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.
'Tis the season for road trips! Whether it be a spring camping trip with students, a summer road trip with your own children, or a cross country trip with just you and your dog, take full advantage of learning opportunities along the way. Learning is powerful beyond the walls of a classroom. Hitting the road opens doors to learning experiences that couldn't be achieved from a classroom.
Getting Started with Student-Directed Inquiry-Based Learning
I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old. These two little ones are at prime ages for questioning. I get 1,000 questions per day, at least. Yesterday I was baking a cake and my son asked me why I was putting eggs in the batter. I turned this simple question into an inquiry-based learning activity.
Rather than tell my son why cakes need eggs, he investigated his own question. I guided him through a simple experiment. We made one cake with all of the listed ingredients (control) and another cake with all of the same ingredients except for eggs. He observed raw eggs before using them by moving the yolk and whites around with a fork. He noticed the consistency; that it was slimy and stretchy. He commented on the color. I asked him to tell me about his experience eating eggs. What do cooked eggs taste like? Feel like in your mouth? Do scrambled egg fall apart when handled? Based on what you're seeing here, what differences do you think you will see between the baked cakes? His prediction was that the cake with eggs would taste like, look like, feel like, and smell like scrambled eggs and the cake without eggs would taste like cake ;) And why wouldn't it? My four-year-old is drawing on his observations and previous experiences.
We then made the two versions of the cake and observed the final products in the same way that we observed the raw eggs. I asked if they looked how he expected and to observe the differences in taste, color, smell, texture, etc. My son thought that the one with eggs tasted better than the one without. The one without eggs fell apart when handled. The one with eggs was brighter yellow. So we determined (with open ended questions from me) that adding eggs to cake batter is probably important for structure, color, and taste.
This is an example of inquiry-based learning.
What is inquiry-based Learning?
Inquiry is simply finding information through questioning. Inquiry-based learning then is a constructivist approach to learning where students develop knowledge by investigating a question rather than through direct instruction (lecture.) Students ask a question based on an observation or are given a question by the instructor. Students then thoroughly investigate that question. The investigation could include experimentation, interviews with community experts, digging through literature such as books, publications and journals, experiential activities, PBL, PrBL, etc.
What are the different approaches to inquiry-based learning?
Inquiry-based teaching spans a broad spectrum from teacher-directed structured inquiry where the instructor gives students the driving question to investigate and designs the investigation, to student-directed open inquiry where students ask their own questions and plan their investigations. Varying levels of guided inquiry lie between the two extremes. An instructor might give students the driving question, for example, but the students plan their own investigations. You might guess, if you are an avid reader of my blog, which end of the inquiry spectrum my learning activities lie.
For more information on student-directed learning, go back to some of my previous posts. I am in the middle of a series on student-directed learning. All of my posts in this series so far can be found by clicking here.
How can I shift to student-directed open-inquiry?
The bulk of my teaching career has been at an experiential learning, student-directed school. I often had students come into my classes mid-year, some 18 years old, that had up until that point experienced a very different kind of learning environment, one where direct instruction was the norm, worksheets were handed out in abundance, and a lot of value was placed on having the correct answers. Throwing students directly into student-directed open inquiry, especially those that are accustomed to being handed "answers", may feel uncomfortable at first. This is especially true with high school students, as there is a shift in mindset that needs to happen.
You can tackle this problem one of three ways:
1) Start at the teacher-directed end of the spectrum and gradually move to the student-directed end of the spectrum. As much as I advocate for student-directed everything, I also understand that there is a learning curve. Making the transition gradually might work best for you and your students.
2) Another way to shift that thinking is to dive right into open inquiry. Be patient and forgiving with students at first, and watch their struggle and confusion transform into a profound learning experience. This is what I usually do. Student-directed open inquiry is where it's at.
3) If I have a population of students that are floundering with open-inquiry after diving right in, I might take a baby step toward the other end of the inquiry spectrum temporarily, providing guided inquiry experiences. This is what I did with my son and the egg experiment. He asked the question. I designed the experiment because, hey, he's 4.
Benefits of student-directed inquiry-based learning?
Why not just Google the answer? If I want to answer a question like why eggs are used in baked goods, I could look it up and find the answer in seconds. The purpose of inquiry-based learning, however, is not finding the correct answer, or finding an answer at all for that matter. The benefits of inquiry-based learning come out of the process, not the results.
A lot of teachers struggle to implement inquiry-based learning because it takes time. What's cool about student-directed inquiry-based learning is that it's multidisciplinary. Many concepts and skills are rolled into one activity vs. direct instruction where ideas are split up into discrete units. Take the egg/cake experiment for example. We practiced counting, colors, and for older students, fractions. We practiced a variety of skills such as communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, and even fine-motor skills. We covered a variety concepts in chemistry and math.
The idea is to get students asking questions and finding information as one would in the real-world. Inquiry-based learning experiences provide students with opportunities to use higher order thinking skills such as making observations, asking their own questions, designing experiments, analyzing ambiguities of conflicting information or unexpected results, working through obstacles and coming to solutions to overcome those challenges. Those are skills that are important in life. Inquiry-based learning is a slam dunk when it comes to practicing the 6 C's as well - collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, citizenship and character development. Student-directed open inquiry teaches students the skills necessary for lifelong learning.
What do you need to start student-directed open inquiry?
Teacher-directed structured inquiry is easy. Pull out a recipe lab and ask students to do it. Open inquiry, however, requires that you provide input. If you want your students to ask their own questions and design their own investigation, you need to set a stage that stimulates the flow of observations, questions, and ideas.
You also need to be prepared to scaffold NOT give answers. Scroll to the bottom for a list of great go-to questions when facilitating a student-directed open inquiry activity.
Finally, student-directed open inquiry does not have to be and should not be chaotic. Structure is allowed and encouraged, especially for beginners. Students should have clear expectations and guiding materials. For example, I personally think it's important for students to reflect on their inquiry experience. Providing reflection questions doesn't dilute the learning experience for your students, it just adds an element of structure that some students need or desire.
Where can I find student-directed open inquiry resources?
I recently added a student-directed inquiry product line to my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I currently have two high school level open inquiry projects in that line on water pollution in lieu of upcoming Earth Day. One is an investigation of water pollutants and their sources and the other is the impact pollutants have on aquatic life. Students will ask their own questions based on materials laid out and what they already know, design an experiment to test their questions, analyze results, and draw conclusions. These resources provide structure and guiding materials for students and teachers in what could otherwise be an overwhelming experience, especially beginners.
I hope to add more inquiry-based learning resources in the near future, including a student-directed open inquiry toolkit that would provide the guiding materials for any open inquiry project that is experimental in nature.
What questions can I ask to guide students through the inquiry process?
1) What do you think?
2) Why do you think that?
3) What do you predict will happen if...?
4) Why do you predict this will happen?
5) What would happen if you tried this instead?
6) How could you find out about this?
7) Who might know the answer to that question?
8) Is this source of information credible? How do you know? What source could you use that would be credible?
9) What does this information mean to you?
10) What does this remind you of?
11) Where have you seen this before?
12) What if you tried this?
13) What did you observe then? What do you observe now?
14) What else does this make you wonder?
15) How does this connect to that?
16) How is this different from that? How are they the same?
17) Tell me about what you're doing here and why you're doing it.
18) What could you do next?
19) What is another way you could ask that question?
20) What could you do next?
Who can implement inquiry-based learning?
My inquiry-based learning resources primarily focus on life science, as that is my licensure and background. Inquiry-based learning can be applied across the board, however. If students are asking questions, doing investigations to answer those questions, and constructing knowledge based on the experience, it's inquiry. You can even see that people of all ages can do inquiry-based learning activities. My resources are geared toward high school students, but I do inquiry all the time with my toddler and preschooler at home.
I would love to hear how educators are using inquiry-based learning across disciplines and age groups. How can you apply inquiry in a high school social studies class, reading class, or math class? How do you use inquiry-based learning in early childhood learning environments?
Follow Experiential Learning Depot on Pinterest and Instagram for more on experiential education, and check out my TpT store for experiential learning resources including project-based learning, maker resources, and now inquiry. I have a few problem-based learning resources in the works, and am excited to get that product line out in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for following!
Earlier this week my two children were walking around outside collecting colorful fall leaves off of the ground that were already beginning to fall. I LOVE fall, but in Minnesota, the fall season is fleeting, and that means WINTER IS ALMOST HERE! Right now is a great time for schools to fund-raise, as many of the best fundraisers happen outdoors. So let's get to it before our fundraising is limited to shoveling snow!
As you know by now I was heavily involved in our school travel program. I have traveled with students to Costa Rica, Hawaii, Colorado, Texas, California, Florida, the U.P., and many very close to home. These trips are not free, nor are they cheap. They weren't possible without significant fundraising efforts by my students. I have been traveling with students for 9 years, so have a lot of experience with fundraising at this point. A lot of trial and error! A LOT OF ERROR. What I have found is that the best fundraisers are those that are student led - entirely planned and executed by students (with some guidance and a few seeds planted here and there.) There are enormous benefits to student-led fundraisers, one of which is the load it takes off of your already spread-thin plate, especially if there is one or two really ambitious, organized, motivated students that can take the reigns. There are also many benefits to students that participate in student-led fundraisers. They invest their time and put hope in the outcome, so see to it that it goes well and goals are met. Fundraising where students can get involved also provides opportunities to build important life skills such as marketing, communication, team-work, budgeting, conflict management, and organizational skills. A bonus? Kids love fundraising! I'm not sure what it is, but I won't argue with them if they're willing to participate in the effort.
I had many students that wanted to organize fundraisers, so I created a graphic organizer to help them streamline the planning process. That template is available at my TpT store (Experiential Learning Depot). Download it here for free - Graphic Organizer for Planning a Student-Led Fundraiser.
Now for the fundraisers. Some fundraisers are better than others when it comes to those that are student-led. I have listed the top 11 student-led fundraisers in my experience. I'm certain there are many great ones, and I'd love to hear about those!
Student-Led Fundraiser Tips:
1) Great fundraisers for students to lead are those that require little money upfront, are local or require light travel, the fundraiser location is easily accessible, the product for sale is made by the students (baked goods, candles, t-shirts, etc. - people are more likely to buy when they can see the effort put in), or the service provided is by that of the students.
2) Encourage students to connect with their community - hugely important. That might mean students spending some significant time just setting the stage for future fundraisers. Their neighbors will be their biggest allies when it comes to raising money because those neighbors could be their "customers" and they can spread the word.
3) Encourage students to collaborate with the school board - ideally you will have members on the school board that are well connected with potential big donors. Keep them in mind when fundraising. Ask student fundraisers to speak with or present to their school board, and ask the board to support student fundraisers.
4) Marketing! Planning and having a fundraiser is just a small piece of the big picture. Students must also get the word out there. There are a variety of ways to market fundraisers. Students know better than anyone how to use social media as a marketing tool! Work with that. Creating a marketing plan is one feature of the free graphic organizer already mentioned.
5) Students should have a specific project in mind - donors want to know where their money is going. Students should create a portable presentation (poster board) that they can put on display wherever they are fundraising. The board should lay out the purpose of the fundraiser. Whether it be a field trip, student travel opportunity, chemistry lab equipment, robots for a robotics class, iPads for your class, or simply notebooks and pencils, donors want to know. It makes it more personal.
6) Encourage students to start planning early. Marketing takes some time, and you don't want to spring a fundraiser on anyone. Give people notice so they can plan to be there!
Ok, here we are. Finally to the guts of this post. I have tried A LOT of different fundraisers with my students. The following 11 were the most successful in terms of student-involvement, money raised, and efficient use of time.
Easy to do Student-Led Fundraisers
1) Donors Choose - if you are an educator and you have not yet donated to a project on Donors Choose OR created a fundraising project of your own, you are truly missing out! Donors Choose is crowd-funding for educators. The best part? The website is deliberately designed to get students involved in their own fundraisers. For example, there might be a "project" created on an educators site to raise $1,000 for classroom Chrome Books. Students can create the project, market their project to friends and family, and are required to write a thank you letter if the project is fully funded. I have used Donors Choose for several school traveling experiences. One of my students created a "project" on Donors Choose asking for enough money to pay for student passports to get to Costa Rica. She met her goal in only two weeks. Passports paid for. The interesting part is that corporations looking to fund interesting projects surf the site. Our passports weren't paid for by donations only from friends and family. A big chunk of the money was donated by businesses.
The projects below are the fundraising projects, written by my students, that have been fully funded.
2) Hometown Calendars - several years ago my boss, a long-time loyalist to St. Paul, MN, noticed a lot of changes happening in our school community. A light rail was going in right in front of our building that would connect the two major downtown areas. He asked students to take photographs of some of the work, then had them go back into archives to find photographs of those same areas from decades ago to see how it has changed over the years. That is how the JCS calendar fundraiser got its start. The students formatted their photos into a calendar to sell. The students take the photos, find old photos to compare and contrast, create the calendars AND sell the calendars. They work closely with the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce as well. Check out their latest calendar below!
3) Class or school t-shirts - the last few years of my time teaching, my advisory students created school t-shirts to sell to students, teachers, parents and community members. All t-shirts were designed and created by the students. This type of fundraiser involves students from a variety of backgrounds with various talents, and it's fun if you make it an annual thing that the school community can look forward to each year. The picture below is a student-taken and edited photo of the St. Paul skyline that was printed on sweatshirts and t-shirts. It's a great student-created product for a student-led fundraiser.
4) School store - I like this fundraiser because it is mostly student-run, and they take pride it being a part of it. My students survey the student body asking for store product suggestions. It is where we sell healthy snacks, our school shirts, some quick and easy breakfast foods. The downside to the school store option is that the funds raised come exclusively from students. This worked for my students though because we didn't have vending machines in the building. We served breakfast and lunch and that was the only access students had to food throughout the day unless they brought their own snacks. The school store was the only place to get a quick snack in between meals. If the students aren't doing the bulk of the work for this fundraiser, it isn't worth doing. It is an enormous undertaking if you're doing it alone. The students can take charge of stocking, book-keeping, selling, etc.
5) Ready-bake holiday pies - the holiday season is upon us! Okay, I know that seems soon, but for Minnesotans, apple picking has begun already, and that means apple pies! It's never too early to get holiday pie fliers and order forms out to school staff, parents, board members, and neighborhood friends. Several years ago, one particular student who was raising money for a school trip to Hawaii, took charge of this fundraiser. We went to an orchard to pick apples, created fliers and order forms, spread the word on social media, and made freezable, ready-bake pies for pick-up. We wrapped them up and printed out holiday themed baking instructions. Making pies isn't cheap. The apples can get especially pricey. Work with an orchard in the community to arrange a discount or work exchange arrangement. Your fall-back could always be pumpkin pie. Canned pumpkin puree is fairly cheap. If you and your students are ambitious, consider extending this concept and start a school garden where you can grow pumpkins, blueberries, or whatever climate appropriate fruits would make for great pies! This fundraiser is great because it could be and should be almost entirely student-run (with some oversight on your part). They can create all of the marketing materials, design an order form, collect the ingredients (or start a garden), organize orders, make the pies, sell, etc. This was one of our most successful fundraisers because the community wanted to support student-driven endeavors. How good does that look!?
6) Venue events - there are a variety of venues and/or sports teams in the Twin Cities that support local schools and want to see them succeed. The Minnesota Twins and St. Paul Saints are two of the Twin Cities' baseball teams that have school fundraising programs. They put fundraising groups to work behind concessions at games and give them a large stipend at the end of the shift. Valley Fair is an amusement park in Minnesota that has a similar program. They take students behind the scenes to do various tasks in exchange for a large stipend after the shift. My students raised $2,000 toward their earth science trip to Hawaii from Valley Fair alone. This style of fundraising is great because the students did the coordinating. I just chaperoned. Check out local opportunities like this in your own community.
7) Rummage sale - before I talk this one up too much, I'm going to say that this one requires some serious work for everyone, even when it is student-led. However, if it is done well, you'll see serious payout. The reason for this is because it shouldn't cost you, students or the school a dime upfront. Items for sale should be donated. Students leading the fundraiser can ask students, teachers, parents and community members for donation items to sell at the rummage sale. A student of mine organized a rummage sale several years ago. She scanned Craigslist garage sale posts regularly, emailed garage sale hosts, and asked that they donate any leftover items to her rummage sale. We had so many donations, and ended up raising more money from this fundraiser than any fundraiser I have been involved with since. Last bit of advice is for student fundraisers to try to get their hands on baby and kids items!
8) Bake-off or cook-off - bake-offs and cook-offs are by far my favorite student-led fundraisers. Students get SO excited about these events. Bake-offs and cook-offs are both fantastic, however, our cook-offs have generally been more successful than bake-offs. Here is the gist of a cook-off:
9) Yard work service - basically a student fundraising team creates a lawn business. It's best to keep it simple. They can offer raking services, shoveling or weed pulling. This is a great student-led fundraiser for several reasons. One is that few materials are required, therefore it is cheap upfront. They would need rakes, shovels if for snow removal and some bags. They would also need transportation. That is why this is a great student-led fundraiser because students could advertise their services in their own neighborhood. My students usually made fliers and passed them out around the school community. Local businesses would have my student's shovel their sidewalks on snow days. The key to this fundraiser is marketing. A lot of folks are happy to do their own yard work. Others hire professional services. What we did was make it personal and meaningful. We advertised who we were and our fundraising goals. Most people want to support local schools. We also left "donation" amount up to the customer. Typically they give more than we would have asked for. This is also a great way for students to connect with the community, which is important for a variety of reasons.
10) Raffle - this is a great student-led fundraiser to add to any other fundraising event, such as a cook-off. My students wrote letters to local businesses introducing themselves, their fundraising goals, and their purpose for fundraising. They asked in their letters that these businesses donate gift cards to be used for a raffle fundraiser. The students wrote these letters and mailed them right before winter break. When we returned from winter break there were about 50 gift cards from various local businesses. We used the gift cards as raffle prizes at our cook-off fundraiser. It didn't cost anyone a dime, and the planning and prep was fairly straight forward. Students just wrote letters and mailed them to businesses. Simple.
11) Car wash - I probably don't have to tell you that a car wash is a great student-led fundraiser. We see them everywhere because they are straight forward, great money makers, and students love them. Do this before it gets too cold! Car washes are also great spring time fundraisers. I don't know about everywhere else, but in Minnesota, people are outside in shorts the second it hits 60 degrees. They flock to the outdoors, and are typically in good spirits, ready to give, because it may be the first glimpse of sunshine they have seen in 9 months! Have students check out Wikihow's simple instructions on having a car wash fundraiser. Encourage students to add smaller fundraisers to the car wash such as a hot dog stand, drinks for sale, and/or a bake sale.
Fundraisers aren't easy, but a little more manageable when they're student-led. The benefits of student-created, student-organized and student-run fundraisers are enormous, especially for the students.
What successful student-led fundraisers have you seen or been a part of? Please share!
Happy Monday! Have a great week everyone!
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.