Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
The prospect of student-led learning can feel really exciting, especially if students have the space and freedom to choose their own topics and direction based on their interests.
But what happens when your students say “I don’t have any interests”?
It can be really frustrating when your student-led learners tell you they don’t have any interests.
This isn’t necessarily because they DON’T have interests, but more likely that they’re not sure how to turn an interest such as skateboarding into a learning experience.
Or maybe they really don’t know what they're interested in. They don’t yet have interpersonal awareness or even exposure to potential interests.
That’s where you come in. One of your roles as a teacher in a student-led learning environment is to help students build that awareness, identify interests, and help them hone in on interests enough to build a learning experience around them.
But how do you set students up to identify and dig into interests? Let’s take a look!
As the facilitator of a student-led learning environment, one of your roles is to set the stage. Provide opportunities for your students to identify and discover interests.
Spark their interests by inviting in a community speaker, showing a movie, discussing a current event, reading a magazine article, discussing a billboard, sharing and talking over a social media post, and more. An interest could even spontaneously arise in casual conversation.
The trick is giving students a variety of opportunities to discover their interests to then build learning experiences around.
Exposure to concepts and experiences is important in order to broaden the scope of learning possibilities.
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:
Interest Surveys for Students and Other Activities to Discover Interests
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 about heritage, for example, inspiring Student B to learn about their own family background and history.
2. Share Your Life:
Many of my students' projects have launched because of a story of mine or a project that I myself had going on at home.
Some students (not all) were fascinated by stories of my life when I worked in the field as a wildlife ecologist. At my school, staff members present a "project" that they themselves are working on in their own lives such as rebuilding their deck, reading books on a particular topic, participating in community events, volunteering, writing poetry, etc.
We present 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 interests and project ideas.
3. Casual Conversation:
Student-led learning requires relationship building. Period. It's mandatory. One of the best ways to do that is to simply chat with your students.
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 or provide opportunities for open dialogue.
4. TED Talks:
Watching TED Talks is a great way for students discover interests. If a student is struggling to find an 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 and a shelf full of books in my room at all times. 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 is 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.
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.
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 fundraiser to raise money for refugee aid.
One of the coolest outcomes of this project was the number of student-directed project spin-offs that emerged from this experience.
8. Interest Surveys for Students:
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.
Interest surveys for students are great for pulling out those underlying sparks AND gives you a chance to get to know your students.
Interest surveys for students are simply questions or prompts that students can dig into to help discover interests.
9. Current Events:
I set aside time every day to discuss current events with my student-led learners. Talking about what is going on in the world not only encourages informed, responsible citizenship, but also provides exposure and inspires questions.
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 else’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 interests and those interests to project topics.
Start a speaker series at your school or simply organize speakers for your own students 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!
12. Field Trips
Field trips really spark interest, bottom line. If you can't get learners to a museum, a nature center, a zoo, community events, etc., at least take them outside to observe the world around them. Sometimes a little observation and inquiry are all it takes to stir up some topic ideas.
Successful student-led interest-based learning relies on knowing oneself and having the skills and wherewithal to identify one's own interests. Interest surveys for students, field trips, current events, and casual discussion are just a few opportunities to help your students discover those interests.
Thanks for reading! What are your questions about interest-based learning? Let's chat in the comments!
Student-Led High School Resources
Interest-Based Learning Blog Posts
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
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.