most of my TpT store is filled with various project-based learning resources. Many of my PBL resources start with a specific topic but give students choice in every other way. I also have a project-based learning toolkit that provides all of the guiding materials necessary for student-directed PBL that can be personalized to any topic.
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 done 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):
I love problem-based learning for so many reasons, but one is the creative solutions that students come up with. Kids come into this activity with a fresh lens! Problem-based learning is when students examine real-world problems. They investigate the 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. They can also choose how they propose their plan.
True student-directed problem-based learning would be allowing students to choose the real-world problem they want to investigate and solve. This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires certain 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 just started a problem-based learning product line on my TpT site. I have a problem-based learning toolkit that provides the framework and guiding materials to do student-directed problem-based learning from start to finish.
I do a lot of problem-based learning activities on environmental science because I am a science teacher. I give them a water pollution problem about fertilizers (available in my store), and organized a field trip 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 subject, and any unit (if that's what you're looking for.) Inquiry is simply asking a question and investigating it 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. Feel free to go back one week to see my post on student-directed inquiry-based learning for details on how to guide inquiry activities. 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 of these two extremes.
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.
Of course there are other activities that can be student-directed, but these specific approaches to learning have worked well for me. Project-based learning, in my opinion, is the best place to start.
I would love to hear about any student-directed learning activities that you do with your students, or how your PBL, PrBL, and inquiry-based learning activities are working out for your students.
Several years ago I showed a Vice News episode to my advisory/PBL students about the Syrian refugee crisis. A student of mine approached me after the activity to express her interest in this topic. The conflict in Syria was something she knew little about, and she wanted to know more. She decided to do a project on Syria. The driving question for her project, which she chose, would be how the conflict in Syria began. She would demonstrate learning by organizing the series of events that led to the conflict into a digital timeline. Again, her choice. With my guidance the student wrote project goals and created her own project rubric.
My student dove deep into research and quickly came to the conclusion that she wanted to do something to help or contribute in addition to her original timeline project. She organized a holiday pie fundraiser in the community. She turned the fundraiser into a group effort by recruiting students from our advisory. They made and distributed marketing materials, made order forms, and made their own "take-and-bake" apple pies to sell. The student still completed her original project and used her timeline as a marketing strategy to sell pies. She shared her timeline to various social media pages along with an ad for her pie fundraiser. The visual helped connect potential pie buyers with the cause.
What is Student-Directed Learning?
This project 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 entirely directed by the student. Student-directed learning by definition involves student choice at every step.
Without student choice you do not have student-directed learning.
1. Students choose what they want to learn.
2. Students write their learning goals and determine their own learning objectives.
3. Students choose how they will gather information.
4. Students partner up with community members of their choosing for expertise and collaboration.
5. Students choose how they will demonstrate learning.
6. Students determine an authentic audience and choose a method of reaching that audience.
7. Students establish a method of assessment and criteria for evaluation.
Ways to implement student-directed learning:
Student-directed activities: some teachers may throw in a student-directed activity once in a while into an otherwise teacher-centered curriculum.
Student-directed curriculum with teacher-directed objectives: other teachers will design a learning environment that is dominantly student-directed but will themselves lay down a framework around specific objectives. I see this as the most common form of student-directed learning as teachers have the unfortunate task of meeting standards. Imagine how wonderful teaching would be if students didn't have standards. Students could learn about whatever they want to learn whenever they want to learn it. Genius hour for more than an hour! Anyway, this is the type of student-directed teaching you'd likely see going on in my class at any given time.
Authentic student-directed learning: the final way of operating a student-directed learning environment is to give students full control of their learning from start to finish. Teachers do not place any parameters on the learning experience. The project conducted by my student on Syria is an example of authentic student-directed learning. Some would say it is not student-directed learning at all if every step above isn't directed by the student. I would tend to agree, but understand that it is much easier to implement in theory than in reality. There are obstacles to consider such as state standards, district philosophy and mission, class sizes, class structure, and district/staff/parent/community support.
I worked in a very progressive school for most of my teaching career. I didn't face many of the obstacles just mentioned, yet I still found myself choosing learning objectives for my students here and there. I did this for a couple of reasons. One was because progressive or not, we still needed to follow the same state standards as everyone else. I also learned that students need input. They need "sparks" as Wayne Jennings would say. The Vice News episode in the project example above was such a "spark" for this student. It was the introduction of a topic that sparked interest and questions. It is okay to plant the seed even in a student-directed learning environment. I showed a Vice episode to my advisory every single Monday morning to start off the week. I did this because they loved it. Every time I showed an episode of Vice at least one student turned the episode topic into a student-directed PBL project. I have Vice News episode guides and student-centered extension activities in my TpT store. This is a bundle I used with my students, the episode about Syria included in the "War and Peace" bundle - Vice News Series Bundle.
Benefits of student-directed learning:
The student mentioned in the Syria example not only learned the details of an important and current global issue, but gained numerous critical 21st-century competencies as well by learning how to learn. When students direct their own learning they take ownership. They are invested in the process and the outcome. An intrinsic motivation to learn emerges. The motivation for some, a passion for learning, has been buried deeply in students that have spent much of their academic careers in a teacher-centered learning environment. Allowing students choice, autonomy, room to fail, and opportunities to construct knowledge through experience sets the stage for lifelong learning. The alternative is a teacher-directed environment where information is given, answers are right or wrong, learning is passive, 21st-century skills are glossed over, facts are memorized and forgotten weeks later. There is little meaning or relevance, therefore, learning is shallow.
I'm elated to say that I don't see a lot of teachers running classrooms anymore that are completely teacher-centered. There are so many amazing student-centered learning activities that I see educators implementing such as STEM, maker education, inquiry, experiential learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning. There are so many cool ideas out there. 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-directed learning activities in here and there. See how they go. If that goes well do more until your entire curriculum is student-directed! You won't regret it.
Student-directed learning resources:
A great student-directed learning activity to start with is project-based learning. There are so many amazing PBL resources out there. My TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot is dominated by PBL projects right now. Feel free to check those out. I have a project-based learning bundle that includes a manual on how to get started with project-based learning in your classroom. This product is designed to move your classroom from teacher-directed to student-directed. If you are a beginner to project-based teaching or student-directed learning this may be a good resource for you. You can also go back to any number of my previous blog posts on project-based learning. Start here with "What is Project-Based Learning, Anyway?" I also like the Buck Institute. They work hard at spreading PBL love and have great tips and resources for using project-based learning in a more traditional learning environment.
Coming up in the student-directed learning series:
Stay-tuned for more from my student-directed learning series. Expect to see some future blog posts on the following, among others.
1. What does a student-directed learning environment look like?
2. What does the teacher do in a student-directed learning environment?
3. Student-directed assessments. I'm really excited about this one. I submitted an article to be to the Reformer, an education magazine through ASCD. I was accepted from a pool of over 500 submissions! My article on student-generated rubrics will be published in February. I will add a condensed version of it here.
4. Student-directed parent/teacher conferences.
5. List of student-directed learning activities.
6. What teachers are doing in their student-directed classrooms.
If you have questions about student-directed learning or would like me to write a blog post on a specific aspect of student-directed learning that I haven't mentioned, please reach out.
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I recently posted part 1 of my student-directed learning series, which broke down the meaning of student-directed learning: What is Student Directed Learning Anyway? Now that you know what student-directed learning means, what do you do with that? What does a student-directed learning environment even look like? Where should you start?
Whatever learning space you are working with, it must nurture student choice. That's the bottom line. If at this point you know nothing about student-directed learning, just know that student choice is mandatory. Students direct their learning through a series of choices from learning objectives to designing their own assessments. The role of the teacher changes to facilitator.
It may be tricky to even imagine what that might look like. What does the "facilitator" do? Sounds like the kids are teaching themselves. In some respects they are, and I'd argue that that's essential in raising lifelong learners. My next post will be on the role of the teacher in a student-directed learning environment. For now, I'm going to share with you the first and most important steps to take to shift from a teacher-directed classroom to a student-directed classroom.
4 Steps to a Student-Directed Learning Environment
1. Modify Your Learning Space to Allow for Student-Choice:
Shifting the layout of your room can make a dramatic impact on the success of student-directed learning in your classroom. The foundation of student-directed learning is choice, so a variety of micro-spaces should be available for students to utilize. The room should accommodate for creating, group cooperation and collaboration, technology, movement, a quiet and peaceful area for reading or independent work. Student-directed learning means that students use their unique learning styles, skills, and interests to guide their educational journey. At any given time students may be working on something different than their peers. It would make little sense to have a room with 30 forward facing desks in that case. That layout screams lecture. Student-directed learning is the opposite of lecture-based instruction.
My Learning Space:
- A large round table in the center of my room for whole-group collaboration. This is a great space to gather for class discussion, meetings, group projects, and presentations.
- Workstations line the perimeter of my classroom. My workstations are desks, each with a desktop computer. We recently started transitioning away from desktop computers and are moving toward Chromebooks for each student. These workstations are great for independent projects and cooperative learning.
- Next door is a workshop or makerspace. That room is free for students to use during independent work time. There is usually a teacher in that room to assist and I can also see into the workshop from my classroom. A creative workspace is essential.
- I have a quiet corner set aside for those that want to work quietly and independently. It has a large shelf filled with books, art materials, a large cozy chair, and pillows. It's a good space for reading and relaxing. Yes. I let my high-schoolers rest when they
Student-Directed Learning Design Projects:
Many of the design aspects of my classroom were achieved through student-directed projects. A small group of students painted each panel of my ceiling. Another student designed and painted my large group table. Students built their own desks. Our reading corner was designed by a student using Google Sketchup. The small square table was an old piece of literal garbage that a student stripped and refinished. If this is something that interests you, check out my PBL Maker Challenge project - Upcycled Lounge Area.
2. Move Beyond the Walls of the Classroom:
Utilize the Community to Your Advantage:
Some of the most profound learning experiences happen outside of the classroom. A large chunk of our student learning activities take place outside of the room whether that be on a school trip across the globe, in the park near our school, or even right outside my classroom door in the commons area. For students to be successful at directing their own learning experiences they need input that is relevant to the real-world. Sparks incite interest and provide exposure to new ideas. Community collaboration, locally or globally, is essential. Using the world as the classroom brings student-directed learning to another level. If you can't leave your classroom, bring the community to you.
Using the World as the Classroom:
In the Community:
- Field trips (history centers, science labs, local businesses, community events, etc.
- School travel
- Mentorship program
- Service learning projects
- Community experts (independent PBL projects, maker projects, assessment panel, speakers)
On School Grounds:
- Live webinars with global experts
- Video conference with community experts
- School yard activities
- Bring experts to you - students can and should arrange for many these meetings in a student-directed learning environment, especially when the expert is unique to one student's project. . You guide and offer suggestions when needed. You could also invite guests from the community that offer exposure to a new topic or are relevant to an overarching theme or standard.
- Get creative with your space - ex: using the commons area for physics experiments.
- Attempt to implement an open-door policy - I know this sounds radical, but what I mean by this is allowing students access to makerspaces, tech rooms, the library, a music room, a quiet conference room. The logistics of this will depend on your situation. Do some brainstorming and find a system that works.
3. Organize Student-Directed Learning Activities:
Implementing student-directed learning activities seems pretty obvious, but what is a student-directed learning activity? Again, student-directed learning involves choice, so the activity needs to provide students with flexibility and the freedom to lead the experience. Project-based learning is a great way to do that. PBL doesn't have to be student-directed, however, which I really just recently discovered.
As a quick reminder, project-based learning is the active exploration of a particular topic where students are fully engaged with the community. Students demonstrate learning with an innovative final product, and share their outcome with a public, authentic audience. For more on PBL see previous posts - What is Project-Based Learning Anyway? and Key Components of Project-Based Learning. All of that in theory could be arranged by the instructor with little to no choice or input from students. However, as a project-based learning teacher who also taught at an experiential high school for 9 years, I can tell you that project-based learning is the perfect canvas for student-directed learning. It's just a matter of proper execution. I have a PBL bundle in my store that gradually transitions students (and teachers) from a teacher-directed classroom to a student-directed classroom using project-based learning. If you're unsure how to make this transition, this may be a great place to start - Project-Based Learning Bundle: 20 Integrative Projects.
Other Activities with Student-Directed Learning Potential:
- Passion Projects
- Genius Hour (although I would argue you do this all of the time instead of for an hour!)
- Learning committees or clubs run by students
- Maker projects
Again, any activity has promise to be student-directed, you just need to let students do the directing!
4. Shift Your Role:
Teacher's Role in Teacher-Directed Learning Environment:
Obviously the activity going on in your classroom at any given time would look very different in a student-directed learning environment than a teacher-centered one. Imagine observing a teacher-directed classroom. What would that look like? You'd likely find students sitting in their desks with pen in hand jotting down notes while the teacher lectures from the front of the room. The teacher may walk the room a bit, reminding students with eye-contact and body language to pay-attention. You may walk into the classroom one day to find students working together on a hands-on activity, but upon closer inspection discover that they are following a prescribed recipe.
Teacher's Role in a Student-Directed Learning Environment:
Now imagine walking into a student-directed classroom. There isn't a typical "scene". There is always activity, but students are pouring into every corner of the room engaged in a different enterprise than their neighbor. One student might be working in the makerspace on their final product. There might be a pair of students in another corner of the room deeply absorbed in a brainstorming session. Another student may be at their desk engrossed in a phone interview with a community expert. And let's be honest. There will of course be the kid who is wandering around looking for someone to banter with, or the kid sleeping in the reading chair. Even student-directed learning classrooms have their challenges. But that's for another day.
Now, where is the teacher in all of this? The role of the teacher changes to facilitator. The teacher is guiding and assisting. You may find the teacher sitting with the pair of students brainstorming, asking questions that challenge their thinking. You may find the teacher in discussion with the student who will be giving the interview. The teacher may be proofing the interview questions or offering suggestions before giving the student the go ahead to make the call. The teacher may be redirecting the wanderer. The teacher works the room offering assistance and inspiration.
What Role do you Play?
My guess is that most of us are probably trying to find a balance between the two roles, especially if you're a high school teacher. There are limitations, rules, time constraints, the pressures of testing. Sometimes whole group instruction is necessary. Full disclosure: sometimes I lecture. I keep it as brief as possible and it's always in connection with student-directed projects. If you find yourself lecturing most of the time, I get it. I have been this teacher. What I do know though, is that if you want your students to be truly engaged, to practice deeper thinking, to have a passion for learning, the internal motivation to thrive and improve, then a great start is shifting your role to allow for more student-directed learning.
How to Start the Shift:
Start small. You don't need to flip your classroom upside-down in one day. If you decide to start doing student-directed project-based learning for example, start by taking one concept that you'd typically teach through lecture, such as climate drivers, and replace it with a PBL project. Once you're comfortable with that, try another one, until you've replaced lecture-based instruction (for the most part.) My PBL bundle and manual that I mentioned above starts with more teacher-centered projects and gradually moves to projects that are entirely student-directed. Play around with your options and ultimately do what feels right and is working well for your students.
I am a huge advocate (clearly) for student-directed learning. I love to talk about it. If you have any questions, need advice, or even want to challenge me, I invite it! Please reach out. Stay-tuned for more from my student-directed learning series.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education. Check out my student-directed curriculum in my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot.
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 (not all of it). Our students lead their education through student-directed project-based learning. For details on student-directed PBL, go back to this post. Each student in the example above is working on some component of a student-directed project. One student decides he wants to gather information for his project by reading books on the topic. The small group of students chatting around the table is brainstorming how best to reach their authentic audience. Another student is creating an animation as her final product to demonstrate learning. The student writing emails is connecting with community experts to utilize for his project. The small group of students watching the live webinar is using this modern technology 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, such as a standard that needs to be met (or not), but they meet those learning objectives by making a series of personal decisions based on their passions and needs.
The question then is where is the teacher in all of this? If the teacher isn't giving information through direct instruction or providing a structured lesson plan or activity, then what is the teacher even doing there? Teachers wear A LOT of hats. ALL educators know this and experience this, regardless of pedagogy or philosophy. Student-directed teachers still manage the classroom, provide resources, scaffold, organize learning activities, provide input, and even teach students how to direct their own learning. What changes in a student-directed learning environment is your role. You are far from obsolete. You are a facilitator of learning. You guide and support, you challenge, you give feedback.
What does the teacher do in student-directed learning environment?
1. Help students learn 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 student-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 very personalized. Knowing your students on this level will be critical to 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 work at it.
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 decisions! 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 that blank PBL project proposal and other helpful student-directed PBL templates in my store in a bundle called "PBL Toolkit".
The picture above shows one of my students learning about history through photography. Getting to know this student I discovered she was interested in photography. She needed history credit so she decided to stage major events in history, take and edit photos, and write a description of the events. She eventually developed an entire gallery of recreated historical events. She CHOSE her final product, a way of demonstrating learning that was of interest to her. I guided her through this process. I was so impressed by her results that I created a guided PBL project around this idea and it's available in my store - History Through Artistic Expression.
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 them write this plan and modify it as they learn and grow. My personal learning plan template is also included in my PBL Toolkit.
5. Assist students with 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.
At the time when the Syrian refugee crisis reached its peak, a group of my students chose to raise money by having a holiday pie fundraiser. This was their plan for their student-directed community action project that I assigned. Also in my store. I helped them locate resources, in this case, ingredients for pies, by connecting with and arranging deals with local orchards.
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. In most cases with my students it's a rubric for project-based learning. 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.
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!
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 dialog 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.
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 give structure. It is your job as their instructor to provide the tools they need to direct their own learning. 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.
10. Everything else that comes with territory of being a teacher -
You wear a lot of hats regardless of teaching style. The same goes for teachers in student-directed learning environments. You will always have a student or two that are distracting other students. You will have students that walk in the door with baggage or trauma. 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 reduced because students have choice and autonomy. Their learning experiences are based on interest and real-life.
That was long! Thanks for hearing me out. Student-directed learning is powerful and it's worth considering if you don't already use this approach. If you do student-directed learning in your classroom or learning environment, please share about your experience!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources.
My entire teaching career was at one school, and the philosophy is strongly rooted in "community" as the foundation for learning. In nine years teaching there I developed a deep appreciation for student-involvement in the community.
Students have the capacity to make massive waves of change because they are young, technologically savvy, and many injustices happening in the world today are happening to them, impacting them directly. What they need from us are the tools, skills, and knowledge to have their voices heard. They have opinions, they have ideas. They just need a nudge, some guidance, and a little confidence.
I designed a project that gives students the tools, skills, and knowledge that they need for a lifetime of community work and activism. Check out Community Action Projects at Experiential Learning Depot. My community action projects are entirely student-led. They are a cool mix of project-based learning, problem-based learning, and service-learning. Students identify important issues in the local and global community, explore solutions, create action plans, and take action. These types of projects teach many important social-emotional skills such as empathy and self-reliance. They help students develop essential life and career skills such as collaboration and responsible citizenship. Most importantly, action in the community gives students the tools to make a positive impact long after they have completed the project, finished the class, or graduated from school.
You can take a look at my Community Action Project Tool Kit for all of the guiding materials needed for student-led CAP, or you can choose from some themed community action projects in my store such as Mental Health, Women's Issues, and Nutrition. Good luck!
Student-Led Service Learning Projects for Secondary Students
There are many ways students can take action in the community today! Here are four such ways:
1) Giving Time/Volunteering/Community Service:
Giving time is one way students can be active in the community. Students can organize a community involvement club, have a weekly community clean-up days, regular visits to a food shelf, take on a role at a relevant established organization, and so on. Inspire students to identify community issues that matter to them, and to give their time to that cause.
Students love fundraising! Encourage them to direct that spirit toward a cause that is meaningful or relevant in their lives. Many people don't have the means to donate money from their own pockets, especially students. They can plan and host a fundraiser for a specific cause and donate money to a worthy cause that way.
3) Advocating for Legislation:
This is a really important learning experience for students to have in my opinion. In many cases it is the most effective course of action one could take. The Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs (MAAP) coordinates an annual "Legislative Day", where students from across the state come to the capital to speak with their legislators. This is a powerful way for students to be heard. This type of action also teaches students important citizenship concepts, among other things. I had a student who personally contacted her legislator to discuss a bill that would help ex-convicts get jobs, an important and personal issue to this particular student. That legislator traveled a long distance to come and meet with my student.
4) Education/Raising Awareness:
Education is the most effective course of action in making long-term change. Say what you will about social media, but in this case, it is a huge ally. Information travels fast, far and wide when shared on social media platforms. Students are especially competent with technology. A simple awareness campaign poster posted on social media will reach more people in 5 minutes than a flier would in weeks. Encourage your students to utilize these 21st C. communication skills to their benefit and the benefit of the community. If social media is not an option, challenge students to spread awareness far and wide without it.
There are so many ways students can be active members of their communities. What seems like a small and simple gesture may not be small and simple for some. I had a student who wanted to get a crosswalk put into a high traffic area near the school. Getting a crosswalk put in may not bring world peace, but it's something, and an important something to that student and her community.
Change the world one project at a time! Have a great school week everyone.
I have been writing this blog for a little over one year. I have spent a lot energy in that time reading books on education, talking with educators, researching pedagogy, and simply observing common trends. This post includes trends that fit my philosophy. My list of top educational trends of 2019 comes from observation and experience. I have not run any fancy analytics programs or produced any actual data. So do with that what you will. You can take it as a grain of salt, or you can try some of the trends on my list and see for yourself.
Many of the trends I list below are not new. The philosophy of the school where I have spent 12 years of my life is structured around many of these trends. These trends have had such a strong presence in the educational scene within the last couple of years because we know they work for 21st-century students. They are based on the rapidly evolving world we find ourselves in. What used to make sense or what we used to do just doesn’t make sense anymore. With the world changing as quickly as it is, we are forced to really consider these ideas. Social media and other forms of technology have completely altered the way we communicate and learn.
Notice patterns as you read the list. A few themes that I have identified include student-centered learning, hands-on learning, inquiry-based learning, connecting content with real-world issues, relationship building, student choice and voice, and technology and innovation. The overarching theme is a student-centered model necessary in developing the skills needed in the 21st-century. Therefore, I don't see these trends going anywhere. But we shall see!
Note: All resources on Experiential Learning Depot on TpT are up to 25% off until midnight tonight.
Top Educational Trends of 2019
1) Social-Emotional Learning -
"Social emotional skills" is a buzz phrase in education now because those are skills students need today, arguably more so than content knowledge. Information is at their fingertips. Impulse-control, empathy, compassion and so on are essential.
2) 21st Century Skills -
This one is highly interconnected to the other trends listed here. The others provide learning opportunities that develop the essential skills needed in the 21st century. Some examples include problem-solving skills, communication, creativity, technical literacy, and critical thinking, among others. Looking over my archives of posts, you'll find that MOST of my them are related to skill-building in some way or another. Click on the link in my archives titled "21st-century skills" for specifics. You can also check out my 21st-Century Skills Portfolio resource in my store.
3) STEM/STEAM -
STEM and STEAM are hot right now. No pun intended! - STEAM...;) Both strengthen many of the 21st century skills mentioned above. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. STEAM is the same but includes art. Look back at my guest posts on STEM and STEAM for details, and stay-tuned for future posts and resources on practical STEM applications.
4) Maker Education -
Maker education is a student-centered learning model that emphasizes design thinking. Learners identify everyday problems, brainstorm solutions that they can "make". They ideate, make a prototype, test their product on an authentic audience, make adjustments, and so on. This instructional approach is highly student-centered and helps learners build important skills such as teamwork and critical thinking. "Failure" is not only acceptable, but encouraged. It deepens the learning experience. Head to Experiential Learning Depot on TpT to check out my maker resources. You can also head to the archives and click on "Maker Education" for posts.
5) College and Career Readiness -
This is an important aspect of any secondary learning environment. Authentic experiences MUST be a priority. My coworker is a genius at this. She started something called a "life plan" that all students must have in order to graduate. I have a few college and career readiness resources in my store, one of which is my 21st-Century Skills Portfolio, which I already mentioned. This is a GREAT way for students to build skills and add authentic experiences to their college and career portfolios. You can also check out my project-based learning resource, Career Exploration.
6) Blended Learning -
From my understanding, blended learning is a combination of classic schooling with online learning. I'm realizing, however, that it's not that simple. I think people that practice true blended learning have a precise understanding of a much more complex picture than just a mix of tech and teacher. I think there is a little personal learning thrown in there as well, among other principles that are still a bit of an enigma to me.
7) Project-Based Learning -
My pride and joy. My entire career has been dedicated to project-based learning. Check out the blog posts I've done on PBL for details (links to some below) and check out my project-based learning resources on TpT.
8) Genius Hour/Passion Projects -
Genius hour and passion projects are two very different things. I lumped them together because students direct the experience in both. The learning experiences are interest-driven. Genius hour, for example, gives students one hour to dive deeply into one topic of their choice. I love the idea, but would love to see it change to genius day. An hour is not enough. Passion projects are similar in that students choose one topic to research. Rather than spending one hour on the topic, the students spend a significant amount of time on this project.
9) Brain-Based Learning -
The point of brain-based learning is to teach in a way or provide a learning environment that supports the brain and cognitive development. This comes up often in the debate about whether kindergarteners need to be or should be learning to read and write. It also includes the very popular whole-brain teaching strategy. Brain-based learning means taking into consideration what the brain needs (safety, camaraderie, enrichment) and what it doesn't need (shaming, humiliation). The philosophy of my school is based on the child's brain and cognitive development, which is why we take an experiential approach.
10) Trauma Informed Practices -
I don't know enough about trauma informed practices, unfortunately. I have worked with at-risk students for almost 12 years. Every one of them has experienced one or more traumatic experiences in their lives, yet I'm still ill-equipped to help. Number 9 and trauma informed practices are interconnected; they go hand-in-hand. Understanding how trauma impacts the brain is essential. If you're interested in trauma informed teaching, ACES is a great place to start. I also recommend reading the book "Eyes are Never Quiet". If you have any resource or training suggestions that are about trauma informed teaching, leave it in the comments!
11) Alternative Grading Systems -
This concept is simple. Some schools are starting to move away from A-F grading systems. Many combine letter grades with portfolios. Others have eliminated grades all together and complete narratives for each student instead. Others combine the two. The purpose is to reduce academic related stressors. Check out my post on colleges that have moved to alternative grading systems.
12) Personal Learning -
Personal learning focuses on the student. It addresses student needs and skill levels in addition to backgrounds, homelife, learning styles, intelligences, and most importantly in my opinion, INTERESTS. Students are designing their own educational journey with teachers there to facilitate. Check out my posts on personal learning for details.
13) Problem-Based Learning -
Rather than students receiving a lecture with numbers and stats on an assigned issue, students identity real-world issues that are relevant to their own interests and realities, they learn about the issue by making their own observations, they ask questions, explore the issue, brainstorm solutions and propose the solution to an authentic audience. The number of 21st-century skills developed in problem-based learning is astounding. Head to my store for problem-based learning resources, including my student-directed tool kit.
14) Lifelong Learning -
Lifelong learning encompasses all of the trends listed here in one. It is having the tools to learn long after "schooling" is over. College and career readiness, 21st-century skill building, social-emotional learning, brain-based learning, etc. all instill a passion for learning. When students WANT to learn, when they KNOW HOW TO learn, they will continue to learn throughout their lives.
15) Growth Mindset -
There is a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. A growth mindset acknowledges that skills can come through hard work and determination vs. fixed mindset which is the opposite. Promoting and encouraging a growth mindset with students is a major trend right now, and I can see why.
16) Self-Assessments -
This is when students take an active role in a learning outcome. Students grow by periodically self-assessing. They learn how to fail, pick themselves back up, go back to the drawing board, modify and try again. To take it a step further, students can even create their own assessments. I have my students create their own project rubrics. That rubric template is available in my TpT store. Check it out here - Student-Generated Project Rubric.
17) Authentic Learning -
I've already mentioned authentic learning several times in this post because so many of the trends that I've listed here depend on them. Authentic learning experiences are those that are relevant to the topic and the student. Project-based learning can be distinguished from other approaches to learning by its emphasis on authentic experiences.
18) Homeschooling, Worldschooling, Outschooling, Road Schooling, Unschooling!
I have always been curious about homeschooling. I left my full-time teaching job three years ago to be home with my kids. I started this blog, started an Experiential Learning Depot Instagram account, and was instantly blown away by the homeschooling presence on Instagram. Of course, homeschooling is not a novel concept, but I do think it is becoming more common, and access to social media outlets make it apparent just how popular home education has become. The variety of homeschooling styles is vast, and almost all of those styles encompass the experiential philosophy, of which I am, of course, a huge fan. I am so fascinated by worldschooling right now and hope to worldschool my own children someday. For now I will continue to live vicariously through the hundreds of thousands of worldschoolers and other home educators on Instagram! ;)
19) Student Leadership
This post is an updated version of last years post, "Educational Trends of 2018". A reader commented last year that I should add student leadership when it comes to school improvement. My response to him at the time was that I wasn't sure if student leadership trended in 2018, but I wished that it would in 2019. Personally, I don't see students taking the lead when it comes to school improvement as a common occurrence. It doesn't mean that it's not happening. If you know of cases, schools, instances, where students are taking leadership roles in school improvement, I would love to hear more about that. Drop your comments.
There are, of course, more trends in education than what I listed here. The ones that I listed are my favorites and those that I believe are worth nurturing and fortifying. What are your favorite education trends of 2019?
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Happy New Year, Everyone!
Student-directed learning is largely interest-driven. A couple of weeks ago I published a post on the common challenges that student-directed project-based educators face, one of which is apathetic students. It's generally not enough to say, "Hey, pull out a project proposal, write one up, and get started", or even to sit down with a student one-on-one and say, "What are you interested in?" A common answer is "nothing", especially from learners that are new to student-directed learning and are accustomed to having their learning experiences neatly designed by someone else and placed before them.
How do you change that answer from "nothing", to an enthusiastic laundry list of interests? You do it by throwing "sparks" out there. I don't know if that is a commonly used word in the world of education, but it is a word I have used for 12 years because that is what my boss called them, so i'll continue to use that word here. A "spark" is really exactly what it sounds like. It is a "thing" that sparks the interest of a student. A "spark" could be a speaker, a movie, a current event, a magazine article, a billboard, a post on social media, or even something you said in casual conversation. It is a "thing", anything, that gets a student's attention, elicits questions, and causes a deep down yearning to learn more about this "thing".
Some "sparks" happen organically. A student might be researching information on one topic and fortuitously come across an idea that creates that spark. It is the job, however, of a student-directed educator to facilitate learning experiences, and part of that duty is creating opportunities for sparks. There is so much going on in the world, so much knowledge at our fingertips, and because of that, a student settling on one topic to learn about can be daunting and overwhelming. There is also an exorbitant amount of topics that students aren't aware of...at all. Exposure to these foreign concepts is important in order to broaden the scope of learning possibilities.
Organizing "sparks" is a regular part of my job at this point. I've come to love this part of my role as an educator. That one kid that gets excited about a topic that you introduce makes it entirely worth the commitment. Here are some ways that I help learners find that spark; that interest that they are searching for as the starting-off point for student-directed learning experiences:
How to Spark Student-Led Learning Experiences
1. Group Share:
One way to inspire project ideas is to have students share their projects with one another. Student A might have done a project on their heritage, for example, inspiring Student B to learn about their own family history. If you are a homeschooler or have the flexibility at your school, consider tracking down some community presentations for learners to observe such as a local science fair or a convention where people are demonstrating some kind of final product. These experiences might inspire project ideas.
2. Share Your Life:
Many of my students' projects have launched because of a story of mine or a project that I had going on at home. My students were always fascinated by stories of my life when I worked in the field as a wildlife ecologist. At my school, a staff member presents on a "project" that they themselves are working on in their own lives such as a rebuilding their deck, reading books on a particular topic, participating in community events, volunteering, writing poetry, etc. We present on our own life projects for a couple of reasons, one of which is to demonstrate lifelong learning, and the other is to help inspire student project ideas.
3. Casual Conversation:
Many educators fill every minute of the day with academic rigor, from the second the students walk into the door to the second a bell rings. I won't go into detail on my views on that today, but I will say that by doing miss out on some pretty amazing learning potential, those learning experiences that are authentic and have personal meaning to the learner. You also miss out on the very important relationship building piece. Student-led learning requires relationship building. Period. It's mandatory. One of the best ways to do that is to simply chat with learners. It doesn't have to be about something specific or with the intention of developing a project. Casual conversation brings up interesting topics organically. Take the time to chat with your students. You won't regret it!
4. TED Talks:
TED Talks are great "sparks"; the talks are an easy, convenient, and free way to discover topic ideas of interest. If a student is struggling to find interest in anything, have them hop on TED.com and peruse the talks to find something that evokes some excitement.
I have a FREE project topic brainstorming activity in my TpT store that includes TED Talks. This is great for student-directed project-based learning and passion projects.
I keep a stack of magazines in my room at all times, from National Geographic to Sports Illustrated. When I have a student that claims that they don't have any interests, I will sometimes send them to the pile to peruse magazines for topic ideas.
6. Volunteering/Community Involvement:
My students do a lot of service learning, which typically organized by me. Students eventually take the reigns. Quite often students will feel really inspired by the experience and branch out with their own projects. I call these projects "Community Action Projects".
7. Group/Class Projects:
Sometimes group projects can help provoke interest in a learning topic. I have my advisory do one large group project every quarter. If you are homeschooler, try to organize a project that includes all of the siblings and you, a small group of community members, or a group of learners from a homeschool coop. My children do projects with their neighborhood friends all of the time. Beginners self-directed learners aren't going to know what to do right away. A group project helps them gain confidence, better understand the process, and provides exposure to new topics.
One of the coolest group projects that we did was on the Syrian refugee crisis. My PBL students learned about the issue and decided to organize a holiday pie fundraiser to raise money for refugee aid. This project helped learners develop essential skills such as critical thinking, empathy, creativity, teamwork and so on. They gained content knowledge from a variety of disciplines. The experience was authentic. But, as it relates to this post, one of the coolest outcomes of this project was the number of student-directed project spin-offs emerged from this experience.
8. Community Events:
Help learners develop topics of interest by engaging with their community. They might attend a city council meeting, participate in a march, check out a variety of cultural events around the city, meet with community experts, check out local speakers, and more.
9. Interest Survey:
Sometimes you'll get a student that says that they don't have any interests. They very likely do have interests, but are not skilled enough at this point to recognize them or might simply struggle with communication. An interest survey is a great way to pull out those underlying sparks AND gives you a chance to get to know your students.
10. Current Events:
I set aside time everyday to discuss current events with my PBL students. Talking about what is going on in the world not only encourages informed, responsible citizenship, but also provides exposure and inspires questions. I like to do Vice News with my high school students because it's gritty. So many projects have come out of watching these episodes. Check out my Vice episode worksheets and extension activities.
We have book clubs at our school, which in itself has inspired so many student-led projects. One of the most dramatic projects that I've seen in my career came out of a young adult novel that I read with my students called "Sold". This book is about human trafficking. Several students were inspired to do an elaborate project on women's issues. My students invited a self-defense instructor to come to our school to give an introductory course. These students connected with a local sex trafficking shelter and invited a survivor to come speak to students. They organized a food and clothing drive for the organization. They started an awareness campaign to bring the very real (and relatable for some of my students) issue to light. It was a year-long service learning project that started with a novel.
Sometimes when my students tell me they don't have any interests I have them conduct interviews. I tell them to write questions that would pull out the stories of someone's life. They then go interview a neighbor, grandma, a friend, a teacher, their parent, etc. The stories they uncover are fascinating, and those stories often lead to project topics. Students can also attempt to uncover their interests by writing down their own stories. It might be the story of their life or a particular moment or even that they want to tell. Storytelling not only helps bring potential project interests to the surface, but also helps learners develop a health self-concept and interpersonal skills.
Start a speaker series at your school or simply organize speakers that you believe could be relevant and interesting to your students. We have had a Holocaust survivor and artist, the Chief of Police, a vermiculturist, a horticulturist, an HIV researcher from the U of M, an educator from a local animal shelter, a biotechnologist, a neurologist, a counselor from an eating disorder clinic, a volunteer coordinator from a domestic violence shelter, a magician, a sculpturist, dancers, local legislators, and so many more. Even if one speaker inspires one student, that's great!
14. Field Trips:
Field trips really spark interests, bottom line. If you can't get learners to a museum, a nature center, a zoo, etc., at least take them outside to observe the world around them. Sometimes a little observation and inquiry is all it takes to stir up some topic ideas. Homeschoolers, take advantage of your flexibility! Hop online and look for free outings in your neck of the woods. You might literally find yourself in the woods, and woods have so much learning potential!
So many interests, questions, and topic ideas come out of my students' (and own children's) travel experiences. There is no other way that I can think of that provides the same level of exposure to new concepts and ideas. I have my students keep a journal when they travel, which serves two purposes: 1) They reflect on each day, 2) They jot down questions, interests, and project topic ideas as emerge throughout the adventure. They typically head home with a few dozen project ideas.
16. Theme Projects
Again with "exposure". Sometimes newbies need a little guidance. It doesn't make them poor self-directed learners. They just require some basic training before they can be expected to dive in head first. Beginner student-directed/interest led educators benefit from the same sort of gradual transition. I often start student-led learning with theme projects, those that have a general topic and guiding templates. I have many project-based learning resources like this in my store. Check those out here. I also have a PBL bundle with twenty theme projects that offer students choice on many levels, and help students and educators make the transition from teacher-directed to student-directed learning experiences.
In an ideal world, all learners would have the wherewithal to guide the learning experience from start to finish. But the fact of the matter is that most learners are not trained to do this. In fact, by the time they get to high school - to me - they have become so habituated to taking a back seat in the learning process, that directing their own learning experiences makes them uncomfortable. Help them get to a point where they are eager to take on their own projects by providing exposure and authentic learning experiences. That is the role of an educator in a student-directed learning environment; the role is facilitator. So get out there and facilitate, starting with creating "sparks" for students.
For more tips and tricks on student-directed learning, click here.
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How to Make Learning Personal In Your Classroom
I recently came across a comment on LinkedIn, a tirade really, about personalized learning. I thought to myself, "personalized learning? Of all things!" What could possibly be wrong with that? Personalized learning is what I have done, or thought I was doing, with my students for a decade, learning about their interests, their personal challenges in and outside of school, learning about their strengths and building off of those, planning deep and meaningful projects that reflect every inch of their individuality.
I spent some time trying to discern this mystifying LinkedIn comment, but was unsuccessful. I found what I expected to find; a variety of definitions, all with the same basic idea, that personalized learning is instruction designed around the unique needs of every individual learner. I also discovered that several terms appear to be used interchangeably including individualized learning and differentiated learning. Differentiated learning is not the same as my perceived definition of personalized learning at the time, by the way. I'll get to that in another post.
I moved on. I chalked it up as a comment from an individual that was either completely misled somewhere along the line or that we just fundamentally disagreed about the value of personalized learning. Then I came across an article written by Alfie Kohn. Not a recent one! It was written in 2015. This article finally uncovered the logic behind the comment. Personal learning is what I do. Personalized learning has taken on new meaning while I've been sitting here in the dark.
Four Reasons to Worry About Personalized Learning by Alfie Kohn
Personalized learning, according to Alfie Kohn, is the customization of learning FOR students by rather than BY the students themselves. Personal Learning, Inc. is software (for-profit) that analyzes student test scores to then produce a "personalized" set of basic-skills drills with the intention of improving test scores. This my friend, is NOT what I do. I now fully understand the sentiment behind the LinkedIn diatribe, and with this new frame of reference, completely agreed with it.
What I do is PERSONAL learning. What then is personal learning and how can you do it with your own students?
What is Personal Learning?
Personal learning is the facilitation of deep, meaningful, and authentic learning experiences 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 unique attributes of each child.
"Everyone is genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." Albert Einstein is commonly given credit for saying this, but I've read he didn't actually say it. Regardless of who said it, there is truth in it. Obviously a fish climbing or being able to grasp the concept of its own intelligence is hyperbole. But there are parallels to children, and the point remains - not all children are the same and shouldn't be treated as such, especially when it comes to their education. To cast an umbrella over all of your students, to expect all 5 year olds to be able to read at the same time, for example, is nonsense.
Every student walks into your classroom each day with a unique set of challenges, levels of energy, reading or writing abilities, amount of sleep they had the night before, personal traumas, learning styles, etc., than their peer sitting next to them.
Those differences matter. They matter when it comes to learning. You may get irritated when one of your 15-year-old students falls asleep during your lecture on transcription and translation, but they are kids, and what inspires one may not inspire another. It's not a personal attack on you, but it is personal for them. They may not have an interest in the topic. They may be hands-on learners. They may simply be exhausted from football practice the night before, then to work from there to help support their family, and home to finish up school assignments.
There is a lot to take into consideration here when you're talking about deep learning experiences. This student might do what she's told, get the grades, get into a good college, but did she learn anything? Was it meaningful? Is she leaving school with a passion for learning? Not likely. Making learning personal leads to real, deep, authentic learning that will carry with them through college and their careers. This is what I want for my own children and my students.
So how do you make learning personal for 30 students? The same way you would make learning personal for 1 student, such as a homeschool scenario. By building relationships with your students and moving to a student-directed, teacher-facilitated model.
How Do I Make Learning Personal?
1) Build Meaningful Relationships With Your Students:
The photo below is me working with a student on her student-directed, interest-driven project. Every element of her project was designed with her interests, goals, strengths, weaknesses, etc. in mind. She is dissecting several marine organisms. Her interests and career goals at the time revolved around marine biology.
In the past our students have completed personal learning plans in Powerpoint format. The photos below illustrate a few of the slides. The students then hang onto this personal learning plan and revisit it with their teachers often. Below is a snapshot of an old personal learning plan created by Jennings Community School. I have my own version of a PLP that is included in my PBL bundle mentioned above.
You are likely wondering when in the world you're going to have time for all of this in addition to teaching content. A personal learning plan meeting with each kid, multiple times per session? Yikes. This is a valid concern. You will do this with student-directed learning. Hear me out!
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. There are many points in the PBL process where students have choice. Students can design their own projects based on their interests. If you don't have the flexibility to allow students to choose their own topics, students can still design the rest of their projects.
For example, if you need to cover the topic of photosynthesis, students can still choose how they will gather information, how they will demonstrate learning, and what authentic audience they will share it with. One student may want to work on tech literacy, so may choose to demonstrate learning by creating an animation. Another student might prefer to work with their hands, so chooses to demonstrate learning by creating a moving model.
All of my project-based learning resources in my TpT store are designed to give students choice while still providing structure. My project-based learning bundle and instruction manual is a great way to start student-directed project-based learning. This bundle also includes my personal learning plan. You could also try out my PBL Tool Kit if you have specific topics you would like to create projects around.
You are the facilitator of student-directed learning activities, not the director. You are guiding, offering feedback, providing community connections, etc. This gives you the freedom to work the room, talk with students independently, have PLP meetings, and even have that organic, casual dialogue with individuals or small groups of students. By cutting down on lecture and lesson planning, you free up time to build relationships with students and create learning plans that best suit the interests, needs, and goals of each child.
Alfie Kohn said "If the child is off-task...maybe the child isn't the problem...,maybe it's the task." Transitioning from a didactic pedagogy to student-led personal learning wouldn't be an easy transition. Change is hard. But with the right tools, support, and determination, you can do it, and it will be worth the time and energy. You will start to see some of those "behavioral issues" disappear that likely stem from boredom and confusion. You will have students that have lost their love of learning somewhere along the way find that passion again.
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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Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
I talk about experiential learning a lot in my life. It's in the name of my blog and my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I consider "experiential educator" to be my job title and path of focus. "Experiential learning" is strongly built into my daily lexicon and philosophy of education. I get a lot of inquiries about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum, especially in a traditional learning environment. 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 isn't really any bad news other than there are some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
The Instagram hashtag, #experientiallearning, is loaded with photos of company team- building retreats, groups hiking, traveling, or digging around in the dirt. One common misconception is that experiential learning has to happen outdoors. 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.
I worked at an experiential high school for almost 10 years. Although we had a travel program and provided daily authentic experiences for students, 90% of my time was spent in the building, in my classroom. Don't use the fact that you're confined to your classroom as an excuse for not providing experiential learning opportunities to your learners. If you're a homeschooler, you have no excuses! ;)
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.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can do experiential learning starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Components of Experiential Learning
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, that 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, and outright fail at times:
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 want to incorporate experiential learning into your curriculum, especially if you are confined to a classroom, project-based learning is a great place to start. Check out some of my PBL resources here.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my PBL Bundle and Implementation guide. If you're ready to dive right into student-directed PBL, I would recommend my PBL Tool Kit.
4. Students see a connection between content and the real world:
Connecting an activity with real-world context 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 their 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. It can also be done beyond the walls of the classroom, in the community, or right in the classroom. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students can see purpose in the activity:
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.
All of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies.
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.
Bonus: Use the community as a resource:
Community outreach is a huge plus when it comes to experiential learning. It might mean bringing students out of the classroom to utilize a community resource, or inviting community experts into your classroom. You could bring community members in as speakers, helpers, or teachers. Utilizing community experts 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.
Experiential Learning in the Classroom and Beyond
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 the checklist with a favorite activity to see if it's experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential. The outcome is learners that have a lifelong passion for learning and actually understand and absorb the content.
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. All of my resources are child-led and are designed in a way that makes implementation seamless. Personalization, authentic/real-world connections, purpose, student choice, and reflections are all a part of each experience.
Good luck to you as you launch into the new school year!
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education.
Interest-Led Learning: It All Starts With a Question
It all starts with a question. How does cheese turn into milk? What is the distribution of Malaria around the world? How do you raise chickens? How do I reduce the number of mosquitos in my backyard? Student-directed learning starts with a driving question that is interest-led. The student asks and investigates the question, while you, the teacher or parent facilitates the experience. This applies to a variety teaching methods including project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry, maker ed, STEM, STEAM, and the list goes on. You can really take any approach and make it student-directed simply by giving students the freedom to lead the experience starting with a question that they themselves have an interest in investigating.
This idea, student-directed, interest-led learning, applies to ALL learners from all backgrounds, skill levels, and age groups, and is even effective in all learning environments, whether that be in the classroom, home, or out in the world. Deeper learning occurs when you allow students choice in topic, process, and outcome because they are intrinsically motivated to learn.
For the past few months I've been hyper-focused on project-based learning here on this blog. I've been through the details of each element and how to implement PBL in your current teaching environment. Click here to peruse those posts. I have a project-based teaching tool kit for student-directed, interest-led PBL experiences, which includes all of the necessary templates to execute PBL from start to finish.
One of those templates is a project-proposal. All PBL projects start with a proposal, which is a document used to guide learners in student-directed project-design. Students plan the entirety of their project on this one-page organizer. That proposal starts with a learner-asked question. Let's go through what this might look like...
A few weeks ago my children and I went to visit my parents' home that sits in the woods overlooking a lake. My son and I were sitting on their deck that is so high that we were positioned in a forest canopy. There is about 30 feet of forest in front of us which then opens up to a freshwater lagoon. Beautiful, but a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It was evening and we began noticing bats in the trees. My son was instantly intrigued.
"Where do bats go during the day?", he asked. This simple question launched my 5-year-old son into a three week project on bat habitat and behavior that resulted in the construction of a bat house to place on my parents' property as a mechanism for bug control.
Interest-Led Project-Based Learning Design Process
Student-directed project-based educators are facilitators of the experience. Part of the role of facilitator is to inspire project ideas and make suggestions that challenge learners. I have several free resources in my store that help educators and learners through the project- design process. I meet one-on-one with students to help them turn a great question into a great project. This is my process:
1. What is Your Driving Question?
The question my son originally asked, "Where do bats go during the day?", became more of a question about habitat. "What is the habitat of a bat? What environment do they require to live?" This is an umbrella question with many sub-questions to explore. Where a species resides is dependent on available food, shelter, proximity to water, foraging behaviors, nesting/resting behaviors, predators to avoid and how they avoid them, etc.
2. What Is Your Final Product?
I showed my son pictures of several bat house designs from Pinterest, many of which had the Batman emblem painted on the front. He decided (mostly because of the Batman symbol) that he wanted to make a bat house to put out near the front porch. Making a functional, successful bat house requires an understanding of bat habitat and behavior.
Note: Showing my son a bat house makes it no less child-led. He had no idea what a bat house was, he had never seen one. Part of the role of the facilitator is to guide the learning experience by providing insight, community connections, suggestions, learning opportunities, and even structure.
3. What Questions Will You Research?
For my son to understand the habitat of a bat there was other questions he needed to ask and examine such as what species of bat he would make a house for, their size, their range, what they eat, their mating requirements, how large they are, how they sleep, their predators. He needed to figure out where the bat house would be placed, in what direction it needed to face, and how high up it needed to be. He found out what building materials are safe for bats, discovering that the wood and any paint we used had to be untreated and non-toxic as well as withstand the harsh weather conditions. He even asked questions about tools and how to use them. Project-based learners map out these questions in the design process and continue developing questions as their projects unfold.
4. What Community Experts Could You Use?
My high school project-based learners, with my help, brainstorm potential community experts and add those individuals to their project proposals. They may happen upon more as they work on their projects, and that's great!
My son and I went out into the community to gather information about bat habitat so that we could create the best shelter possible. I took him to a library to check out a variety of bat books. We went to a local nature center where he was able to speak with a naturalist. She led us on a short tour to see the bat boxes they had on their property. She could have easily been invited to us, but visiting the area gave us a better picture of what to create.
5. How Will You Present Your Work Authentically?
I talk about this piece often on my blog because I think it is such a valuable component of any learning experience. Project-based learning is authentic by nature, so it is only natural that we would present our final product and information to an authentic audience, one that is relevant and can benefit from the project. Learners should have a general idea of their audience before they start their projects. The authentic presentation will determine the direction the learner takes with the project.
My son has his bat box hanging on a tall tree in front of my parents' porch. The final product makes an impact. Visitors can watch the bats from the porch, which is cool in itself, but the bat house also provides a form of bug control for the local residents.
A project like this is highly modifiable. Learner-led project-based learning is personalized, so projects should organically fit the needs, goals, interests, and abilities of the student in question. A project like this one could be adapted to any learner. The amount of guidance would depend on the student, their age, their abilities, and so on. Younger students, like my son, need a lot more guidance than would a high school student.
Conservation is the best way to determine a student's interests. Download my free interest survey from more store to scaffold those conversations.
As a science teacher, I love this project because it brings those life science standards to life. Students learn about ecosystems through hands-on, student-led inquiry. On top of that they build skills such as creative design, collaboration, networking, finding credible information. They begin to understand their local communities and what they need. Student-directed project-based learning is multidisciplinary and the results are mind-blowing.
I recently added a PBL maker challenge to my store that parallels my son's project - Build a Wildlife Shelter. Students choose a local native species of interest, learn about their behaviors and natural history, and build a shelter for that species to place in the community.
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on project-based learning and experiential education. You can also check out my TpT store for more experiential learning resources such as problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning.
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.