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Creating Teaching Trails

While I am not a Drake fan, many of you might be and so sharing this quote feels appropriate - "Sometimes it's the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination." Drake might be a hip-hop artist, but he is certainly thinking like an informed educator by describing the learning process as more important than the end product. This is just one of the reasons why teaching trails are an instructional technique you should consider including in your classroom next year.

Teaching trails are modeled after one of the interpretive approaches utilized at national and state parks that might be familiar to you. As you hike along most park trails, you come across panels that help you learn along your journey. Sometimes parks supplement these interpretive panels by also publishing audio or printed trail guides. By the end of your hike, you will have gained knowledge that helps you to better understand and appreciate the resources of the park.

A teaching trail can be just as effective at brick-and-mortar schools as they are at parks. They are a great tool for activating the connection between learning and physical movement. They help break up the monotony of traditional instruction and do a better job of addressing the needs of all learners. They can also provide structure for outdoor learning and to assess student learning outside of the classroom. And the best part is they don’t take much to create.

The approach used to design interpretive trails can be adapted fairly easily and expanded upon to take advantage of tools and approaches;

1) Consider your learning goals - always begin with the end in mind. By the end of this learning experience, what do you want students to learn? What do you want your students to be assessed on? Be clear with these goals from the get-go.

2) Consider your context - teaching trails can use technology, or be free of it. They can be outdoor experiences, or be done inside. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way, so long as you are considering the constraints of your teaching context, as well as keeping the resources you have on hand in mind while planning.

Note - When determining what role technology will play, you may want to reflect on that after the next step.

3) Consider your resources - teaching trails utilize a lot of the same learning approaches that you might normally use in the classroom, so always begin by considering what you can repurpose. Common learning resources that are included on teaching trails include…

  • Laminated index cards with questions, discussion, prompts, or a bit of knowledge.

  • Poster boards with images, text, or other information.

  • Collections of tactile objects to sketch, observe, or interact with.

  • text that elaborates on a resource, object, natural resource, or other place-based asset.

  • Links or QR codes to video or audio clips.

In general, each trail stop should contain short or small bits of knowledge or single questions. If you’re interested in having students read something, calculate something, or provide a longer response, consider providing a “trail guide” where they are prompted to look at pages in the packet during each stop.

Much like a station activity, students travel between the different stops on the teaching trail, gaining knowledge or completing tasks as they go. However, unlike station activity, the space between the different stops is utilized for group discussion, prompting observation, or reflecting on what has been learned.

Whether or not to utilize technology as a part of a teaching trail comes down to two questions;

  • Do you have sufficient technology tools available?

  • Are there resources that you wish to include that would enhance the experience that is only technology-based?

If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then technology may be an asset. However, there is also a lot to be said about giving students time outdoors to be unplugged and away from screens as a way to help them refresh, refocus, and de-stress, all of which are proven benefits of outdoor learning that are hampered by screens. As the old saying goes, “There is no Wi-Fi in nature, but outdoors you’ll find no better connection.”

4) Consider your sequence - with your learning goal set and sufficient resources gathered, you are ready to start creating your teaching trail. You want to make sure that as your students progress down the trail, they follow a learn–do–assess methodology. For each learning goal you selected in step 1, make sure that they are given knowledge in the form of resources, then they have to do something with it to demonstrate understanding in the form of tasks or reflection, and they have to then perform a task that assesses whether or not they have learned the concept. An example may look something like this;

Learn - Students stop at a QR code that shows them a video describing how cacti have evolved to thrive in a desert climate.

Do - in their trail guide, they are asked to take what they have learned about the desert adaptations of a cactus and think of how they could use what they have learned to survive a trip in the desert. (e.g. - bring something to store water, reduce the surface area exposed to the sun by hiding in shade, bring a hat or white shirt to reflect light and heat)

Assess - at the end of the learning trail, students diagram a cactus and point out its survival adaptations.

The more learning goals you have, the more stops on the trail you will have to create.

5) Consider the experience - the final part of a learning trail is some sort of summative all-group activity or debrief followed by your reflection so that you can revise and improve both the trail you created and the next time you use this approach. From the student's point of you, the reflection or summative activity can take the form of a traditional quiz, or a group discussion or you can choose to use this as the lead-in to a larger activity, such as a project. If you have built your learning trail around an anchor question, having students do a quick write or exit ticket where they share what they learned on the trail could be helpful. This question is a fantastic way to tie the activity to a larger learning sequence.

Once you have gathered information about the student experience, you should consider your own experience from the instructor's point of you. Do you feel like it was a success? Was it an effective method of learning? Does the assessment data show you that the majority of students made progress toward your selected learning standards? If not, what could you change next time to improve it or make it better?

Remember, even if you do not feel like your first attempt, went well, make sure to process the positive. It is very important to think about the things that were successful or went right along with all the opportunities to improve.


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