Most students just want to be told what to do, as it is a shorter path to the answer; but in the end developing their curiosity and desire to explore yields so much more than just the answers themselves.
More often than not, students figure out the expectations of a classroom. They know when they need to pay attention, what work needs the most focus, and exactly what they need to study to score well. For better or for worse they figure out the routine. While in many circumstances routine eases the anxiety often associated with school, it also leads to predictability and a lack of excitement in the classroom. Part of why we love movies, especially scary ones, is because we really don’t know what is next and the surprises are exhilarating! In addition, there has been a resurgence in open world gaming. This is where the player has complete autonomy on where to go and what to explore. While this carte blanche approach may not be the exact structure for a classroom, but the nature of the experience provides a ton of value. Encouraging students to be explorers in the classroom, gives them the skills to be explorers outside the classroom. Keep reading to see how I add opportunitities for exploration to my class!
Adding opportunities for exploration can come in a variety of forms. In most circumstances these chances are linked to content and the search for a deeper understanding of information. However, we can also consider adding elements of challenges not associated with content to allow those students not as academically gifted to still seek out the opportunity to find something new! Below I will outline the “who, what, when, where, and why” for adding exploration opportunities to your class.
The short answer to this is EVERYONE! I hope that you recognize exploration is not reserved for your highest achievers. Sure they may move through things more quickly and have the in class time to work on additional items, but this does not preclude others from having the interest to explore. I’ll talk more about time in a later section, but the first thing we need to remember is that every student, regardless of academic ability is curious about something. Adding elements where student can discover and pursue their passions does not have to happen every day, but the opportunity needs to be presented and made available to each and every student!
This is where we start to see some specialization based on the structure of your classroom. This will look very different depending on the grade level you teach and structure of your class. Elementary school is ripe for general exploration of topics that are interesting to your students and the latitude for timing is more open as most students are in a contained classroom. Meanwhile, middle and high school environments are more specialized and compartmentalized, causing a bit more of a logistical hurdle for autonomous learning and exploration of topics of interest.
An overall goal we can have, regardless of grade level and structure, is to provide opportunities for student to dig deeper on SOMETHING! In elementary school, we could create time within the day (similar to genius hour) for students to play and explore different topics. Simple projects where students select the topic to investigate and share their final product celebrate the idea of exploring and learning beyond the context of “instruction.” Cultivating the idea that learning is not school dependent is something that will serve great value in the upper levels of high school as students begin to narrow down their interest areas. Creating lifetime learners is a goal of any school, and offering opportunities to realize this can happen at any time is essential to present early in the educational experience. These open context and topics in elementary school get the ball rolling.
At the middle and high school level, it is admittedly more challenging due to the logistics of daily life. In my experience, it is much easier to encourage teachers to provide opportunities within their classes for exploration than to try to set aside a time and place for decontextualized exploration. While I always like to see students have autonomy over their learning, creating the needed space is extremely difficult in a traditional class structure. Opening up learning experiences and assessment strategies for student selected structures encourage students to explore different ways to learn and share what has been discovered. By avoiding the limitation of strategies, students not only feel empowered by their choice, but also learn practical skills in the process. Even things that seem simple, like presentations, provide opportunities for feedback from teachers about how to create produce that not only convey information, but engage audiences. In addition, students would be able to integrate their outside interests into how they demonstrate their learning. Programmers can create unique experiences for interacting with users to show what they know or artists can create wonderful works that allow others to see information from a unique perspective. It does not really matter what students are trying to explore, it is just giving them the space to do it, whether associated with content or a more open context.
The answer to this question is quite simple... ANYWHERE, ANYTIME! While the logistics of making this happen in your classroom may be difficult, there is never a bad time or place to open up the doors for students to dig deeper. The reality is that students will encounter information all throughout their lives and if something strikes them as interesting, they will more than likely IMMEDIATELY seek out more information. While mirroring this in our classrooms could be difficult, when the opportunity arises, if we can allow students the latitude to explore, we most certainly should sieve the opportunity.
I see this happen with my students when I introduce a very general topic, say geological events. Students have an idea of what they are and are immediately intrigued to learn more. Some want to know about a very recent event, while another seeks one in the distant past. This is an opportunity for me to allow my students to explore. Even though I have not provided any detail about the subject, more than just the general idea, students are already eager to explore. While I will get back to the foundational information about the topic, giving them the chance to research, learn, and then share their discoveries with others engages them in the subject and makes the presentation of foundational information more contextualized as they can relate it back to the example that they found most interesting.
Let’s be very honest for just one second... the world in which our students will exist is something that we can not accurately predict. As a science teacher it is hard for me to prepare students for the content that will be most prevalent in their lifetimes as it is most likely something that is not well researched at the moment or may not even exist yet. Therefore, as much as I hope to engage students in learning the content we know now, I want to also equip them with the skills to go out and learn things on their own. While some may not be as interested in science topics, just as I wasn’t about literature (in my youth), the experience gained from forging their own paths to knowledge is a skill they will certainly need in the future as it is not content specific.
Opening the doors to opportunities for exploration are the easiest way to provide students feedback and support on the process of learning something on their own. Coupled with the autonomy to select the topic, students are motivated to learn all they can and create incredible ways to share it with others. I am very proud of the projects that I have my students complete, but even more proud of the projects they choose to complete on the topics they find most interesting. It is empowering for me as a teacher to know that my students will have the skills they need to thrive in the world, regardless of what that world may be.