While it’s rare these days to hear good news about the state of public education, it continues to serve an essential role in communities and nations. As an institution, public education is often taken for granted or, worse, viewed as a failure despite a common understanding that an educated public improves the quality and health of a society. Increasing demands on teachers’ schedules, diminishing access to teaching resources, low compensation and – especially in countries overcome by the pressures of standardized testing – changing expectations of how proficiency is demonstrated by students can all distract from the role educators play in a functioning democratic society.

Educators are positioned to empower students to trust their curiosities about the world and to be leaders in investigating their own questions – an essential process in building knowledge. Reinvigorating educational approaches that better develop informed and active students is not impossible and it does not require deviation from standards-based instruction.

For educators, student-led local investigations are a great place to start.

What are local investigations?

All humans engage with the world around them from the moment of birth. In fact, we are all natural investigators. We crawl, put things in our mouths, listen to the sounds of our families and caregivers, touch everything, test gravity and smell the world. Yet traditional schooling tends to untrain our natural instincts for investigation. Curiosity is traded for memorization, observation is traded for following rules that often have little connection to learning, and open questioning and research are traded for teacher-directed instruction.

How do we re-engage students’ natural investigatory instincts while developing their knowledge of core academic content? The answer is pretty simple. Students need learning spaces – and caring adults to establish those spaces – to build on their prior experiences and provide true connections between academic subjects and the world students know.

Effective local investigations:

  • Put students into the role of investigator and charge them with identifying and collecting the data needed to answer simple or complex questions arising in classrooms, schools or the larger communities around them.
  • Introduce expert or primary source knowledge that allows students to expand on their own existing knowledge or perceptions of topics being investigated.
  • Are generally hands-on and involve learning outside of textbooks, and often outside of classrooms.
  • May be discrete activities – under no circumstances are local investigations required to be complex, long-term projects.
  • Reveal natural connections between local topics or issues and their broader, global implications.
  • Easily utilize technology and 21st century tools.
  • Support evidence of how people learn best, and help students feel in control of their learning.

The focus of local investigation activities and projects, regardless of their scope or subject, is for students to create content and engage in inquiry processes by collecting data and testing findings against what others considering the topic have found. This brings students into the process of co-constructing their own knowledge, supports their natural curiosities and motivations to learn about the world around them, and follows their developmental progression.

Why are local investigations important to student learning?

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.

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.

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.

How are local investigations relevant to global learning?

The most effective approaches to global learning don’t necessarily start by focusing on things or places far away from students. Curiosity and perspective-taking are critical global competencies to help students develop, and those skills are nurtured when students thoroughly explore their own backgrounds, communities and cultural contexts. New literacy standards underscore the need for students as young as kindergarten to compare and contrast because understanding is strengthened when students analyze the similarities and differences between something they recognize and something they don’t. Local investigations provide compelling foundations for connecting student curiosity to global contexts because students can’t begin to explore the world unless they recognize where they are.

Let’s consider a few more detailed examples. Oral history projects conducted by students in any U.S. classroom will find global connections among family or community members within one or two generations. The inherent diversity of the U.S. population is something educators can use to create units of study built on the premise that the majority of U.S. Americans come from somewhere else in the world. Several questions might drive these types of investigations and students may develop interview protocols to explore their own stories. What brought their families and ancestors to this country? What global event triggered their families’ immigration? What was the relationship of newly arriving immigrants to the communities already here? How did they adapt to their new home?

Finally, local investigations create connections that help students recognize that most jobs will require them to interact with and communicate effectively across diverse cultures. They also allow students to utilize technology tools, and to learn and apply technology literacy in their research. These are the types of applicable skills and insights that students need to interact effectively with their communities and with the world.

Next steps

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.

Julie, head of research at VIF International Education, leads research and evaluation for all VIF programs, contributes to professional development curriculum design, and is a key contributor to the development of VIF’s digital badging system. She holds a Ph.D. 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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