My kids have always pursued their interests in depth. When they have an interest, I do my best to bring a variety of different resources, ideas and place to visit to their attention. They both have interests they continue to explore on a weekly basis which have lasted for years now.
But I was struggling with how to help my kids become more independent with their learning. Also, we love to be spontaneous and explore a lot of different ideas and places, but I know that sticking with one thing for a while and exploring it in depth is the only way to achieve real mastery.
Then a few weeks ago I read Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert.
Lori’s book helped me look at project-based learning in an entirely new way. By the end of the book, I was overflowing with lots of questions! I was beyond thrilled when Lori graciously agreed to an interview.
I had so many questions that I’m breaking down this interview into two parts. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comment section below.
You definitely gave me a new way of thinking about project work. Up until I read your book, I always thought about projects as a single thing: writing a single story, setting up a bake sale, putting together research on a topic into a single booklet or report. But you seem to be saying that you can make many representations and create many different things all under the scope of the same project. How do you define a project? Is it similar to saying you want to learn about birds or a particular artist?
A project is a long-term, deep investigation. It could be an exploration of birds or a particular artist, but it would grow organically from a child’s unique interests and questions.
My book Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners focuses on helping parents learn how to help their children direct and manage their own learning and also how to help them make that learning deeper and more complex.
Rather than a single activity or creation, therefore, a project is a series of linked experiences. You mentor your child to stay with an idea longer, explore it in a variety of ways, create many different representations of what she knows, and share her knowledge in a meaningful way. It’s a very dense, complex, layered way to learn.
One important take-away I got from the book is setting aside specific time to work on projects instead of approaching it in a haphazard fashion. Do you suggest setting time for project work every single day? If so, how much time is ideal, or will it be different for every family?
Dedicated project time is a powerful way to honor work that your child already wants to do. You make sure it happens by prioritizing it and actively supporting it.
We all know how quickly our time evaporates during the week. The best way to ensure something happens is to dedicate time to it up front. As an added bonus, when we commit to that time, we show our children how important their work is. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — you make the time because you value the work, and you get more of that work because you made the time.
The time you set aside has to fit into your larger family schedule and work with your particular approach to learning, so there’s no mandatory amount of time or number of days per week. Essentially, you want to come back to the work often enough that your child doesn’t forget his ideas and plans. And when he’s working, you want to give him enough time to relax and get lost in those ideas.
You suggest kids taking some time off between projects to refuel their creativity by visiting new places, experimenting with newmediums and exploring the community. This reminds me a lot of the artists’ dates Julia Cameron writes about in her books The Artist’s Way and Vein of Gold. How much time do you suggest kids take between projects?
Again, there’s no set time. The first few projects, parents are feeling their way along. They need time between projects to choose another deep interest to support. There’s usually a ritual of clearing the decks — cleaning out the workspace and/or studio, emptying the bulletin board, putting the previous project’s work into books or portfolios, and so on. It’s a great time to visit new places, explore new art media, and learn new skills, because you aren’t distracting your child away from her self-chosen work.
It’s really about giving children a rich life and a rich storehouse of experiences and skills to draw on.
Lots of time children, especially younger children, have lots of questions and interests. They can jump from interest to interest even within the course of a day. If they’ve decided on a project to focus on, what happens when something else catches their interest in a few days and they decide they want to shift their focus to the new thing?
This is where thoughtful mentoring comes in. Young children have extremely long attention spans for things that truly interest them. If they are skating around and bouncing from idea to idea, it is often because we have trained them to be that way with frequent transitions and a constant influx of new activities.
Adults often aren’t comfortable with children who stay with one thing for a long time. Grown-ups tend to value variety, and often they lack patience for a young child who “dawdles” over a fascination with dinosaurs, trains, or a rain puddle. We hurry them along, we bombard them with activities, we constantly give them something new when they were still perfectly happy with the old, then we complain about their short attention spans.
Project-based homeschooling is about learning how to help children stay with one idea longer. They have their own interests, their own questions, their own fascinations. We just have to pay attention to those interests and help them find answers to their questions and make their ideas happen.
Children can keep having a lot of different interests — we don’t try to keep them from getting excited about new ideas. We simply focus on supporting one strong interest so they can dig a little deeper and stay with it a little longer. We create a learning life that allows them to return to that interest again and again, over weeks and even months, until they are satisfied.
In essence, we encourage them to keep having a rich variety of interests while using projects to show them how much you can do with an interest.
Do you encourage them to tie that new interest into the current project? Do you make a note of that new interest, tell them you’ll pursue it later, and then guide them back to the current project? How do you know when something is a fleeting interest versus something that they’d want to dig into deeper?
The nice thing is that you are helping them develop strong thinking and learning skills that they can use to explore anything they like. Project-oriented children will pull out their toolbox of habits and skills for anything they want to know about, whether it’s project-related or not. If they see an interesting spider on the porch, they’ll ask to look it up on the internet; they’ll run to pull a spider book off the shelf; they might grab a clipboard and sketch it or take its photograph. It doesn’t have to be a long-term project — they’ll utilize their project skills for all their learning.
In the same way, you can focus on supporting one deep interest and let your child continue to play and explore freely on her own. You don’t discourage interests; you simply focus on one thing at a time to help her explore more deeply. Then she uses her new skills in every area of her life.
As to how to tell the difference between a fleeting interest and one that has good potential for long-term study, that can be difficult at first. Sometimes adults are wooed by their own idea of what they would prefer their child to focus on; they have certain prejudices and they think some topics are more worthwhile.
In time, however, working with children in this way tends to reveal the possibilities through magical moments. You see your child make an amazing connection; you witness an intellectual idea that seems far beyond his age or abilities. If you follow what works, you find yourself letting go of your own ideas in favor of your child’s — and over time, you learn to recognize and sustain true engagement.
But even if you’re still struggling with that, usually, after a few projects, the child takes over. He knows exactly what he wants to learn about and exactly what he wants to make, build, and do. He knows where he wants to go and who he wants to talk to. Capable mentoring leads to independence.
Here’s the link to Part Two of the interview
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