Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children: Interview with Lori Pickert, Part 3

Rocket ProjectThis is Part 3 of my interview with Lori Pickert, author of Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-directed Learners.  Please click here to start with Part 1. 

My questions have to do with getting started in Project-based Learning with such young children who obviously don’t have the experience to direct their learning. I sent Lori six, multi-layered questions, and not only did she answer them, she gave very detailed answers, which I appreciate very much.  However, they were too long to put into one post, so I have divided the interview into three posts – this being the last. (Note that I have emphasized important parts of the interview in bold text.)

You can see more questions from readers and answers from Lori at the bottom of this page. Feel free to e-mail me with any questions too.

PART 3: Interview with Lori Pickert on Getting Started with Project-based Homeschooling with Young Children

4. I liked a comment you once made to me on Twitter that for youngsters, we need to “silently feed” their interests.  Can you speak more about that for the sake of my readers?  I think I have been doing this in many ways with my son, but it has never felt very child-led to me. However, I know if I ask him his opinion on things, he’s not going to articulate exactly what I know he’s deeply interested in. And if we “silently feed the interests of young children,” how do we transition them into doing most of the work on their own? Is this something that we can expect will happen naturally as they get older?  Have you noticed an approximate age that all this gets easier?

Lori: The age at which children will take over directing and managing their own learning depends on many things — your comfort level, your child’s personality/temperament, his level of independence, and his experience doing this type of work. Some children have a stronger need to collaborate and prefer involving others in their work. If that’s the case, if you don’t provide an opportunity for him to work with other children, he’ll probably depend on you to be his co-learner. Other children prefer to work alone, even in a classroom situation.

A child of six might conceive of a project and pretty much carry it through to the end without needing you to do much more than supply resources and transportation. Another child might not work that independently until much later.

When I talk about silently feeding a child’s interests, I’m usually contrasting that to sitting down and having a purposeful discussion with a child about what they would like to study. Instead, you simply enhance their environment and support the work they’re already doing, letting them discover and use what you’ve provided in their own way.

As an example, if you know your child is very interested in dinosaurs, you might sit down and say, “Do you want to do a project on dinosaurs? What questions do you have? What do you want to learn?” Or you could silently feed that interest by bringing in a few library books, hanging a couple of posters, putting plastic dinosaurs in the block basket, and so forth. Then as your child articulates questions, you ease into project work.

This works well for children who are resistant to adult involvement, who are prejudiced against anything “educational,” who are (maybe rightfully) suspicious of your motives, and so on. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience turning something they enjoyed into a unit that they did not enjoy. Maybe they’re deschooling and are afraid of anything that smacks of school. Maybe the words “project” and “learning” have negative connotations for them right now. Or maybe they just prefer to be completely independent.

It can also work well as an introduction to project work if a child is too young or inexperienced to understand what you mean when you say, “What would you like to learn about?” If they have an obvious interest, you can begin to feed that interest and support their work immediately.

Even an older child can be confused about what you mean when you ask what they’d like to learn more about. Silently feeding their existing interest can help them put the experience before the jargon.

It is still “child-led” or self-directed — you are simply offering, without expectation or demand, materials and experiences that can provoke further investigation, play, and questions. And as they research and make and share, you begin to talk about that work in a way that introduces the ideas of doing long-term projects. Next time, they’ll probably tell you what they want to learn about next.

5. Finally, much of the time that I would like to dedicate to project time is eaten up by the demands of a particularly needy three-year-old.  Do you have any general advice for moms of youngsters who are interested in PBH, but are having a hard time “doing it all”?

Lori: You can’t do it all perfectly all the time, so relax and concentrate on setting and meeting some small goals.

One of the reasons we focus on “small wins” in the PBH forum is because focusing on what’s working is usually the best way to make more of it! Alas, focusing on whatever we perceive to be lacking is not as motivating.

Younger children benefit enormously from being at the edges of project work. They can pick up the habits and routines and attitudes of their older siblings. They learn early on to be independent and clean up after themselves, and they imitate the creative work and play they observe. Give them the chance to do what their siblings are doing if they are interested. Let them experiment with the same materials as much as possible; give them age-appropriate versions to work with, and let them have their turn getting your full attention as they work on their own ideas.

Look for pockets of time during the day when you can focus on your older child — even for just a few minutes — and use that time to have him tell you about what he made, what his plans are, his new questions, and so on.

Use time and activities you already do to fold in project work. When you read aloud, choose a project-related book. Try reading aloud right before dedicated project time. If they watch a little TV, use that time to watch project-related videos from the library. At dinner, have your son tell his dad about what he did today and the newest things he’s learned, and so on.

Finally, be aware that the kids are always getting older and more mature and it’s likely that everything will be completely different in six months!

Even when it feels like you aren’t accomplishing as much as you want, keep living a life that prioritizes learning, making, and sharing. It’s those underlying values that will form the foundation of his learning life. ~Lori Pickert

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Thank you, Lori, for taking the time to answer my difficult and long-winded questions! I also have a couple of extra questions that might be helpful to my readers, and I’m curious too!

What are you working on now?

Lori: Currently I’m writing a book for adults who want to learn to mentor themselves (a more formal companion to my PBH for Grown-Ups series) that also folds in advice for mentoring children (without necessarily homeschooling!) as well as building a family culture that supports this type of learning and living.

Do you have any other resources to help parents get started in project-based homeschooling?

Lori: We have a forum with over 600 members. It’s a warm, supportive, inclusive community, and I answer questions and brainstorm with readers there daily.

I’m also working on a mini-guide to starting PBH and another guide for starting a project group. We’re enhancing the site with a gallery of children’s projects and a forum for people who would like to meet other PBHers in their area. And I will be publishing a series of e-books that drill down deeper into various aspects of PBH (focusing on the different age ranges from preK to teen, authentic art, journaling, and so on) so people can get more detailed information in the areas they need most.

I’ve received tremendous feedback from my readers during the last six months. My intention now is to create a foundation of supportive work that will give people the help they need to try these ideas. I’m very available on my site, in my forum, and on Twitter for people who want to make contact, ask questions, or offer suggestions. I strongly believe adults need the same type of learning experiences that I champion for children: to follow their own path, work at their own pace, explore their particular interests, make mistakes, and work within a supportive community. If we can learn this way, it makes it so much more likely that our children will, too.

***

Below you can read additional questions that readers had and Lori’s answers at the time that this post was published. For future inquiries, feel free to e-mail me or see Lori’s website. Thank you! 

Click here to read Part 1 of this interview.  Click here to read Part 2.

Project-based Homeschooling for Young Children: Interview with Lori Pickert, Part 2

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This is Part 2 of my interview with Lori Pickert, author of Project-based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-directed Learners.  Please click here to start with Part 1.

My questions have to do with getting started in Project-based Learning with young children who obviously don’t have the experience to direct their learning.  I sent Lori six, multi-layered questions, and not only did she answer them, she gave very detailed answers, which is why I’ve divided the interview into three posts. (Note that I have emphasized important parts of the interview in bold text.)

PART 2: Interview with Lori Pickert on Getting Started with Project-based Homeschooling with Young Children

2. As I read your book, I could see that it’s very important for children to be able to present their findings to some kind of audience. While my six-year-old is happy to show his creations — for example, the model of the Titanic — to anyone who wants to see them, neither does he want to explain what he has learned about the Titanic, nor does he want to put it into book form, charts, puppet shows or anything else.  (And, yes, I have written his questions and progress in a journal, and I have asked him what else he would like to do, etc.) Is this just his age, and can I assume that as he gets older, he’ll want to go farther with his projects? Is the model of the Titanic enough because he has decided it’s enough? How do I encourage him to share his knowledge? 

Lori: Showing his creations and talking about them is one way to share. If you have family far away, you might start a family blog just to share his project work. Kids usually really like blogging — they love getting comments from friends and family. You could transcribe what he wants to say about his project and type his words for him. He could take photographs himself if he was interested. You could video him talking about (and showing) his constructions. And as he gets a little older, he might want to type his own entries.

If he decides his model is enough and he isn’t interested in producing other types of representations, that’s fine. You can encourage him to represent his work in different ways by exploring different media (drawing, painting, clay, etc.) and by having a nice selection of materials available all the time. But if he’s not interested, don’t push it.

It’s great to share your work not just when it’s completed but while it’s being constructed. If he has friends over (just to play or specifically to make art with), he can show them what he’s made and field their questions and suggestions.

If he’s showing his work to his little brother, that counts, too!

As he gets older, he may focus just as intently on sharing his knowledge in a particular way — by making a film, say, or a model. That’s okay. Variety is nice, but it’s more important for him to own the learning process — and being very confident about what he wants to do and when he’s done is part of that. He should have abundant choices, abundant materials to choose from, and abundant experiences. Then he can narrow them down and communicate his ideas in the way that feels right to him.

There are many reasons why project-based homeschooling emphasizes sharing what you learn. You really know you understand something when you can teach it to someone else. Collaboration is a crucial life skill. And PBH is about helping children connect with their meaningful work: where their interests and their talents intersect. This is a years-long process that you are only just beginning; there will be time to explore it fully and develop it from project to project.

Helping children share what they know helps them find their place in the world, and it helps them discover what they have to give. I don’t think there’s a better goal for education than that.

3. On page 58 you wrote, “He learns to plan and make first drafts, write lists of needed materials, and adapt materials to new uses.”  My six-year-old wants a final product RIGHT NOW. I realize that it takes time and maturity for him to overcome his impatience, but do you have any advice as to what I could do and say to help him learn that it takes time to do things, especially to do them well?

Lori: Remember, he learns to plan and make first drafts — he probably won’t start off already working that way.

Every version of a draft is a final product, in a way. It’s the repetition and enlargement of the original idea that makes the earlier version a “draft.” So if he wants to make a book or a robot or a cape, he does. What turns it into a first draft is continuing to come back to that piece of work and talk about it, examine it, share it with others, and possibly decide to improve upon it. Children working together spur each other to do multiple drafts as they copy and extend one another’s ideas. I make a cape out of paper; you make a cape out of paper and add a big emblem to the middle. I make a new cape out of fabric and add an emblem to that. You make a fabric cape with an emblem and you change the way it is tied shut. And so on. But a child working alone can also be encouraged to improve upon an original design by asking him, “Is there anything you want to add? Is there anything you want to change? Why don’t you show it to your friend from next door?” Get in the habit of asking, “Are you done with this or is there more you want to do with it?”

My book discusses other ways to encourage multiple drafts, including introducing new materials, stepping up to expensive materials at the end, repeating field trips, and so on.

As to helping him learn that it takes time to do things well, that is a lesson that life teaches us, right? We can try gently pointing it out. (Although that would get old fast if someone was doing it to us, so proceed delicately.) If you try some of the ways listed in the book to “deepen the work,” he will hopefully learn through experience that when he comes back to do something again, he gets a little further than before.

You can also sit down together and reflect on the work he’s done, looking it over and talking about everything he did. Then you can talk about that life lesson: that it takes time to do things well, that we get better with each attempt.

Shelli: I would like to also mention that since our Titanic Project, I have learned that showing my son how other people (artists, builders, etc.) have dealt with mistakes and gained resilience has helped him start to become more patient with his own abilities. I will write more about this in an upcoming post about our rocket project.

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Click here to read Part 1 of this interview. Click here to go to Part 3.  You can e-mail me, if you have any questions.  I also hope you’ll subscribe to my blog so that you can join me on this project-based homeschooling adventure——->

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

NEW! Please consider supporting me on Patreon where I can give you personal feedback, and depending on what level you support, you can be part of an online homeschool support group.  Learn about project-based homeschooling techniques that complements any kind of curriculum or style of home education. I’ll be writing more posts from my current perspective after having homeschooled for over ten years with these project-based techniques. I will be monitoring my messages and the chat room on daily basis. You can share your kids projects, successes, and we can work through the tough spots together. Get more behind-the-scenes information about my homeschool and follow us as my high school student begins to consider his next steps after homeschool. By joining on Patreon, you can have access to all my PDF resources and classes for no extra charge, and you can get access to a monthly group video chat too. Click here to learn more. Thank you!

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 important parts of the interview in bold text.)

The good news is that Lori has promised to be available to answer YOUR questions.  (Update: Since this is an old post, I will have to turn off comments for Lori, but I’m always happy to try to answer your questions, and Lori is available via her website. Also, you can see the questions and answers she gave to commenters when this post was first published on Part 3.)

(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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Click here to go to Part 2. Click here to go to Part 3.