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October 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 2

The Benefits of Exploratory Time

Allowing students one hour of classroom time every school day to explore their interests complements the curriculum and creates lifelong learners.

When I think back to my school days—elementary, junior high, and high school—I am hard-pressed to recall a moment that I owned. Stated simply, I have no memories of owning any of my learning. I cannot tell a single story of being able to choose a book to read or a topic to study or a text to write.
As a teacher educator, I'm in schools often. I visit urban schools and sub-urban schools, poor schools and affluent schools. I usually see schooling based on compliance and obedience. Students study what they are told to study, read books that they are told to read, answer questions that they are told to answer, write what they are told to write. When John Goodlad (1984) asked nearly 20 years ago, "Why are our schools not places of joy?" one of the answers was that children are rarely allowed to own any of their learning in school.
When I refer to owning my learning, I am speaking of learning—and the purpose of and drive for learning—that comes from within me. This learning has a personal connection to who I am: my interests, cultures, life experiences, opinions, ideas, questions, and curiosities. It is the kind of learning that I and many other lifelong learners typically pursue outside of school. Some people are passionate about gardening, so they devote time to learning about gardening. Others are interested in Spanish history, astronomy, car repair, or postmodern art, so they read good books and magazines, visit Spain, join book groups, buy a telescope and scan the skies, work on their car, join car clubs, or visit museums and art galleries. It is this learning outside of school that we own, that we care so deeply about, that we see as an integral part of ourselves. During a recent graduate teacher education class, one student told the class:If I had to choose between keeping all of my school learning or keeping all of my outside of school learning, I would not hesitate a moment: goodbye, school learning.Not one person in the class disagreed.
I want to make a simple—yet controversial—proposal. Let's give one hour of every school day to students to let them learn what they want to learn. This hour could be given different names: discovery hour, independent study, student project time, or wonder hour, but, for this article, let's call it exploratory time. If a typical school day is six hours, and we subtract an hour for lunch, recess, and other nonteaching business, that leaves us with five hours of teaching time. Giving students in grades 1–12 one hour a day for exploratory time amounts to 20 percent of each day's teaching time, which leaves teachers, administrators, parents, legislators, curriculum experts, and society the remaining 80 percent to teach the content that they deem important. (At its best, that 80 percent also includes opportunities for students to cultivate their own learning.)
Schools, students, and especially classroom teachers are under tremendous pressure to increase test scores—and with that are calls for more rigor in schools, increased time on academic subjects, longer schools days and years, and more teacher accountability. The last thing most people would recommend is giving students a chunk of time each day with the freedom to learn something of their own choice. Many critics see it as a waste of time. And many teachers, understandably, might argue that they don't have time to give their students an hour each day because they have too much to teach. Teachers are given much to teach, so we'll have to change some things. We can cut back on overstuffed curriculums, and teachers and schools can be creative in how they schedule their day—teaching with block scheduling, project-based teaching, and integrated curriculums. All of this would open time. If as educators and a society we truly value helping students develop a lifelong love for learning, then we must rethink our priorities and give them the time to do that.

Why Give Students Exploratory Time?

There are many benefits of exploratory time, but most of them will not show up on a test score. In the long run, however, exploratory time could boost students' test scores because we are helping students care about their learning—and caring changes a person's attitude about learning. Other reasons to have exploratory time include the following:
It nurtures a love for learning. By allowing children to pursue topics and questions of their choice, we are nurturing a lifelong love for learning and an intellectual curiosity about the world. Educators often cite these attitudes as some of the purposes for schooling, yet students are far more bored by their learning in school than excited (Goodlad, 1984). Too often, students learn that learning is something someone does to you rather than something that you do. Our schools don't really value living a curious life and pursuing our own learning; if they did, there would be nothing controversial about exploratory time.
It encourages meaningful learning through intrinsic motivation. When our learning is driven through intrinsic motivation, we own that learning. It comes from within us and is deeply purposeful. William Heard Kilpatrick (1925), a contemporary of John Dewey, spoke passionately of learning through purposeful acts: "The stronger the purpose, the stronger the learning that takes place" (p. 202). The late psychologist Carl Rogers (1969) noted that adolescents learn to drive cars relatively quickly. Schools need not offer remedial driver's education because adolescents want to drive and are motivated from within to learn how. Exploratory time could be the most powerful learning segment of the school day because it is the most personally meaningful to the students.
It creates true communities of learners. At its best, exploratory time creates a community of learners in which students pursue their interests, help one another, and learn from one another in a social classroom environment that helps them become active and responsible community members. Exploratory time reflects learning as a social act.
It develops self-esteem and celebrates uniqueness. Exploratory time raises students' self-esteem by allowing them to pursue their own interests, which means we're valuing them and their interests. It honors student diversity. When one student wants to learn about electricity and another wants to know about the French Revolution and another is curious about Emily Dickinson, exploratory time shows them that diverse interests are wonderful, exciting, and necessary for a democratic and thoughtful society.
It uses real-world resources. Textbooks could be useful during explor-atory time, but they should not be students' primary sources for learning about topics. Students should interview experts; contact organizations, businesses, and government offices; read books; use the Internet; read news-papers and magazines; and go to museums. I once had a 5th grader who called a local hospital and interviewed an ophthalmologist during a self-chosen project on eyesight.
It brings more content into the classroom. Students should study different topics, both individually and (if they choose) collaboratively. Having some predetermined objectives when teaching is important, but such objectives can also hinder the creation of a dynamic and generative classroom and curriculum, which grows out of the authentic and intellectual classroom culture. Exploratory time splits a classroom's curriculum wide open to allow content to mingle. During that hour, no topics are just for 3rd graders or 7th graders, or just for math or reading. Students study what they want, and together they create a highly thoughtful and content-rich classroom atmosphere.
Consider the student-chosen topics being studied simultaneously in my classroom: cheetahs, the Central Intelligence Agency, box turtles, the history of pencils, Georgia O'Keefe, architecture, dinosaurs, teaching as a career, giant pandas, the space shuttle, roof shingles, artificial intelligence, bats, the history of pizza, dolphins, Ludwig Von Beethoven, the court system, jaguars, northwestern Native American Indians, the endangered species of Africa, and the history of the atomic bomb.
It teaches skills. As students work on their projects, they will learn many skills. Aliza, a 4th grader, for example, created a survey about drug abuse and gave it to the older students in our school. She learned about kinds of surveys and survey questions, writing, analyzing data, math, and creating graphs on a computer. Susan, a 5th grader, researched Claude Monet. She wrote a short report and a fictional diary of Blanche Hoschede, who as a girl knew Monet and later married his son. Susan improved her research, writing, and editing skills and increased her knowledge and appreciation of art. Any well-thought-out, purposeful project has valuable skills embedded in it.
It nurtures creativity and imagination. Students should choose how to communicate what they've learned. For their final products, students can build models; make multimedia presentations; write newspapers, poetry, interviews, magazines, essays, and manuals; create murals and other visual art; make videos; write and illustrate children's picture books and comics; make board games; or create fliers and posters. The only limits are their imaginations.

What Could Exploratory Time Look Like?

Exploratory time is project-based. When I taught elementary school, most of my students' projects lasted for four to six weeks. Students should do most of their work in class, rather than as homework. This way, the teacher can help (actually teach) as the students work. Some other aspects of exploratory time are
Purposeful work. Exploratory time is somewhat messy—students spread around the classroom. Aliza will be using a computer to analyze the data from her survey on drugs while Ben builds his model of the Parthenon and Jennifer watches a video about the 1960s. The classroom may appear to have no order, but it should not be chaotic or unstructured. John Mayher (1990) wrote that the structure comes from "the meaningfulness of the activities in which everyone is engaged" (p. 131). John Dewey (1938) wrote, "It is not the will or desire of any one person which establishes order but the moving spirit of the whole group" (p. 54). This kind of classroom can be alive with excitement.
Might there be some behavior problems? Of course, but students also misbehave when they are sitting in rows doing worksheets. Teachers should view behavior problems as opportunities for students to learn about the common good and the value of community and discover that freedom requires responsibility. During exploratory time, the process is also the product.
Project plan. Each student's self-chosen project begins with a plan. The plan includes a title, questions about the topic, a paragraph on what the student already knows (or thinks he or she knows) about the topic, a list of possible resources, some possible final products, and three dates: when the research must be completed, when the final product must be completed, and when the student will present the project to the class.
Status-of-the-class. This idea comes from the writing workshop (Atwell, 1998) and can help with classroom management. At the start of the hour, the students meet in a circle and quickly tell the teacher what they will be doing for that time. The teacher has a chart on a clipboard or in a book with the students' names down the left and the days of the week across the top. As each student says what he or she will be doing, the teacher writes that in the appropriate box. After a few weeks, status-of-the-class can be done in five minutes. Doing so focuses the students and serves as a verbal contract, which can help with issues of behavior and can keep students on task.
Deliverables. This idea comes from a teacher I know, Brenda Kraber. If a teacher has 28 students working on different projects, he or she might have difficulty keeping track of student progress. Deliverables have specific due dates. For example, the teacher and Angela can agree that her research notes on chimpanzees are due on October 18, which means they need to be delivered to the teacher by that date.
Project conferences. To stay on top of a student's progress on a project, teachers can have regular conferences with students to review student work. The conferences can be held standing in the middle of the room for 30 seconds or sitting at a table for a few minutes. After the conference, the teacher can mark on the status-of-the-class sheet the names of the students with whom she met. Project conferencs are also the perfect time for teachers and students to decide on due dates for deliverables.
Final products. After students study their topics, they create something to show what they have learned. Three students may all want to explore Latino culture during the 1960s, but one student might want to create a series of poems, another might want to create a Web site, and the third might want to write a play. Allowing students the freedom to choose their own final product reinforces student ownership, brings creativity and imagination into the classroom, and lets students learn from one another.
Presentations and shows. Once students finish their final products, they present them to the class. In my classroom, I had a 60-day dry-erasable calendar on the wall. When students turned in their project plans, they wrote their name on the calendar on their presentation day. I allowed no more than two presentations a day. Entire classes can also put on exploratory shows for their peers. Imagine how powerful it could be for a classroom to have one big show of all the explor-atory projects every semester.

The Teacher's Role

Teachers have a crucial role in making exploratory time a success. They must be proactive in helping their students create and shape intellectual, challenging, creative, and interesting projects. A 5th grader in my classroom, Jon, wanted to do a project on "watching marshmallows go poof." Obviously, I didn't see any purpose in that. But after talking with Jon and finding out that he wanted to do that project because of an interest in chemical reactions, we created a challenging plan. The teacher can—and should—make specific suggestions to students about their projects. If a student is studying zoos, the teacher can suggest that he survey people on their opinions of zoos; if a student is doing a project on the Holocaust, the teacher can suggest that she also study more recent genocides, such as those in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
Another role of the teacher is to model lifelong learning. Teachers who are passionate about learning and knowledge create an infectious classroom environment. Exploratory time is not just a time for the students to explore topics and issues of personal interest; teachers should also talk about their own interests and occasionally even do their own projects. The best quality a teacher can have is to love learning. And teachers do not have to be experts on their students' topics; everyone can learn together.
Teachers also need to maintain high expectations. Giving students the freedom to choose what to learn about is not giving them the freedom to sit around and do nothing, to misbehave, or to do poor quality work. Teachers should expect students to work hard, take their learning seriously, be caring classroom community members, be thoughtful, challenge themselves, and produce high-quality work.

Trusting Students

When I visit classrooms, I watch the students. I know that they all have endless interests that they would love to pursue. But giving them those opportunities in school requires a tremendous amount of trust in students, something that most adults lack. Rogers (1969) wrote:If I distrust the human being then I must cram him with information of my own choosing, lest he go his own mistaken way. But if I trust the capacity of the human individual for developing his own potentiality, then I can provide him with many opportunities and permit him to choose his own way and his own direction in his learning. (p. 114)
We must trust that students have educational and intellectual interests and curiosities, deeply meaningful questions about the world, and an innate desire to know and to understand. We must trust that students want to learn and that they are willing to work hard in that learning. The next step is ours. We must give them the time to own their learning.

Atwell, N. (1998).In the middle (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier.

Goodlad, J. (1984). A place called school. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kilpatrick, W. H. (1925). A democratic classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mayher, J, (1990). Uncommon sense: Theoretical practice in language education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

Steven Wolk has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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