Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children: Interview with Lori Pickert, Part 1

Lori Pickert was the owner and director of a small, Reggio-inspired school, and she has also traveled around the country as an educational consultant “helping teachers and administrators explore authentic art, long-term projects, and Reggio-inspired learning.” Later she began homeschooling her two boys, and now she’s the author of Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-directed LearnersYou can find her blog, forum and other resources at project-based-homeschooling.com.

Last week I published my review of Lori’s book.  When I first found Lori’s blog, I was very attracted to this idea of mentoring my children, which is based on the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy.  It just felt right. What I learned on her blog echoed my own thoughts on how to homeschool my children, and I was very excited when her book came out because I wanted to understand this process better. While I loved the book, I found myself asking questions throughout it because I had already experimented with project-based homeschooling with my six-year-old. Doing it in real life is hard and messy, as I wrote about in Building the Titanic: Project-based Homeschooling. That post is my first true foray into a complicated project with my son, but it is a good example of how this process works.

My questions mostly had to do with getting started with such young children who obviously don’t have the experience to direct their learning.  I asked Lori if I could interview her about project-based learning specifically for young children, and since she is supportive and gracious, she said yes. I sent her six, multi-layered questions, and not only did she answer them, she gave very detailed answers, which I appreciate very much.  However, they are too long to put into one post, so I have divided the interview into three posts, which I will publish this week. (Note that I have emphasized parts of the interview in bold text.)

The good news is that Lori has promised to be available to answer YOUR questions.  I am turning off the comments section on these first two posts so that we can direct all the comments and questions at the end of this interview and avoid any repetition of questions. I hope you’ll enjoy this interview, learn from it as I have, and I hope you’ll contribute to the discussion at the end.  Thank you, and Thank you, Lori!

(Update: The rest of this interview has been posted: Click here to go to Part 2. Click here to go to Part 3.)

PART 1: Interview with Lori Pickert on Getting Started with Project-based Homeschooling with Young Children

1. In your book you say it’s very important to not make suggestions and let the children “own the work.”  However, I find it very difficult to not make suggestions to my six-year-old.  When I ask, “Where can we find out more information about this?” he always says “the computer,” so I end up suggesting other resources we could turn to.  When we were doing the Titanic project, I worked very hard at letting him try to come up with the ideas first, and then when he got stumped (which was often), I made suggestions.  Is this what you mean?  Or in other words, how do you let a child direct his own work when he doesn’t yet have the experience to know how to answer his own questions? Or even know how to articulate the questions he wants to ask?

Lori: The most important thing is to remember that it’s a process. You are learning how to mentor, and your child is learning how to direct and manage his own learning. Mentoring means slowly transferring the power to him and helping him learn how to be in charge of his own learning. You should try to stay out of his way as much as possible and leave him room to have his own ideas — but that doesn’t mean never making suggestions. It just means waiting to see if he will have his own ideas and supporting those first.

He needs an environment that supports independent working, he needs you to model how to ask questions and research and make and share, and he might need you to help him recognize and articulate his interests and questions.

Being a mentor means helping him slowly take control — and it means showing him the ropes.

You keep the ball rolling by making gentle suggestions (or offering choices) when necessary. You use a gentle touch, staying alert to his questions and ideas (even if they need some digging to uncover) and letting him lead whenever possible.

I’ll quote from the book:

At the beginning, your child might need you to model how to wonder aloud, ask questions, consider alternatives. He looks to you as an example of how to approach learning as a researcher and investigator. As times goes on, this approach to learning becomes second nature to him. He is accustomed to asking questions, seeking out experts, collecting research materials, investigating first-hand, and creating original work. He looks automatically for ways to share what he learns with others.

He will look to you to set the tone, get the ball rolling, and keep it rolling. In time, he will take over. He knows what to do and how to do it. He knows what to expect from the process, and he has a firm goal in mind.

But he will still need you to be that trusted resource. He will still need you as his first audience, his best collaborator, and his mentor. He will still need the support of a family culture that celebrates and supports meaningful work.

There are times when he might get off course, lose steam, hit a dead end. He will benefit from your input and suggestions. —Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners 

You learn to observe carefully and wait to offer suggestions only when and if they’re needed. It takes practice to be patient, to support his interests without directing how he explores them, and to prioritize his ideas. You have to give yourself the gift of time and allow yourself to slowly but steadily acquire these mentoring skills, just as you respect his setting his own learning pace.

You focus on giving him the tools, experiences, and skills he needs to work as independently as possible. But it doesn’t happen immediately. If it did, he wouldn’t need a thoughtful mentor! It is a slow and steady transfer of control and decision-making.

If your son is stuck in a Google/Wikipedia rut (like most of us adults), remember that research is multilayered. Finding one answer should turn up new questions (if an interest is deep and engaging enough). Google results can offer up books on Amazon, which can lead you to checking your library to see what books they offer. Reading a National Geographic Kids article on sharks might spark new questions he’ll need to look up in books or online. Or it might remind you of a show you saw on Animal Planet. And so on.

Children can’t reference things they are completely unfamiliar with. They can only work with the raw materials they’ve been given and the experiences they’ve already had. So we need to make sure they get plenty of experience at the library, looking through reference books at home, and even asking friends and family for help. We need to visit places in the community that offer knowledge and skills — universities, libraries, museums, park districts, events. We need to start making a connection between the things that interest us and how we can explore them. Then, when they are puzzling out where they can find information they need, you can ask leading questions like

  • Where else could we find out about this?
  • What kind of people might know about this?
  • Are there any places in our town where we might go to find out more?

and so on. If they get stuck, you can gently nudge them in the right direction, both by modeling (“I remember Grandma showed you that book about birds…”) and gentle suggestion (“Maybe we could ask the librarian for help”), then back off as soon as they articulate a plan.

If he keeps suggesting the computer, ask, “Where else could we look?,” then sit down and brainstorm together. You can make a game of it: Let’s think of ten things we could do to find out more about igloos. This is a good learning step to master: instead of just working on one idea at a time until you figure out it doesn’t work, have a brainstorming session and come up with a whole list of ideas, then let him decide which is the best one to start with. You might brainstorm about materials he could use to build a model of the Mars rover, places in the community where you could learn about cats, and so on.

It also helps to build a habit of talking about your own learning. Say out loud, “I wonder what kind of bird that is at the feeder — I’m going to get the field guide and look.” Say, “I’m totally stuck on the sweater I’m knitting — I’m going to ask one of the women at the yarn store to help me.” This can feel awkward at first, but you’re making your own learning visible. He can see you using different resources to find your own answers, and it gives him ideas for his own investigations.

Finally, don’t ignore or slide over suggestions he makes that seem silly or useless on the surface. Let him try his ideas. They may take longer; they may even fail — but you don’t want to shorten the learning process or make it easier. Make long work of it; slow learning leads to authentic understanding.

While it’s always optimal to stand back and let your child lead, when he gets stuck, it’s fine to help get things rolling again — just do as little as possible and then step into the background again.

Mentoring self-directed learners is like rolling a hoop down a hill. You want to let the hoop roll on its own, only touching it when necessary to keep it upright and rolling, and even then as lightly as possible. — Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners 

Overall, remember this is a slow process. You are helping him develop these abilities by living this way yourself (and sharing as you go), by deliberate modeling, by making suggestions but letting him lead as much as possible. It’s not a hands-off process — it’s actually very hands-on. The more aware you are of his thinking process, the more carefully you observe his play and conversation, the better you can help him take control of his own learning.

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Please come back on Wednesday and Friday to read Part 2 and Part 3 of my interview with Lori Pickert about project-based homeschooling for young children.  Click here to go to Part 2. Click here to go to Part 3. I have turned off the comments on the first two parts, but Lori will be available after I publish Part 3 for your additional questions!  I also hope you’ll subscribe to my blog so that you can join me on this project-based homeschooling adventure——->