altProject-Based Homeschooling:  Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert (independently published at CreateSpace, 2012)

Janet's enthusiasm over Project-Based Homeschooling led me to be sure I read the book while I had access to it in Switzerland.  I had to get over some misconceptions, and I found the ideas intimidating, but I agree:  it's a must-read for homeschoolers, and in truth important for all parents.  Maybe for everybody.

The Misconception  Way back when, in our homeschooling days, a popular approach was called Unit Studies.  Here's an essay on unit studies as they relate to what's now called Classical Education; it give a pretty good idea of what they are about.  Basically, you pick a topic you hope your child will be interested in, and integrate the teaching of all subjects into a study of that topic.  At the time, I found the method too structured, too school-at-home, and too much work.  I assumed project-based homeschooling was a re-working of unit studies.

I was wrong.  There are similarities:  a child working on a project is integrating many disciplines and skills together.  But project-based homeschooling is an excellent example of why unschooling, well done, is absolutely not the "let the kid play video games all day" approach its detractors think it is. 

Projects of this sort are the child's idea and the child's responsibility.  That doesn't mean, however, that the parents are off the hook.  It seems to me that the work involved in observing and coaching a project is much harder than following a curriculum.  Which leads me to ...

The Intimidation  I love the ideas.  I really do.  But even as a do-it-yourself, lone wolf kind of homeschooler, this is out-of-my-comfort-zone thinking.  Probably because if Earth is my comfort zone, art projects are somewhere around Neptune, and so much of the examples here involve using art materials.  The author seems to think it natural to work through one's ideas by making a painting or modelling in clay.  I don't believe I've ever in my life even thought about doing that—and I've live a lot of years—so the idea of coaching a child to do so leaves me queasy.  Fortunately, Lori Pickert was kind enough to explain, in a comment on Janet's review, that "if drawing and painting make you nervous, there’s still building, writing, designing t-shirts and websites, putting on skits, making brochures and posters, etc. etc. etc.—it’s more about helping kids figure out a way to help others learn and along the way that reinforces what they know/don’t know and how you collaborate, share, etc."

Also, she's careful to give the neophyte a break:

Surprisingly often, people will champion self-directed learning for children but not allow those children's parents the same freedom and respect.  It's their way or the highway, and you had better start doing it the right way (their way) right away.  Your kids should learn at their own pace, follow their interests, and you should trust that they'll eventually learn everything they need to know.  You, on the other hand, should get with the program, right now, 100%, or else.  You don't need to have your own opinions or ideas; ours will suffice.  There's no time to experiment and see if these ideas work for you; take it on faith or you're part of the problem.

If your child deserves to learn at his own pace and have his own ideas, so do you.  Whatever you champion for your child, make sure you also give to yourself:  the right to follow your own path, work at your own pace, follow your own interests, make mistakes, and try again.  Whatever you want for your children, you are far more likely to help them achieve it if you live it yourself.

It's hard to do justice to the project-based homeschooling concept without taking a lot more time and effort than I'm willing to put forth at the moment—not to mention that I'd need the book, which presently is some 4500 miles away.  However, I do have some excerpts, which I copied down before relinquishing the book.

The quotes

Helping your child direct and manage his own learning does not mean immediately giving him complete control of his entire curriculum.  You can balance assigned work with self-chosen work.  We are talking about that essential portion of your child's learning life that you will devote to helping him do his own self-chosen work—you get to decide how big that portion will be.

There are many things you can do to help your child direct and manage her own learning, but perhaps the most important one is choosing how and where to put your attention. ... Think about what you value most, because that's what deserves your attention.  Your child will respond by doing more of whatever earns your focus.

Creative work requires big chunks of unscheduled time.  It requires freedom to explore, to try different things, to just think and imagine—and it requires a relaxed mindset.  It is impossible to take your time and explore an idea in many different ways if you feel pressured by a lack of time or someone else's expectations.

I agree that this is the ideal, though I can't help thinking of all the really great creative work throughout history that developed under intense pressures of time, patrons' expectations, and even hunger.

Better-quality art supplies make for more beautiful representations and encourage your child to put more care into their making. ... High-quality materials arranged beautifully send a message to your child that his work is important and valued. ... They say, "Your work matters.  You deserve the best." ... Quality materials inspire quality work.

If you have more than one child doing project work together, they may need to learn to trust the abundance of materials in the art studio or workspace.  They may want to glue thirty buttons to a single piece of paper—they would rather use up all the materials than risk having them used up by someone else.  Rather than setting limiting rules like "three buttons per person per day," you might want to ride it out and let them see that when they use things up, they'll be replaced.  (It can help to start by offering cheaper materials first.  Popsicle sticks come to mind.)

A child who draws, designs, creates, and builds every day is more likely to feel confident and optimistic about his skills.  The more practice he has, the more fluent he will become. The more it's a part of your ordinary routine, the more likely he is to be able to articulate his ideas the way he envisions them.

Giving your child a lot of isolated, one-off experiences (say, with weekly themes or random field trips) is like giving her one plastic brick, one wooden block, one gear, etc.  She has a handful of things to construct with, but what can she make?  The pieces don't fit together.  Your child can't combine them to make something meaningful. ... Having a series of isolated, stand-alone experiences—at trip to the orchard, a visit to the planetarium, a day at the zoo—lets your child learn a little bit about several different things. ... Moving from one opportunity to the next, she never gets the chance to dig below the surface.  Having a series of experiences that connect meaningfully to one another allows her to begin to do more challenging intellectual work.  A trip to the orchard, a visit to a local farm, interviewing the produce manager at the grocery store, back to the orchard, talking to the local extension officer, dissecting and sketching apples, planting an apple tree, going to the nursery, visiting a different orchard at the university—all of these experiences connect to one another.

I can appreciate the need to go into depth—without believing any less in the importance of having many, varied experiences.  It's the breadth of experience that leads to further interest that leads to the desire for depth.  I guess it's one of those profound truths for which the opposite is also a profound truth.  (I learned this concept from Gretchen Rubin, but apparently Niels Bohr was there before her.)

Remember to let your child's ideas take precedence. ... Don't take over.  Don't flood him with your own ideas; write them in your journal and save them for later. ... Keeping track of your own ideas can help you stay alert to possibilities, but make sure your child is focused on his ideas, not yours. ... If you have a particular thing in mind—an answer, an idea, a plan—then you may miss your child's idea, question, or plan.  He'll figure out quickly that you're thinking of or fishing for a particular answer or response, and he will either stop driving the project and focus on pleasing you or shut down rather than offer up something he suspects may be wrong or not what you want.

When she's working, it's inevitable that she'll become stuck, make a mistake, or become confused.  Help her by modeling how to work through it rather than just giving her a solution.  Don't straighten out her thinking for her—let her tease the knots apart by herself.

If you see your child headed off in the wrong direction, don't jump in to correct him.  Wrong turns can lead to great discoveries, and self-caught, self-corrected mistakes are more likely to be understood and remembered.

When he's frustrated or angry about something that went wrong, don't cheerlead and don't become upset yourself.  Project calm acceptance (things will go wrong; it's inevitable) and optimism (you can always find another way; there's a solution somewhere).  Suggest to your child that he can put his work away and look at it again tomorrow if he's not ready to try something else right away.

Avoid empty, nonspecific praise:  "Great job." "Beautiful drawing." "Good work."  Make statements that describe your child as a powerful learner. ... "That was frustrating when the wheels fell off, but you didn't give up and you fixed it." ...

Let your child talk about his work.  Rather than praising him with words, show him with your actions how much you value what he's doing.  Listen, pay attention, and always follow through when you make a promise. ...

Instead of praise, focus on building a family culture that appreciates, celebrates, and cultivates meaningful work through daily conversation, sharing, dedicating time to it, and giving it a place of honor in your home.

You help her reflect on and assess her work, so she can judge whether she has made her best effort and reached her goals.  But she gets to be the judge.

Reflecting is crucial for transforming a simple learning experience into a larger experience about learning how to learn.  In project-based homeschooling, we build reflection into the learning process.  Rather than stopping with a finished product, we invoke that slow learning and build in an extra step, which sends us back to consider, refine, and revise our ideas and the work.

In project work, you can't just keep taking things in—you have to put something out.  You have to create, you have to build, you have to interpret.  You have to share.

Ouch. This is why I can't keep taking photographs without organizing and editing them for others to enjoy. This is why I mustn't continue to indulge in the pleasure of doing genealogy research without taking the time to present the data in a way that others can understand and appreciate it.

If you want to help your child learn how to finish—and it might be the most important lesson in this book—you must become a person who finishes.

Keys for finishing:

  • Show up.  Commit to making the time and using the time.
  • Use small goals to accomplish big goals.
  • Set yourself up to succeed:  put a system in place.
  • Aim for learned competence.  ["Value effort over end results.  Accept that people who do challenging work are always going to make mistakes along the way.  Focus on nurturing the habits and attitudes that support strong thinking and learning."]

Your core values must align with your goals, which must align in turn with your everyday choices.

Really listen to what adults around you say about children—not their own children, but children in general.  Many adults think very little of children and their abilities and motives—possibly because they think very little of themselves and their own abilities and motives.  They transfer their negative beliefs onto children.  If adults thought of themselves as strong, capable learners who enjoy challenges and want to contribute, presumably they would see children the same way.

The Follow-Up  There's much more information on the Project-Based Homeschooling website.  Here's a quote I like from an article on boredom.

We want [our children] to choose intellectual, creative activities—in general, we want them to choose higher-value ways to spend their time. But how do we support that?

Parents bemoan the fact that all their kid wants to do is watch TV and play Xbox. Yet the heart of their home is set up to look like a shrine devoted to exactly those two things. There’s a TV the size of a twin bed and every chair in the room—the most comfortable chairs in the house, by the way—[is] arrayed around it in rapt devotion. The Xbox is nestled alongside.

When you compare that shrine to screen-based entertainment to the area of the house devoted to their child’s other interests....  Oh, wait. There is no area like that.

The Connection?  I think it's no coincidence that Project-Based Homeschooling reminded me of the early days of unschooling.  Recently I re-read Nancy Wallace's Better than School and Child's Work and was struck by how much the education of Ishmael and Vita Wallace was very much an embryonic form of this concept.

The Conclusion  As I said, I'm indimidated, because this approach appears to have a steep learning curve. But I'm sure it could be of value in my own projects, so I plan to look into it further. I'll end with one more quotation, one that epitomizes the unschooling philosophy as I remember it, and shows how much the term has morphed over time, at least in the minds of the news media and the general public.

Children, even when very young, have the capacity for inventive thought and decisive action.  They have worthwhile ideas. ... They want to be a part of things.  It's up to us to give them the opportunity to express their creativity, explore widely, and connect with their own meaningful work.

Many parents and teachers agree readily that children have these abilities, but they want to believe they can (and perhaps should) blossom naturally with no interference from adults.  Traditional educators think this will happen in the child's free time—presumably sometime between the school bell ringing in the afternoon and bedtime, in and amongst homework, extracurricular activities, team practices, and play dates.  Many parents want to believe it will happen if their child has adequate free time.  They hope their child will drift naturally away from the TV set and the video game console toward literature, nature, and science.  They know that their child is intelligent and creative, and they expect—or hope—that deep thinking, rich exploration, and a strong work ethic will follow.

We can do better than that.

Rather than expecting children to seek out a balanced life all on their own, we can help them live it.  We can create an everyday life that prioritizes what we value most.  We can help our children grow up experiencing creativity, inquiry, and making ideas happen as part of their normal, everyday life, from their earliest days.

We can help them live a life based on learning and doing.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, September 22, 2013 at 6:55 am | Edit
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You observe that "I agree that this is the ideal, though I can't help thinking of all the really great creative work throughout history that developed under intense pressures of time, patrons' expectations, and even hunger." which reveals a deeper truth, I believe. There is a big difference between real and artificially created pressure, just as there's a difference between real projects and ones handed down. The difference may sometimes be hard to tell from the outside, but its effects are vastly different. Real work and real stress can combine to create great results. You cannot fool the mind - it knows quite well whether what it's working on matters deeply or not!

Posted by Janet on Monday, September 23, 2013 at 7:32 am

Good point. Just as my mind knows the difference between a real deadline and one I'm artificially imposing in hopes of finishing something earlier.

Posted by SursumCorda on Monday, September 23, 2013 at 8:40 am
Better Than School, and Child's Work
Excerpt: Better Than School by Nancy Wallace (Larson Publications, 1983) Child's Work:  Taking Children's Choices Seriously by Nancy Wallace (Holt Associates, 1990) These stories of the education of Ishmael and Vita Wallace have been high on my list of f...
Weblog: Lift Up Your Hearts!
Date: September 23, 2013, 6:59 am