There are a few elements that are important to include in project-based learning, otherwise your students are just doing projects. I vaguely talked about this in a post published last week, "What is Self-Directed Project-Based Learning Anyway" and now I'm back with details on specific elements of PBL, and how to modify those components to be self-directed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.