Let Students Lead: Why are local investigations important to student learning?
This is the second installment of a four part series on local investigations in the classroom authored by Participate. For more ideas and stories on global education, visit Global Perspectives, a new Medium Publication dedicated to stories, thoughts and ideas to empower teachers and students to be actives contributors to their communities and our world.
Local investigation practices in education are not new. Almost every good teacher knows, for example, that if students have opportunities to interview family members about their immigrant experiences, knowledge is deepened because the information is relevant to students’ lives. Imagine students then comparing their own family immigrant stories with digitized primary sources available through the Library of Congress to understand how their stories align with historical U.S. narratives.
“Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom” — from How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
Local investigations serve another critical function by providing teachers opportunities to implement culturally responsive teaching strategies. Educator biases, curriculum content, assessment procedures and overall school cultures tend to privilege dominant groups within a society. Students with diverse cultural backgrounds are often framed within deficit models that view their experiences as something to overcome and contribute to a downward spiral of low achievement and marginalization.
Implementing instructional approaches that engage and serve students from all backgrounds can be challenging if inquiry-based and student-centered strategies are not central. It is not possible for teachers to know every detail about a student’s background, nor it is necessary. Structuring time for students to consider and share what they already know about a topic allows teachers to better understand their diverse backgrounds and existing knowledge, and it reveals the misconceptions to address through investigations.
For example, here are some simple questions can lead to great local investigations.
- Where is my family from?
Guide oral history projects based on student interviews of family members to create timelines or maps of major events in family history.
- What kind of plant is this?
Explore the genealogy of plants common to the community.
- Where do you live compared to where I live?
Map neighborhoods or local communities, using Google Earth or other online mapping tool, to identify community assets and landmarks.
- What does a mayor do? How are laws made?
Facilitate virtual or in-person discussions of policy and decision-making processes with representatives from the local government..
- How are businesses started?
Investigate resources provided the local chamber of commerce and research of visit local businesses to learn more about their reach.
- Where does our tap water come from?
Visit a local water utility or treatment plant to learn more about your community’s water sources and what’s being done to protect them.
- What kind of bird is that?
Research local animal species and their migrations to the region, and explore other locales where these species are found.
Local investigations put students in the driver’s seat and provide opportunities for students’ unique personalities, curiosities and strengths to shine. Challenging students to lead their own learning is also essential for building trust in the classroom. The importance of the relationships between students and teachers cannot be overstated. When student-teacher relationships break down, diverse student perspectives risk being undervalued or ignored and will result in students feeling disconnected. Achievement gaps are easily understood in schools not actively undertaking efforts to develop student-centered and culturally responsive classrooms.
Teachers need to be active participants in the process — not just as teachers but as fellow researchers and learners. For trust to be built, teachers have to share and build on their experiences, too.
Again, maintaining a culturally responsive and effective learning environment does not mean that teachers must be experts in the cultures and backgrounds of all of their students. In fact, willingness to admit not knowing everything can be a strength as long as it is accompanied by an openness to students and a curiosity to learn more about them as individuals. With this in mind, local investigations should not be conducted only by students. Teachers need to be active participants in the process — not just as teachers but as fellow researchers and learners. For trust to be built, teachers have to share and build on their experiences, too. Reciprocity is critical.
Julie, head of research at Participate, leads research and evaluation for all Participate programs, contributes to professional development curriculum design, and is a key contributor to the development of Participates’ digital badging system. She holds a doctorate in education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a master’s in political science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
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