Here’s the second part of my interview with Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners. If you missed the first part of the interview, you can read it here.
Besides her valuable blog, Lori also has a wonderful free forum where she answers questions about project-based learning. It’s an incredible resource; I highly recommend it.
And now to the second part of the interview!
When your boys were working on projects, were they also working on anything else at the same time? For example, some kids may have an interest in playing piano, writing short stories and learning about something new. I was just curious as to how much time your own boys devoted to project work in relation to other types of work they were doing.
Many of their projects have become deep, abiding interests that have carried on across the years. In addition to project work, they’ve always had various other interests that came and went over time.
It’s hard to measure how much time is devoted to project work, because it’s self-chosen and it fills so much of their free time. When they were younger, their play would often center around their project; now that they’re older, they often read and create and converse around those deep interests.
Again, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: they focus on the things that interest them the most, and that extra focus leads to mastery, which leads to more enjoyment and fulfillment.
It’s hard to distinguish learning time from free time when you’re doing the things you enjoy most.Also, if it’s authentic, project work ebbs and flows over time. There are times when children are mostly taking information in (reading, watching films, doing field work) and times when they are mostly creating (writing books, drawing illustrations, creating blogs and podcasts).
There are times when the work is on the surface and easy to see, and there are other times when it’s under the surface and more about pondering ideas and mulling over plans. The only constant is that the interest stays alive and deeply engaging.
My daughter Alexa loves to learn about animals. She takes books about them from the library. She looks up websites about animals for hours. She checks out DVDs about animals. We go to the zoo often to look at animals. But so far she just wants to spend all her time consuming information about animals. What can I do to encourage her to make a project about this deep interest? Would it be best for her to narrow her project down to just one animal?
How doI encourage her to do something to represent that knowledge? She doesn’t naturally gravitate towards art-type work.
There’s no need to require her to narrow her interest; once she begins actively working with that knowledge she’s consumed, she’ll automatically have to narrow it. (For example, if you began writing a book about sea animals, the first step would be deciding which sea animals to include.) The key is to begin doing that work: making and creating, then sharing with others.
Moving beyond taking information in means focusing on her ideas: What are her questions? What particularly interests her? What would she like to know more about? Then: Where can we find out more about this? What resources are available in our community? Who can we talk to, and where can we go?
Representations aren’t only “art,” although art skills help with pretty much every kind of representation, which is why a solid foundation of those skills is very desirable. She might write a blog, build a website, make a podcast, make a Youtube video, make a film. She might design posters or pamphlets. She might write a book. She might give a presentation to her friends at scouts or Sunday school or co-op, or she might give a presentation to younger children at a local school or daycare. She might design a bulletin board or a case display for your local library or coffee shop.
There are a million ways for children to represent what they know and share it with other people. We just need to make that sharing a part of how we learn.
Project-based homeschooling helps children move beyond simply consuming ideas and information to producing original work and connecting with other people. It’s a reflection of what it’s like to do real work as an adult. It helps children build important habits of mind, including communication skills, and it shows them what learning is for. They have a purpose for learning, and it’s their own purpose. They figure out what they want to do, and we help them meet their goals.
To help children produce as well as consume, we need to make creating part of their environment and part of their everyday life. Think about the parts of your home that are devoted to consuming information: the books, the TV, the DVDs, the internet. Now think about the parts of your home that are devoted to making and doing.
Do your children have the space, tools, and materials to create what they consume? Do they have blank books for writing? Do they have materials for building models? Do they have a camera for taking photographs and shooting video? Do they have computer access for writing a blog, publishing a podcast, uploading videos to Youtube, sharing photos on Flickr?
If building, making, and creating are a regular part of your family life from the time when your children are small, they will know how to work actively with new interests and ideas as they get older. They will approach new experiences with the mindset of a producer.
If your children are already older and you’re wondering how to help them begin to produce, it helps to dedicate more space and time to creating. You can start by exploring different tools and materials. Once children become fluent in using a medium, they can reach for it confidently when they want to express their ideas.
Children naturally combine their interests with their abilities. The key is to help them have plenty of both.
You wrote about the importance of doubling back on an experience. I just loved this section of your book! I love taking the kids to new places all the time, but we often go back to the same museums each year. I’m always amazed how even though we visit some of the same exhibits over and over again, each time they focus on something in a new way or walk away with a new insight. In your book, you take the idea much deeper than that.
You suggest that if your child visits, say an orchard, then goes back home and reads, watches DVDs, interviews people and makes representations about orchards, and then goes back to the same orchard, he’ll see it with new eyes — see it in ways he couldn’t have before because all his research and representations have now changed him. He can now come to the same place and look for new questions, more complex questions.
This reminds me of writing in so many ways. Writing is really rewriting. It’s getting down ideas and thoughts and then coming back again and again to reshape the piece based on new ideas that you have or more research you have done. Each pass through makes the writing stronger.
How can parents help their children see the importance of revisiting places, of working on several drafts of a representation and adding to and enriching their projects?
I don’t think this is something you have to convince your children to do — they want to go back to the museum, the zoo, the aquarium, the airport. They want to do things more than once. Again, it’s adults who usually feel more comfortable with variety. We see value in giving our children a lot of different experiences.
Kids, meanwhile, love to go back and do things again and again. We grown-ups go to the nature center once and we’re done. They would go back once a week. We get tired of seeing the same exhibits over and over; they run to their favorite exhibit with the same excitement each time. Maybe that’s because we fail to see something new each time — but they don’t.
With representations, it’s the same thing. Adults feel anxious if they aren’t offering a wide variety of activities. They actually interrupt and distract kids who are still perfectly happy with the first activity. Long before the children are ready to move on, it’s cleared away and something new is brought in.
Also, children love mastery. They love to master a new skill, an art medium, a game. We really rob them of that opportunity when we keep introducing new things briefly and then moving on. We take away their chance to deeply explore a medium and become fluent in it. Adults are astonished by how much time children will spend on something like a computer game that requires hours of repeating some menial task in order to build up a skill or ability you need to move to the next level. Children have an incredible amount of patience for that sort of thing. They will apply the same work ethic to real life if we give them the chance!
It’s not really a matter of convincing children to stay with an idea — it’s a matter of fighting our own nervous desire to move on to something new.
What are your thoughts about kids returning to a project they had completed sometime earlier? For example, a girl might start a project about birds. She works on this for about two months and then goes on to something else. Then, maybe a year later, she decides she has a whole new set of questions about birds that she wants to investigate.
Usually, children never give up a project. When asked what they’re working on, they’ll mention their current focus and then list every project they’ve ever worked on. They really own that work; they consider it an important part of who they are. Rather than returning to a project some months or years later, I think they never really stop learning about that thing. They just keep it as an interest.
One of my sons did a project on geography when he was young, and ever since then, even though his main interests have gone in another direction, we all still refer to him on geographic matters. That sounds funny, but when we’re on vacation and you read those signs explaining plate tectonics, he’s the one we turn to. If they discover a new undersea volcano, we turn to him and raise our eyebrows, and he nods, like, yep. New volcano.
The topic of the project is not the important thing — it doesn’t matter what they focus on, topic-wise. The important thing is that they learn to direct and manage their own learning, ask questions and find answers, make plans, talk to people, collaborate, create, share.
Following their interests, whatever they are, helps them discover who they are, what they like to do, and what their talents are.
I really enjoyed when you wrote about the need for parents to prepare their children for making the life they want. We can talk about children pursuing their interests and dreams, but if we don’t help them acquire the skills and mentor them how to be self-directed, than all they have will be dreams — they won’t ever work towards creating anything meaningful.
What are some of the most important ways parents can prepare their children for accomplishing their self-directed goals?
I think the basics of project-based homeschooling are the basics of what a person needs to have a successful life.
First, you have to figure out what you don’t know and what you need or want to know. Then you have to figure out where to find the information and expertise that you need. You have to find mentors. You have to acquire skills. You explore and play and make and create. Then you figure out what you can contribute. You share what you know with someone else. I think that’s a good recipe for a successful life.
The truth is, we’re all entrepreneurs. The days when employees worked for a single company for their entire lives and retired with a pension are long gone. Everyone is basically self-employed now. And to be successful at being self-employed, you have to have all the same skills that project-based homeschooling requires: research, collaboration, self-direction. And you can get started learning those skills when you’re three.