What is self-directed project-based learning anyway?
I facilitate a women's studies seminar every year, and as a seminar finale, students design and lead their own project-based learning experiences around a subtopic of their choice.
One year a student chose to do her project on domestic violence. She connected with the Sojourner Project, a domestic violence shelter in the Twin Cities. An educator from there came into the school to speak with her. This student also contacted a self-defense instructor to come into the school to teach her and her classmates self-defense strategies.
This student assembled all of the information that she gathered into a presentation and created a brochure that included signs of domestic abuse, community resources for survivors, tips for friends and family of abuse survivors and more. She placed brochures around the community from health clinics to bus stops to school counseling offices.
This student didn't gather statistics and info from a few websites online, copy and paste them into a Powerpoint presentation and regurgitate the information from her slideshow to her classmates. She collaborated with the community, reached out to experts in the field, made an impact, and shared her knowledge and insight with a relevant audience. That is self-directed project-based learning. She had choice in every aspect of the experience.
What is project-based learning?
My experience and philosophy of teaching are largely based around project-based learning (PBL). I have been a high school project-based educator for 13 years. There are a few misconceptions around project-based learning that I hope to clarify in this post, one being that PBL is the same as a project.
In short, project-based learning involves sustained inquiry, is innovative, relevant, and authentic. Students gather information on a topic or problem through questioning, learning activities, and community collaboration. They share their new skills and knowledge beyond classroom walls in such a way that impacts the local and/or global community.
What is PBL specifically?
What is self-directed project-based learning?
The level of self-direction varies among educators. ALL project-based learning experiences in my classroom are student-directed - designed and led by students. There are many opportunities in PBL to give students choice and autonomy. That's why I love it!
Self-Directed PBL Experience Planning:
A great way to get started with self-directed project-based learning is with my tool kit. This provides ALL of the guiding materials for ANY self-directed project-based learning experience. Students use the templates included to design and carry out PBL experiences on any topic, one assigned by you or one chosen by your students.
But what does a self-directed PBL experience look like when in action, especially with 25 students in your class? I use the PBL tool kit and plan my experience using a planner specifically designed for coordinating self-directed PBL. Over the next few weeks I will be going over what this experience looks like in steps using my digital, interactive calendar to walk you through it. Get a free sample of that planner by signing up right here.
Then, if you're looking for something more comprehensive, check out the full project-based learning calendar and planner here. It was intentionally created to guide you seamlessly and effortlessly through coordinating self-directed PBL in your classroom or home learning environment.
If this post has hooked you, continue following this blog series on how to execute self-directed project-based learning. I've covered the philosophy. Now it's time for details and tangible, actionable steps. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you next week, planner in hand!
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This post is part of a series on student-directed learning. If you are unsure of what student-directed learning is or what a student-directed learning environment looks like, go back and peruse previous posts. In short, student-directed learning gives students choice throughout the learning experience, and the learning environment should accommodate those choices.
Imagine you walk into a classroom. You look around and see students spread out around the room. Some students are quietly lounging in bean bag chairs, reading or writing. In the center of the room you see a small group of students chatting around a large table. You find students sitting at desks, working away on computers. One of the students is creating an animation and another student is writing an email. You scan the room and see a couple of students watching a live webinar streaming from Facebook.
This is my classroom. This is what my student-directed learning environment looks like for much of the day. Students design and lead their own learning experiences, usually in the form of project-based learning.
The student in the beanbag chair is reading books to gather information for his project topic. The small group of students chatting around the table is brainstorming how best to reach an authentic audience. Another student is creating an animation as her final product. The student writing emails is connecting with community experts. A small group of students is watching the live webinar to learn about their project topic.
Each student is learning in their own way, at their own pace. They may be driven by the same general learning objective that you set for them, but they meet those learning objectives by making a series of personal decisions.
The question, then, is where the teacher is in all of this. If the teacher isn't giving information through direct instruction or a structured activity then what is the teacher doing? Student-directed teachers still manage the classroom, provide resources, scaffold, organize learning activities, and provide input. What changes is their role. Rather than director of learning teachers are facilitators of learning. The teacher guides and supports, they challenge, they give feedback. They teach students how to learn. Keep reading for specifics!
What does the teacher do in a self-directed learning environment?
1. Teach students how to direct their own learning:
A lot of students have spent the bulk of their education being given information through direct instruction. Teachers that want to transition to a more student-directed learning environment are going to have to undo the mindset that student's have developed over the years that they're going to be given the "correct answers." Student-directed learning requires critical thinking, problem-solving, and failing at times! Students may be uncomfortable with that at first. I have many resources in my Experiential Learning Depot store that guide teachers and students through this transition by way of project-based learning, one of which is a PBL bundle and manual.
2. Get to know your students:
In order to serve your students effectively in a self-directed learning environment, you'll need to get to know who they are, what they're interested in, their learning styles, their passions and more. It is personalized. Knowing your students on this level will be critical when you're helping them design projects or work through learning activities.
The animation example that I used above was an actual project that one of my students did. She turned a subject that she found boring, neurotransmission, and made it more exciting and engaging by creating an animation that demonstrated this concept. I knew she was a creator and helped her design her project around that passion. Relationship-building is huge and sometimes you have to be deliberate about getting to know your students. Work it into not only your day, but your curriculum.
3. Guide students through the process of developing learning experiences that are challenging, authentic, and innovative:
Just because students make choices in student-directed learning doesn't mean they're always going to be great choices! They also might not have the means or experience to know how to coordinate these experiences. They need your guidance, expertise, connections, and advice. If you know your students, you will know if they're not challenging themselves, if their project design doesn't align with their goals, if they could expand their authentic audience, or if their project plan just doesn't match up with their learning objectives.
My students design their projects using a project proposal. I walk the room while they hash out their project plans, check their proposals, offer suggestions, and sign off on them. I have PBL project proposal and other helpful student-directed PBL templates in my store in a bundle called "PBL Toolkit".
4. Help students create and manage personal learning plans:
A personal learning plan is a great tool for student-directed learning. It is a plan that includes personal goals, interests, learning styles, project ideas, deadlines, etc. It can really include whatever you feel helps guide students. It's helpful to pull that plan out when students are designing projects or learning experiences. My job as facilitator is to help students write their plans and modify them as students learn and grow.
My personal learning plan is available in my TPT store. It is an editable Google Slides that can be copied and shared with each student. Click the image below.
5. Assist students in finding resources:
I think my biggest job as a facilitator is to help students find accurate and relevant information, connect with community experts, gather materials, and recognize learning opportunities. Student-directed learning really teaches kids how to be resourceful, especially if you do project-based learning. If you don't know what I mean by that, go back to my previous post on the principles of pbl.
I taught a biotechnology seminar a while ago. One of my students was really interested in algae as a biofuel. I connected him with the researchers at the algae lab of the U of M, and my student took it from there. I modeled how to find an authentic learning experience relevant to his interests and learning objectives, he learned from that, and eventually was able to find these opportunities for himself.
6. Provide input and feedback:
Giving students consistent feedback is not only critical for growth and improvement, but students need it, desire it, and ask for it. Because they're not getting immediate and concrete feedback, such as a red check mark over an incorrect answer to a worksheet, they can feel a little lost at times. It is your job as the facilitator to observe their learning process, give them pointers, ask that they go back to the drawing board, etc.
I have my students complete self-assessments periodically throughout the learning experience. Usually that assessment is a rubric. I then go over the assessment with the student one-on-one. Formative assessments or quick end of the day reflections are great also, and are a little more efficient. Find a system that works for you.
If you have not already snagged my Project Assessment e-Portfolio, I highly recommend that. Students add their learning outcomes throughout the course of a session into one portfolio. This is more of a summative assessment. It shows growth, which your students can observe firsthand as they build and manage this portfolio. This resource is free when you join Experiential Learning Depot's newsletter. I highly recommend it.
7. Organize events that showcase student work to the community:
There are so many interesting and creative ways to present final products to an authentic audience. One great default presentation option for students is to put final products on display at an organized event such as an exhibition night. I have a project in my store that is all about heritage. Every year my students complete this project and then we host a multicultural night for friends, family, and community members. Part of my job as a facilitator in a student-directed learning environment is to plan these events. I do, and I love it!
There are also a variety of virtual ways of doing this. My students have done virtual exhibition nights as well, using virtual museum platforms, such as artsteps.com.
8. Organize learning activities and sparks:
Not all time in my school learning environment is spent working independently on projects. We have group discussions, we do group projects, we go on field trips, do service learning, travel, watch the news together, invite speakers, host events, and do team-building activities. I even do direct-instruction at times. I'm not above that. I just limit it as much as possible.
Many of these learning activities are connected to student-projects in some way, but some of them aren't. Some of them are simply done to inform students, start dialogue about an important issue or concept, or ignite a spark in a student or two. A huge part of my job is to find, plan, and coordinate these learning opportunities for students.
The photo all the way to the left is a speaker, Dr. Fisch, a Holocaust survivor and artist. A coworker of mine arranged for him to come in to speak to the school. The photo in the middle is a field trip to the Wildlife Science Center. I brought students there to spark interest and gather information for their endangered species projects (look for this free resource in my store). The photo on the far right is of a student at a class team-building event that I arranged for my advisory.
9. Provide students with the tools to be successful student-directed learners:
Student-directed learning does not have to be chaotic. You can and should offer structure. It is your role as their teacher to provide the tools that they need to design and lead their own learning experiences.
Project-proposals, parameters and deadlines, guidelines for project reflections, graphic organizers, formative assessments, etc. are all great examples of devices that will help your students transition to great student-directed learners. They will need a system, at least right away. In time the hope is that they can become less dependent on you, as throughout the year they will be developing the skills to work more independently.
My experiential learning bundle and self-directed tool kits bundle include all of the guiding materials and templates needed to effortlessly implement self-directed learning.
10. Everything else that comes along with being a teacher:
You wear a lot of hats regardless of your teaching style or approach. You will always have a student that is distracting other students. You will have students that walk in the door with trauma that you can't (and do not want to) ignore. You need to manage tardies and absences, and grade and evaluate student work. The list goes on.
With student-directed learning, however, some behavioral issues are mitigated because students have choice and autonomy. Learning experiences are based on their lives and who they are as unique individuals.
Student-directed learning is powerful and it's worth considering if you don't already use this approach. If you do offer student-directed learning experiences in your classroom or learning environment, please share about your experience!
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There is so much to say about student-directed learning. Generally speaking, when learning activities are truly student-directed, classrooms are transformed, as are students. Self-led learning experiences, in short, give students choice, voice, and autonomy.
These learning experiences can also be done just about anywhere on earth - in a classroom, remotely, out in the backyard or school yard, on the road, traveling around the world, and more because they are designed around personal interests and circumstances.
My current blog series is focused on experiential learning, and student-direction is an important piece of that. I encourage you to go back and read What is Experiential Learning Anyway? and What is Student-Directed Learning Anyway? before moving on.
There are many ways you can add student-directed learning to your otherwise teacher-directed activities, simply by giving students choice. But to really utilize the benefits of student-directed learning, consider making it your curriculum, not just adding a few opportunities for choice here and there. There are a few very powerful strategies for doing this.
I chose three specific learning activities to mention here, not because they have to be student-directed in order to work, but because they have the framework in place to make student-directed learning possible and easy to incorporate. Check them out below!
I have tool kits for all of my go-to self-directed learning experiences, including those that I describe in this post (as single units or in a bundle). By signing up for my newsletter, you get a free project assessment e-Portfolio where students can independently manage their own learning outcomes from these self-directed learning experiences.
3 Transformational Student-Directed Learning Tools
Before launching into these three teaching strategies, it's important to know that there is a significant amount of overlap between them. Project-based learning and problem-based learning both fall under the umbrella of inquiry experiences. However, there are some inquiry-based learning experiences that ARE NOT PBL or PrBL. So don't limit yourself.
Spaces recently published a guest blog post that I wrote about the difference between project-based learning and problem-based learning. Check that out here!
I would also consider project-based learning a type of problem-based learning. They both tackle real-world problems. They differ in process of gathering information and showcasing learning outcomes.
1. Project-Based Learning (PBL):
I have written a lot of posts about project-based learning because it has been my dominant teaching tool for the past 11 years.
Project-based learning is when students investigate a topic or driving question, create an end product to demonstrate learning, and present the final product. What distinguishes project-based learning from other pedagogies or projects in general is that the community plays a large role in the research process, end products must be innovative, and presentations must be authentic, meaning the information gathered or the product itself should meet and impact a relevant audience.
For details on how to start student-directed project-based learning and for PBL examples, refer back to some of my other posts on PBL.
How do you make PBL student-directed? Give students choice in as many ways as you can. Students can choose their own topic and learning objectives the flexibility is there. If you are restricted to teaching specific topics, then choose the topic and allow student choice in all other aspects of the project process (subtopic, research questions, sources, community experts, final product, authentic audience, how to share final product with that audience, etc.)
Teacher-directed project-based learning would mean you would be doing all of that work for your students. Not only is that a lot on you, but learners are then robbed of the opportunity to develop those important skills themselves such as networking, communication, and collaboration.
I have many PBL resources that focus on a specific theme. The guiding materials leave room for student choice in every other way. I also have a project-based learning toolkit, which gives students choice in every facet of the experience. My PBL assessment e-portfolio opt-in gift is the perfect resource for to wrap up and showcase the entirety of these PBL experiences.
The photo on the left is one part of the end product of a large and ongoing student business project. The picture is of skate decks for his skateboard company, all designs by students. The photo on the right is of a student taking photos as a way of demonstrating learning. Photography was a passion of his, so taking photos to document his project was his choice.
2. Problem-Based Learning (PrBL):
Problem-based learning is when students examine real-world problems. I implement PrBL by having students investigate a problem, research existing solutions, develop novel solutions, and propose a comprehensive plan to mitigate or eliminate the problem completely.
Again, problem-based learning has the bones to be student-directed as long as students direct the experience through a series of choices. I often introduce a problem and then have students choose how they will examine the issue, who they will talk to, resources they will utilize, collaborators, etc.
True student-directed problem-based learning would ask students to identify and choose a problem that they are interested in and want to investigate and solve. This route is so interesting because even the act of choosing their own problem to investigate requires specific skills such as making observations about the world around them or recognizing when there is a problem at all. Students will get better at these skills the more opportunities they have to build on them.
I have a problem-based learning product line in my TpT store with a problem-based learning toolkit for student-directed experiences, as well as theme-based PrBL resources.
I do a lot of problem-based learning activities on environmental science because I am a science teacher. I give students a water pollution problem about fertilizers, and take students to a nearby organic farm to talk with the farmer about how she grows crops sustainably.
3. Inquiry-Based Learning:
I use student-directed inquiry-based learning quite often because I am a science teacher. It's very fitting for science concepts, as one method of investigation is experimentation.
Inquiry-based learning, however, is multidisciplinary. It can be used in any learning environment for any concept. Inquiry simply asks a question which students investigate through whatever means available and effective.
Again, inquiry-based learning is not defined by giving students choice. It falls on a spectrum, as I said in my last post. Check out inquiry posts, including how to implement student-directed inquiry-based learning for details.
If the teacher asks the question, designs the investigation, and directs everything in between, then it is teacher-directed inquiry. Open inquiry is the opposite end of the spectrum where students observe the world around them, ask their own questions, and direct their own investigations. Guided inquiry lies somewhere in the middle.
I have a few scientific open inquiry activities in my TpT store. I also have an inquiry-based learning toolkit with the guiding materials needed for student-directed open inquiry, as well as a variety of other inquiry-based learning resources.
Share your student-directed learning experiences with us! Comment on the this post or send me an email anytime at email@example.com!
Several years ago I showed a news segment to my advisory/PBL students about the Syrian refugee crisis. A student of mine approached me after the activity expressing her interest in the topic.
This student chose to design and conduct a project-based learning experience about Syrian refugees. She wrote the driving question for her project, decided to create an interactive, animated timeline to demonstrate the events that led up to the crisis, organized and executed a pie fundraiser to raise money for the cause, and distributed her timeline and marketing materials to neighboring community members to raise awareness and raise some money. All her choices.
What is Student-Directed Learning?
Experiential learning, the focus of this current blog series, is self-directed, one of many elements that distinguishes it from other teaching strategies. Last week's post talks about what experiential learning is exactly. Make sure to check that out.
The Syrian project described above is the epitome of a student-directed learning experience. This student called all the shots from the beginning to the end. I provided guidance, but the learning experience as a whole was designed and managed by her. Student-directed learning by definition involves student choice.
Make STEM, problem-based learning, scientific inquiry, or any other learning experience child-led by giving students opportunities to make choices. They direct, you facilitate.
This post offers suggestions for ways to make project-based learning self-directed. Again, modify any learning experience to give students choice, I just use PBL as an example here because it has been my go-to teaching strategy for 13 years. I highly recommend it. Check out posts from my project-based learning series for more details.
Ways to Make Learning Experiences More Student-Directed
Learning experiences are student-directed when students have choice.
Let students choose...
1. What they want to learn.
It is wonderful if your students have the flexibility to choose ANY topic to study at any given time, but understandably, many of you do not have that option. Standards are an unfortunate hurdle. But don't let that stop you from sneaking in student-directed learning experiences. Your students can have it all - content knowledge and a passion for learning.
One way to get around the standards obstacle is to have students design project-based learning experiences around specific sets of benchmarks. Grab my Student-Directed Tool Kit Bundle (PBL, PrBL, scientific inquiry, & design projects) for guiding materials.
You can also assign guided project-based learning experiences. For example, I have a PBL resource on habitats. Each student chooses one habitat type to study. This channels the students' research around specific parameters or ecological standards, but still gives students choice, boosting that intrinsic motivation factor.
2. Their own learning goals and objectives.
Because learners are unique in their skills, interests, strengths, challenges, and so on, their learning goals will also be unique. Students can and should choose and write their own goals. Knowing how to create tangible goals, manage them, and meet them is a skill that is essential long after graduation.
My personal learning plan is a great way for students to create and manage their goals.
3. How they will gather information.
Some learners love podcasts, others love to read, some enjoy networking with professionals, some enjoy classes, others experimentation, and so on. To control how students research or investigate a concept limits learning potential. True student-directed learning experiences allow learners to determine their avenue(s) of exploration.
If we use the habitats project as an example once again, students are all focused on the same ecological principles, but different habitat types. Insisting that every student use specific books, or even the same expert as everyone else in the class, narrows their reach. Branch out, and better yet, let your students decide how they will learn about the topic, because what works for one student, may not work well for another.
4. Community experts and collaborators.
In many experiential learning activities, project-based learning included, students are encouraged to reach out to community experts for information, expertise, and resources. Make the learning experience student-directed by asking them to identify, locate, and connect with their own community experts.
Choosing which community experts to work with helps students develop communication and collaboration skills, while also getting the most accurate and up-to-date information about the concept at hand.
Check out my free community expert planner.
5. How they will demonstrate learning.
I have found that encouraging learners to decide how they will showcase learning is incredibly impactful. I provide a few final product suggestions to my students, and they either choose from those options or choose their own way of demonstrating learning.
Habitat project students might create topographical maps, a moving diorama, an interactive animation or physical exhibit, a photo journal, a magazine, a portfolio of infographics, etc. I offer suggestions in my resources, including this one, or students can choose their own. Check out my blog post with a laundry list of project-based learning end products for students to choose from. You can also scan these digital final product options!
6. Their authentic audience and method of reaching that audience.
Experiential learning is authentic, meaning, students use and share their outcomes in a meaningful and relevant way. Project-based learning emphasizes authentic presentations rather than simply presenting a final product to the class. Learning outcomes should solve a problem for a relevant audience or impact the community in some way.
For example, a student creates a portfolio of infographics about the habitat that they chose to study. They donate their infographics to a nature center located in the habitat studied to put on display.
Let students choose how they would like to share their new skills and knowledge and who to share it with. Again, my guided project-based learning resources provide authentic presentation suggestions for students to choose from, or the option to choose their own way of sharing.
7. Assessment method and criteria for evaluation.
All students are unique in how they learn, their interests, their career goals, and so much more. Why cast an assessment blanket over every child, especially if the learning experience is personalized by way of student choice?
Give students input on how they are evaluated. If you would like to give a formative assessment, consider offering a few options, each requiring a different skill set than the other. Let students choose which one to complete.
Project-based learning is an experience, so is usually evaluated with a rubric. I have a generic PBL rubric that I use with beginners. In time, students can begin to develop their own rubrics, choosing evaluation criteria based on the details of their projects.
Have students add to and manage their own project-based learning assessment portfolios. They add project descriptions, rubric scores, reflections, standards met, etc. after they have completed each project. By the end of the year they will have a robust portfolio of student-directed learning experiences.
Get that PBL assessment portfolio as a free gift when you subscribe here!
There are so many amazing student-centered learning activities that I see educators implementing such as STEM, project-based learning, problem-based learning, and more. You can teach in a traditional environment and still implement student-directed teaching activities. Start small. If your curriculum is largely teacher-directed right now, consider adding a few student-led learning activities in here and there. See how they go. If that goes well, add more until your entire curriculum is student-directed!
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Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
Most of the inquiries that I get from educators are about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components.
There are, however, some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
1. Myth: Experiential learning takes place outdoors.
One common misconception is that outdoor learning and experiential learning are interchangeable. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be. Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors.
2. Myth: Experiential learning is only for corporate team-building.
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term experiential learning is in association with corporate team-building activities. Experiential learning in the world of education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students, and the application to learning doesn't stop at team-building.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can learn experientially starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Essential Components of Experiential Learning
The following features are essential to experiential learning. After you have read about the importance of these components, subscribe to Experiential Learning Depot to gain access to a free growing resource library. You will instantly receive an email with a password and instructions to access that library.
In the library you will find an experiential learning activity planner that includes all of the elements of experiential learning identified here. Use it to help design and facilitate experiential learning in your classroom or home learning environment. Good luck!
1. Students are Actively Involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as a science lab that includes a recipe to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean they are involved in the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student. Learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, and embrace failure and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-led.
2. Students Have the Freedom and Support to Make Mistakes:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners.
STEM, STEAM, and maker education, among others, are experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these activities can be implemented in any learning environment, inside and out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting and alternative setting.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges for an experiential learning resource that welcomes mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The Experience is Personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student.
Student-led project-based learning encompasses every element of experiential learning when implemented correctly, but it's also the easiest way to make learning personalized in my opinion. Check out past posts on project-based learning here if you missed them.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my personalized project-based learning bundle. Pair it with my free project-based learning e-portfolio when you subscribe and you will be well on your way to an experiential classroom!
4. Students See a Connection Between Content and the Real World:
Connecting an activity with real-world problems or ideas helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what they're learning applies to life.
That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help learners develop the skills that are pertinent to life in the 21st-century.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students Can See Purpose in the Activity:
Do you ever hear "Why do I need to know this?" You will never hear an experiential educator respond to that question with "you just do" or "sometimes we need to do things we don't like".
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The Experience is Student-Directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Check out my student-directed learning series for more info.
The bulk of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed, or at a minimum, student-centered. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies. Follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT for new resource alerts.
7. Reflect on the Experience:
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning. They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
8. Authentic Learning Experiences:
Make learning authentic by adding experiences that are real and relevant to students. If students are studying the brain, for example, connect with the neurology department of a local university to arrange for a speaker, class visit, to borrow resources, etc.
Utilizing community experts and community resources in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for.
Go through a favorite activity and fill in the experiential learning planner included in E.L.D.'s free resource library to see if it is experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential.
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences. Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences.
But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners. Start with any student-directed learning activity.
Good luck! And as always, reach out anytime with questions. I would also love to showcase your experiential learning successes right here! Share your experiences with me anytime.
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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.
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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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.
I spend a significant portion of this post talking about the purpose and advantages of learner-led assessments. If you are already determined to add learner-led assessments to your routine and already know how awesome this approach is, scroll down to get directly to student-directed assessment strategies.
I have two wonderful children, a two-year-old daughter, and a 4-year-old son. When I was pregnant with my daughter, my second child, I thought she would be effortless. I’ve done this child-raising thing before after-all, I thought. I’d already been through the infancy experience, the teething, the tantrums, the separation anxiety phase. I’d been there, done that, and thought my second child would fall right in line. I would know exactly how to respond when similar challenges, questions about life, and milestones inevitably arose.
I’m not sure why this was my thinking. As a teacher at a school that is personalized in nature, I am very aware of the importance of individuality. Children vary in their interests, learning styles, backgrounds, skills, and abilities. My children couldn’t be more opposite from each other. I came to the realization that each one of my children, just like my students, will have to be raised differently, with some distinctive approaches and expectations. Putting an umbrella over my children, asking them to perform the same activities, master the same competencies, in the same way, and under the same time-frame would be disastrous. This goes for children in school learning environments as well.
How then can we provide a learning environment for our children where individualism is not only recognized but celebrated? We can accommodate for student differences by setting the stage for student-directed learning. Students take ownership of their education in a student-directed learning environment (back track to posts from my student-directed learning series).
In a student-directed learning environment, learning is active rather than passive. The instructor acts as a guide and facilitator of learning. Students initiate and design projects that are based on interest and relevance. Learners write their own goals and methods of accomplishing those goals. Learners create their own assessments based on their goals for the future, competencies needing growth, skill level, pace, learning styles, and more. They self-assess often and reflect on their work. They go back and revise and improve. They lead evaluation meetings with their teachers and an evaluation committee, and conduct parent/teacher conferences using a student-created conference assessment.
Self-assessments are key components to student-directed learning. Not only do students create their own assessments, but they also evaluate their progress using said assessment throughout the course of the learning activity. The student-created assessments that I implement in my classroom are typically project-based learning rubrics. I provide a blank rubric template to be produced by each student according to their project goals. I include word banks with categories and levels of mastery to assist students with the process as they become more confident student-directed learners. That rubric template is available in my store. Scroll down for the link.
Student-generated rubrics allow students to improve in areas specific to their needs in addition to content knowledge. Some students may want to work on organization, others may have already mastered that skill. Some may want to practice and improve on presentation skills, others may not find that relevant. Categories can be across the board from content to social-emotional skills, to career and life skills. Not only are student-created rubrics personalized, they also give learners the chance to have some authority over their education. Some may not see that as a good thing. I see it as imperative for success in a rapidly evolving society. One size does not fit all. This is true now more than ever before, so we shouldn’t be assessing in such a way.
There are a variety of advantages to child-led assessments. The greatest advantage is the intrinsic motivation to learn. When you give student’s choice and voice, they organically invest in the outcome. Learners develop a strong self-concept, intrapersonal intelligence, the skills to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and the wherewithal to grow and adapt. That in itself invaluable for lifelong learners.
Another result in favor of student-directed assessments is the development of competencies that are relevant to life outside of the classroom. A traditional assessment, whether it be a multiple choice test or a teacher-created rubric, doesn’t always address critical life skills, emotional and social awareness, or technical abilities, for example. They are generally intended to assess content knowledge only. Learning important subject concepts isn’t a bad thing. The trouble comes when the assessment ONLY targets content knowledge, and it’s the instructor determining the measurements for all students, not individuals.
Student-generated assessments along with consistent self-reflection and meetings with the facilitator/teacher throughout the learning process gives students indispensable feedback. Students go back and revise and improve their work. That in itself, the motivation to improve, is a skill often lost in teacher-centered classrooms with teacher-created assessments. The result of creating one’s own assessment, having voice and choice in one’s learning and outcomes, and aiming to improve, is passionate, life-long learners. Putting personal opinions about education aside, isn’t that a solid accomplishment and desire of all educators?
I use the following assessments strategies with my project-based learners. If it seems like a bit much, try a few things at a time or attempt to introduce some of the ideas gradually. At some point in your journey to a project-based learning environment you will be able to implement all of these strategies seamlessly because they are building blocks. They work off of each other. Good luck!
Project-Based Learning Assessment Strategies
At the beginning of a session or project have students write personal and academic goals. You are setting students up to be able to design their own assessments based on their vision, needs, and learning goals. Each of my students has a personal learning plan (PLP) that they create with me at the beginning of the school year. This is where they record their strengths, interests, and short and long-term goals. They return to their PLP periodically throughout the course of the year to reflect and adjust their plans. You may also consider asking students to write goals specific to a given project. They can create a few goals before they start.
I use PLP's for goal-making, I have students make project goals before each project, and I also have students do my "goals maker PBL challenge" at the beginning of the year. I guide students in the goal-making process. There is no specific system . Do what works well for you.
2. Student-Generated Assessments :
PBL projects are typically assessed using rubrics. I use a generic rubric for my beginner project-based learners. Eventually students can begin to create their own rubrics where they determine criteria to be evaluated. Criteria might relate to goals, strengths that they would like to build on, interests, skill level, and even the nature of the project. This idea could apply to any assessment style, not just rubrics. You could even have students design formative assessments throughout the course of the project.
For example, if your students are doing a neurology project and they're learning about neurotransmission, allow students to decide how they will demonstrate their understanding of that concept. They might create a moving model, an animation, a poem, etc. The list goes on. Check out my previous post on 100 Ways to Demonstrate Learning.
PBL Formative Assessments
Generic Project-Based Learning Rubric
Student-Generated Rubric with Word Banks
An important life skill is the ability to reflect on one's work, identify areas that could use improvement, and make adjustments. Teachers have to do this every day - reflect and adapt. Ask students to self-evaluate periodically throughout the course of the project and again before their final project evaluation with you (facilitator/teacher). My students fill in their generic or self-generated rubrics as their self-assessments. We often have work days where students work on their projects while I meet with students one-on-one to take a peek at their progress and go over their self-assessments.
A critical element of project-based learning is feedback, and another important life skill is the ability to accept constructive feedback and make improvements. This isn't a skill that everyone innately has. Students often revolt when asked to pump up the quality of a project or go back and try this or that. Establishing high standards of student work starts with feedback and the chance, and expectation, to improve. The end goal is for students to want to improve, or get excited about the prospect.
Foster as many opportunities for feedback as possible. One way to do this is through peer-evaluations. Have students share their work with each other, offer suggestions, and the chance to go back and make improvements. You can ask them to develop partnerships for a specific project - a project buddy. You can have them do project circles where students get together every so often to share their progress with the group. Students can then ask questions, give suggestions, and offer insightful feedback.
5. Community Expert Evaluations
The same idea applies here as with peer-evaluations except community experts have an authentic perspective. In project-based learning students connect with community experts (look back a couple weeks for a post on this concept). If learners are doing a project on puma habitat, for example, they might connect with a local zoologist, conservationist, or ecologist. If their final product is creating a documentary they might bring in a film-maker from the community to help with formatting and editing. Students can maintain consistent communication with these community members throughout the project process and ask that those experts evaluate their progress as they go. These community experts can also attend final presentations and play a role in final evaluations.
6. Student-Led Final Evaluations with Instructor and/or Evaluation Committee
After students have presented their final products to the class/teacher AND their authentic audience (see last weeks post on authentic presentations) I meet with them one-on-one to go over their rubrics (generic and/or self-created). They bring a self-assessed rubric to this meeting. The student justifies their self-evaluation, I give them my feedback, determine credit, we talk about future goals, and move onto the next project.
This process can - and should if you can make it work - be done using an evaluation committee. An evaluation committee is a small group put together to evaluate student projects. The group might consist of another staff member, students, community experts relevant to the project, and you, the instructor. This limits subjectivity when assigning a final grade or credit and offers students feedback from a variety of perspectives.
If you're interested in implementing any or all of these strategies, consider checking out Getting Started with Project-Based Learning Package from my store that includes 20 integrated PBL projects, an implementation manual, and all of the templates necessary for seamless execution of PBL, such as a personal learning plan.
Students from all backgrounds, skill levels, age groups, and instructional environments can take an active role in their education by simply having the chance to create and manage their own measurements of success. Every student is able to create their own assessments, and they will take pride and ownership in the outcome.
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.