Let students lead: How do I implement local investigations in my classroom?

Participate

*This is the fourth 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 Medium Publication dedicated to stories, thoughts and ideas to empower teachers and students to be actives contributors to their communities and our world.

For many teachers, local investigations are already integral to everyday instruction. For others, curriculum and accountability mandates may feel too pervasive and time consuming to comfortably adopt a student-centered approach. Educators interested in integrating local investigations into instruction need to feel comfortable putting students in charge of their learning, which requires not only trust in students but also planning to provide the structure and guidance needed for students have some authority in their learning process.

Local investigations do not abandon curriculum standards in favor of student interests. The most effective local investigations happen when standards-based instruction can be supported, enhanced or transformed by investigations sparked by student curiosity. The list of local investigation dos and don’ts below will help you get started and demonstrate that these investigations will not steer you away from standards-based curriculum.

Do:

  • Let students lead. Establish routines at the beginning of the year that build students’ responsibility and ownership in the learning process. Make the high expectations you have for students clear and ask them to sign contracts agreeing to be leaders in their own learning.
  • Know your curriculum. Remember that local investigations do not always need to be full-blown interdisciplinary units. Investigations can be as simple as autobiographical essays — just know where to plug local investigations into your curriculum and how they will deepen your students’ learning.
  • Let students’ interests indicate where they might engage more deeply with the curriculum. Allowing time for students to wander and wonder around topics reveals new thinking and often leads to deeper understanding of content. Don’t consider this getting off track.
  • Investigate alongside your students. Where are you interested in further developing your own content expertise?
  • Take advantage of local connections in your community. What expertise can be offered on investigations of local topics by your colleagues or your students’ families?
  • Communicate with parents and guardians about local investigations being central to students’ learning processes. Ask for their participation and input to build trust and buy in.
  • Be mindful when engaging students in local investigations that require investigative work beyond school hours since this may inadvertently favor certain students while isolating others. As much as is reasonable, allow students to conduct investigations during school hours.

Don’t:

  • Overcomplicate local investigations or overthink the planning phase. Implementing successful local investigations doesn’t always mean taking students outside of the school building. Start with small projects to develop procedures that you are comfortable with and go from there.
  • Throw out tried-and-true best practices. Wherever possible, use local investigations to complement and strengthen everything you already do well.
  • Always be the expert. In fact, don’t ever be the expert! Local investigations promote inquiry by allowing teachers to learn alongside their students.
  • Be afraid of student questions — they are the most important part of any inquiry process. Too often, as educators, we race through or don’t allow student questions because we believe they take time away from the curriculum. But students cannot connect to any curricular activity unless they feel connected to the outcome. Using a simple Know-Want-Learn chart is great way to have student questions drive your instruction.
  • Avoid controversy. Many administrators and parents fear students being involved in difficult conversations. However, the classroom should be the place for these conversations so that students learn essential skills such as effective argumentation, using evidence to support particular positions, and the critical difference between opinion and fact.
  • Be limited by curriculum pacing. The perennial problem of breadth over depth reflected in many, if not most, district pacing guides can be difficult to manage. However, local investigations will strengthen any curriculum area or focus. Remember that local investigations may be discrete activities or they may serve as interdisciplinary projects that anchor six- to nine-week periods.
  • Endeavor on local investigations if you can’t commit to their implications. Local investigations require pedagogical approaches that are student-centered, inquiry-based and that ask teachers to give up their role as experts in order to learn alongside their students.

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Author

Julie Keane, PhD

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 Participate’s 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.