- Albert Einstein
We often characterize learning as a structured, choreographed experience with a clear destination in mind. In many cases, this is the most efficient and effective way for students to understand a new concept or idea. In other cases, though, it can be quite helpful for students to explore a topic in a more open-ended or less structured manner. As they explore a topic on their own, they often develop a greater sense of ownership in their learning and can often make surprising connections between ideas.
Key features of the strategy
When we ask students to explore a topic, we’re really asking for something between answering a set of questions at the end of a textbook chapter and conducting a more formal research project. It requires students to go more in depth than in the former, but is not as time consuming or formal as the latter. It also encourages students to take ownership of their learning. As they determine how they will explore the topic, the resources they consult, and possibly the output they generate, the learning is more student-directed than a more guided approach. The key for an exploration to be productive is to have a clear focus of what you hope students take away from the experience.
Once you have determined a focus, the next challenge is to frame the exploration with an engaging and productive question. It should be open-ended enough that there isn’t a single answer, but not so broad that it would be difficult for students to adequately explore in a reasonable amount of time. You might then provide them with a collection of resources (online resources, articles, books, etc.) within which they might explore the question or encourage them to explore on their own.
Examples and Variations
Structured Scavenger Hunt
A structured scavenger hunt can be the most efficient way for students to explore a topic. In this approach, you are very directive with both what questions students will explore and the resources they will draw upon. For example, students might be challenged to review a collection of law briefs to find seven different examples of precedent related to a particular legal concept. While there is some room for students to pick particular examples, this type of exploration will tend to be very convergent in terms of student understanding. This is the kind of experience that could possibly be completed as an in-class activity.
A more graphic and emergent way to explore a topic is through the development of a topic web. This is a simple graphic organizer with prompts for specific features of a particular topic. For example, if students are exploring the writing conventions of a particular author, they might be prompted for examples related to figurative language, personification, and analogies. Students would then explore multiple works from the author to build out this web. The web can be completed paper/pencil or through the use of a digital concept mapping tool like Mindmeister. You can provide more or less structure to the web (or the resources students would explore) based on the amount of time you have, the degree to which you want students to develop similar conceptions, or the experience students already have relative to the material.
Annotated Resource Collection
One strategy I frequently use in my teaching is to have students develop an annotated resource collection on a given topic. In this approach, students not only have to explore the topic, they also have to curate an annotated collection of materials to share with others. In an educational technology course I teach, I like to have students explore Web-based multimedia resources in their curriculum area (e.g., math, history) that they might use in their teaching. This Multimedia Collection project then serves as an efficient and effective way for students to explore the topic and create a resource for others at the same time.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Exploring a topic is a way to construct knowledge of a topic - an important dimension of 21st century learning design (21CLD). The degree to which they have autonomy and choice in selecting either the focus, process, or output of the exploration also may help them to develop key self-regulation skills from the 21CLD framework.
Accessing different types of resources online opens up a broad range of possibilities and representations of the content. You can also use different technology tools to share collections of resources (or encourage students to share their own collections). This can be accomplished through your learning management system, but wikis can also be very useful for sharing resources with your students. You can watch a short demonstration of how you can use Wikispaces for collaborative work here. Other “curation” sites like Pinterest and Blendspace are also great for sharing resources as well.
What strategies have you used to encourage students to explore topics in your classes?
Please post your comments below.
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