Homeschooling: A Look At Our Hammerhead Shark Project (Part 2 of Project-based learning)

This is a column that I wrote for The Barrow Journal, and it’s the second part of a two-part series on project-based learning.  In it I describe the hammerhead shark project that I did with my 4-year-old son.  You can read the first part here.  Above is a photo of the poster board we made during this fun project.

Last week I wrote what I learned about project-based learning from Lori Pickert’s blog at  This week I’m going to tell you about my son’s first project.  When I asked him what he might want to learn about, he told me, “hammerhead sharks.”  He loves ocean animals, so this wasn’t a surprise to me.

In project-based learning, the emphasis is to teach children how to acquire information.  It also emphasizes letting them have as much control over the project as possible.  Asking children questions instead of supplying them with quick answers engages them in problem solving.

At age four, however, my son doesn’t have a lot of ideas on how to proceed with projects.  He either says an emphatic yes or no to my suggestions.  At this point project-based learning is more for me to learn and think about ways in which I can get him to take the lead and learn where to go for information.

In the past if my son asked me about hammerhead sharks, I would have gone straight to the Internet and looked up a video about hammerhead sharks to show him.  This time, I asked him where he thought we might look for information about them.  I expected him to say the computer, but he surprised me by saying a hammerhead shark was on one of his “cards.”

A while back, he received for a gift a stack of cards about oceans animals, bound together with a large ring.  On the back of each card, there are two or three basic facts about the animal.  I had forgotten about these cards, but he didn’t, and it was a good starting point.  For example, we learned there are nine species of hammerhead sharks. Though he might not always have an answer for me when I ask him where we should go for information, I could certainly see the benefit in giving him the chance.

Later in the day while his little brother was napping, we made a poster about hammerhead sharks.  I was surprised at how interested and attentive he was.   He was willing to copy the words “hammerhead shark” on the top, and we colored a picture we found on the Internet.  We also reviewed the sound “SH” as in “shark.”  It was much more fun than the preschool workbooks that we often do together during this time.

The most fun we had was when we got a long string and measured it to 18 feet, which is as long as a hammerhead shark can grow.  Then we rolled up the string and taped it to the poster board.  After that, my son wanted to measure how long a humpback whale would be, so we looked it up and found out that they grow between 39-53 feet.  It was a good lesson in numbers and measurement, and we were both delighted and surprised to find out that a humpback could grow longer than our house!

The next day we went to the library, and my son said he wanted books about hammerhead sharks and humpback whales.  Usually I ask the librarian, or I look up the books on the computer, but this time I thought I would encourage my son to ask the librarian himself.  Sometimes he’s shy, so I wasn’t sure if he would.  Again, my son surprised me by speaking up when we were in front of the librarian, and he was very happy with the books she found for him.

By the next day, my son seemed satisfied with our work on hammerhead sharks and didn’t want to pursue it anymore.  This was fine with me, although I admit I would have happily delved further into the subject.

When I contacted Lori by e-mail, she told me that I don’t have to worry too much about projects at this age.  Right now it’s important to create an environment where materials are accessible to him, and it’s helpful if I begin to keep notes about the questions he asks and the things he does.  I don’t know if we will always used a project-based approach to homeschooling, but I have learned some valuable tools that will help me help him.

Have you used project-based learning?  Please tell me about it.

Experimenting with Project-based Homeschooling, Part 1

Note: This is a column I wrote for The Barrow Journal.  For a list of all our projects, see the Table of Contents for Project-based learning.

Now that the holidays are over, visiting relatives are gone, and we are overcoming two back-to-back illnesses, I think (I hope) I can finally begin to think about a regular routine.  One thing I have been intending to do is think more about how I want to homeschool.  After reading a website I bookmarked several months ago, I’ve decided to experiment with project-based homeschooling.

Lori Pickert is a homeschooling mom of two boys, but before her days at home, she was the director of a private preschool for several years.  Her school used a project-based curriculum in multi-aged classrooms.  Now she writes extensively about this approach to teaching on her Camp Creek Blog, which you can find at

I think project-based learning can be useful for kids whether they attend school or not, so if this peaks your interest, be sure to read through Lori’s blog.  I am not an expert on the subject, and I’ll only be sharing the highlights of what interested me about this approach and how I hope to apply them when working with my son.

In project-based learning, a child gets to choose a project that interests him or her and then study it in depth.  Then they chose who they might want to share their information with and in what format:  a book, video, poster, etc.  The teacher or parent is there to offer support and help the child find the materials he needs to fulfill his projects, but the parent should not take over the project or push her agenda on the child. 

I am guilty of this myself.  Sometimes when I sit down with my son to work on a craft, I have a hard time letting go of control.  I want that fish we’re creating to look like a real fish, so I volunteer to glue the eyes on for him or cut the paper just so.  I’m getting better at sitting back and letting him do the work, and Lori’s website was a good reminder why this is so important.  Kids learn by doing.

After reading her posts, I realized that it’s important for me to ask my son more questions instead of always offering the answer right away.  Project-based learning emphasizes that it’s less important for children to memorize facts than it is for them to learn how to acquire information.  Isn’t that the most useful thing we can teach children?  Children learn the most when they are engaged in an activity that makes them problem solve and search for the answers themselves.

There was one post on her site where Lori shared a comment from a teacher, and the teacher gave this story.  She said that one of her second grade boys once asked her whether the Loch Ness monster was real or not.  She told him she didn’t know, but she’d help him find out.  Over the next few days, this little boy visited the library, and he also interviewed his classmates to see what they thought.  She said he was having a lot of fun, and obviously he was learning valuable skills along the way.

After a few days, the teacher said the boy dropped the subject altogether.  When she asked him why, he told her that he asked his dad, and his dad told him there was no such thing as the Loch Ness monster, so that was it.  My feeling is that even though the boy may have dropped the subject eventually when he felt satisfied with his research, parents can do a disservice by supplying quick answers.

When children are truly interested in a subject, they have much longer attention spans than many adults give them credit for.  I know that my son has wanted to read the same books over and over again, and he can also watch the same television programs night after night.  There is something about these things that are captivating to him.

Another tip I learned from this site was that I should write down the questions my son asks me.  This was a light bulb moment for me because he has been asking me off the wall questions for several weeks now, and usually he asks them when we’re driving in the car, or I’m dealing with the baby or some other chore, and I can’t always engage him at that moment.  So now, I’m jotting down the questions he asks, such as, “What is a lighthouse?”  “What does fire burn?”  …Two questions he asked me out of the blue yesterday!  When we have more time, I’ll ask him if wants to me to help him find the answers.

When I told my son about working on a project and asked him what he might be interested in learning about, he came up with “hammerhead shark.”  This didn’t surprise me because he loves ocean animals.  Next week, I’ll write about our project and let you know what we came up with.

Click here to go to Part 2.  UPDATE: Now my son is older, and I’m much wiser! To learn more about project-based learning, see my Project-based Homeschooling page.