Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
"I would love to start self-directed project-based learning, but I'm a beginner and I'm feeling really uncertain and overwhelmed by the learning curve". I get this comment in my inbox quite often and my response is always that you have to start self-directed project-based learning somewhere. You might as well start now and with a few tricks of the trade in your back pocket.
You and your project based self-directed learners will get it eventually, and the journey can be really fun and exciting. I also tell them that the fear and overwhelm is slightly unwarranted.
I believe self-directed project-based learning appears to be and feels more daunting than it actually is. It's not as scary as it looks, especially with the right tools, the right guidance, and some tips for beginners from a seasoned self-directed PBL educator.
I have put in the time, experienced a lot of trial and error, faced common project-based learning obstacles, and worked through those issues. It hasn't always been easy and I've made a lot of mistakes (I still do), but the hope for this post is to hand off some of my experiences to you so that launching student directed project based learning is smooth and exciting for everyone involved.
I love what project based learning is and what it stands for. I have stuck by it and it has been my go-to experiential learning approach for 14 years. Everyday is a new experience for you and your students. So I encourage you to read through these tips for beginner self-directed project-based learning teachers and then just give it a try! What's the worst that could happen?
Tips for Beginner Self-Directed Project Based Learning Teachers
1. Have Systems in Place:
This is above and beyond the biggest and best tip I can give you, which is why it is first on this list. Have systems! I was so unstructured for so long because I thought that was fitting with the philosophy of self-directed learning. That was way wrong in hindsight.
My students showed me rather quickly that for them to work productively, complete projects, produce quality results, and manage multiple projects at once they needed structure, guiding materials, routine, and systems. They are kids, after all, and very likely will have had little to no experience with self-directed learning or PBL when they walk into your door that first day.
When I say systems what I mean is having a weekly schedule or routine, for example, so students know what to expect. Use project based learning-specific planners and guides, offer project design tools, task completion checklists, proposal forms, feedback forms, project approval systems, and more.
2. Include Growth in Your Measurements of Success:
Try not to go into self directed project based learning with the same expectations for all. Student directed PBL is personalized by nature so learning outcomes will vary widely and should vary widely.
So rather than measure students accomplishments and successes entirely on arbitrary numbers or targets, remember to also look at who they are as unique individuals and what growth and success look like for each student.
3. Personalize Project-Based Learning from the Beginning:
To personalize learning is to organize learning experiences that highlight each students' personal needs and interests. In the case of project-based learning, students would design PBL projects around who they are. That is self-directed and personalized project-based learning.
My self-directed learners develop a personal learning plan (PLP) before they start their first project. A personal learning plan helps students identify their personal needs, interests, strengths, challenges, etc. and then they use that intrapersonal awareness to develop a project based learning plan for the session.
4. Put Time into Relationship-Building:
Because self-directed project-based learning is personalized, you need to know your students. You need to be aware of their interests to help them design their own projects, understand their aspirations and challenges to help guide them in goal-making, and so on.
Building positive relationships between teachers, students, and peers is essential, yes. But project-based learning is highly collaborative, so relationship-building between community members and partners is also essential. It is also fundamental to foster classroom community by building relationships between students.
Don't rush community building. Embrace it. Relationships will be your best friend when you start self-directed PBL. If you have it in you to take on only one of these tips, relationship-building is the one, in my opinion. The future is relational.
5. Have a Training Period:
When I first started self-directed project based learning with my students I gave them a quick rundown of the characteristics of project based learning and asked them to get started.
That quick rundown wasn't enough for my beginner project based learners. I threw them to the wolves. That was not only unfair to them, it created a lot of problems that I had to spend cycles undoing. Don't make that same mistake.
Eventually I began adding a PBL workshop of sorts to the beginning of the school year or session. We develop personal learning plans, go over self-directed PBL examples, and practice designing hypothetical projects together. I then assign themed and structured project-based learning experiences to help my students transition to self-directed PBL.
6. Use Project-Based Learning Portfolios
A project-based learning portfolio acts sort of as an assessment, but it is more of a demonstration of experiences and competencies than it is of content knowledge on its own.
Students add learning outcomes to this portfolio for every project-based learning experience that they complete. They add images and videos to showcase experiences, project reflections, rubric scores, and more.
I didn't have my students manage their own project based learning portfolios until about five years into my teaching career. I started using them to instill the desire to improve and take pride in their work. It also helped them organize their experiences and personal learning plans.
Grab my free project based learning assessment portfolio right here. It is a digital Google Slides that can be shared with each student to start using on day 1 of self-directed project-based learning in your classroom or homeschool
7. Keep a Project-Based Learning Planner:
I discovered in my 10 years working with teenagers that they are highly unorganized. A self-directed learner may be working on several different PBL projects at any given time, so even the most productive and organized students could benefit from a planner, especially one that is specific to project based learning.
I use a digital project based learning teacher planner that I created to be used from the facilitator's end of things. Grab a free sample of that PBL planner to get a glimpse of what a self-directed PBL schedule might look like and to begin adding to your own right now.
My students also use a project based learning planner that is designed to be used from their perspective.
8. Offer Non-Stop Feedback:
Feedback is HUGE. I believe consistent feedback is essential for all teaching methods, but it is especially important for self-directed learning experiences.
Your beginner project-based learners will likely be accustomed to completing a short-term learning activity and getting immediate feedback. Project-based learning doesn't work that way.
PBL requires sustained inquiry. Students spend weeks, sometimes months, developing and completing these projects. There are many tasks involved, several projects going on at once, and therefore, I have checkpoints and feedback systems in place.
Examples of feedback strategies include project circles where students share their progress with one another, personal learning plan (PLP) meetings with each student, and daily PBL check in forms.
There are a variety of ways you can offer feedback. Incorporate some strategies that work for you, but don't skip it entirely. Your students need it and if you aren't delivering, some will ask for it.
9. Facilitate, Don't Direct:
This is SO hard. I still have to tell myself to back away and guide, not direct. It is difficult for many teachers to do this because most of us have been trained to "teach". Do your best to guide, scaffold, and facilitate these learning experiences rather than control them.
The teacher's role in a self-directed learning environment is to help students develop deep, meaningful, authentic, and quality learning experiences. Your job is not moot. But it is important to keep in mind that your job is to facilitate. Help your students. Don't tell them what to do.
Part of facilitating self-directed learning of any kind, including project-based learning, is having learning environment that is organized around the characteristics and process of self-directed learning experiences. Click here for tips on setting up self-directed-specific classroom or homeschool learning environment.
10. Observe an Experienced Project-Based Educator:
If possible, spend some time in a self-directed project-based learning environment observing a PBL educator in action.
The school that I taught at for a long time put energy into this when I first started. They had me visit a nearby self-directed project-based learning school as part of my training. I shadowed a teacher and her advisory for two days. It was incredibly inspiring and career-changing.
If you don't know of a PBL educator or school offhand, I recommend the following:
I want to add one more thing that I think really encompasses this post as a whole. The director of the school that I worked at for 10 years, Wayne Jennings, reads my blog posts religiously and is one of my biggest supporters. He responded to one of my blog posts with this quote from a teacher that he worked with once upon a time:
"I waited for fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching; shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things, the layout, the lesson plans, the checks for understanding. Most of it!"
If you are to take anything away from this post it is that your students are the foundation of self-directed project based learning. Follow their lead, learn about their needs, tap into their interests, listen to their ideas, and the rest will fall into place. You and your students CAN DO THIS!
And as if you need more advice! Take care of yourself. Self-care is important for teachers, and self-directed project-based learning teachers are no exception. If the transition feels overwhelming, slow down and lower your expectations. Nothing has to be perfect. You and your students will learn and grow together, and that is the beauty of it!
If you're looking for guidance reach out. If you're looking for tools, I recommend checking out my self-directed project-based learning starter kit. Remember those systems I talked about? How about those planners? And feedback tools? All included in this resource.
For more self-directed PBL tips, tricks, updates, resource alerts, freebies and a fellow project-based educator to answer all your questions, follow Experiential Learning Depot on TPT, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.
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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.