Control issues

Published by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2008 at 01:19 PM

We love visitor centers.

For one thing, they have taxidermy. I prefer my taxidermy to look like it was done in the days of Teddy Roosevelt, and most visitor centers are accommodating.

Actually, while spiffy new visitor centers can be awesome too, there is nothing that thrills my heart like 1970s-era headphones and a row of colored buttons. That droning voice — the same guy who did the voice-overs for film strips in the 60s — telling me about the eating habits of this mammal or the significance of that geological formation ... that's my idea of fun.

When we pull up to a visitor center, our kids burst out of the car and race in. They grab free hand-outs for their trip journals. They try to locate and stake out the best taxidermy. They are enthusiasm personified.

I should state here that my kids like to people-watch. They have been known to stare in slack-jawed fascination at people from a distance of about two feet.

Recently we shared a visitor center with a family whose kids were markedly not enjoying the experience. They were being dragged unwillingly from exhibit to exhibit with sullen expressions. This caught the attention of my junior anthropologists, who almost unconsciously began to tail them around the room.

The mom read each sign and label aloud in a booming voice that would have made a theatre teacher proud. Her kids stared at the floor. Her voice grew more fake-animated. “Just look at this! Did you see this?!” The kids continued to study the carpet pattern and grind their fists into their armpits. When mom marched them off to the gift shop in military fashion, I managed to snag mine and keep them from following.

My kids were fascinated. “How could you not like the visitor center?!” “Why were those kids so mad?”

After we left, I realized the visitor center makes a neat parallel to project-based learning. If the parent (or teacher) insists on being in charge and dispensing all the information, the kids are completely passive. They can become nothing more than reluctant victims, regardless of how interesting the subject matter.

When we go into the visitor center, the kids shoot off in different directions. “Hey, look at this!” “Come here! Come here!” Everyone gets to read something aloud and point out something that they knew first. Each person gets to be an expert.

Nothing causes a child to lose interest faster than having no control in the learning situation and having someone else in charge of each nutritional bite of information being spoon fed into them. Nothing excites a child more than having the opportunity to learn something that no one else around him knows.

If we define the parameters of a learning experience before a child has even begun — deciding what will be studied, in what order, what information is important/not important, etc. — then we have taken the steering wheel and delegated our child to the back seat.

If we let our children define the parameters — as they go — then they’re in the driver’s seat. They get to show us around; they get to follow the path that is most interesting to them. They decide how far they will go. It requires parents (and teachers) to give up control of the situation. But aren’t we really here to teach our kids to drive?


Comment by Annika on September 9, 2008 at 03:35 PM

YES! I wish I could share this post with everyone who thinks that all activities must be made "educational." If only they knew that everything is educational until you try to make it so.

Comment by Deirdre on September 9, 2008 at 04:06 PM

Your posts have been missed!

So much here to take in. I remember thinking I was brilliant when I planned my school year by making the final exam first (and even gave it to students the first week to compare with the one at the end of the year), and let that lead my lesson plans.

Yet I know, the #1 problem I observed among students, often my brightest, was a complete lack of passion about anything. So many had already learned to become passive and had disengaged completely.

No wonder my sons, who refuse to tell me almost anything about their day when asked, LOVE to teach me the songs they've learned, etc.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on September 9, 2008 at 04:09 PM

so wise, as usual! I think sometimes we as parents are so concerned that the kids are going to Learn! Have Fun! that we forget to let them be excited and explore the learning and the environment in their own ways. Around here we call it "you're going to have fun whether you like it or not" and we try to avoid that approach(although don't always succeed). Thanks for the reminder!

Comment by melissa s. on September 9, 2008 at 09:05 PM

i love this post. it adds to my little collection of courage i'm building up to go the homeschooling route. keep it comin ;-)

Comment by me, again on September 9, 2008 at 10:22 PM

lazy homeschool mom = no reluctant victims!

huzzah for procrastinators!

srsly. you are so right. it took a bit for me to give up control. because i be so controlling. but i'm transferring that tendency to other areas of life, so all is not lost.

• • •

dude, remember the bison in the arch museum? we expected that sucker to dissolve into some kind of centenarian powder at any moment.

• • •

isn't J wearing a threadless tee?


Comment by Candy Cook on September 12, 2008 at 03:13 PM

Super Great. I love your insight. I awarded you an "unschool is cool" blog award if you want it!

Comment by Allie on September 18, 2008 at 04:36 PM

A great lesson for homeschooling, and a great reminder for classroom teachers as well. It's always good to remember that kids are not just empty vessels waiting to be filled with information told to them, they have their own interests, and like you said, areas of expertise.

I love your blog :)

Comment by Sara on September 19, 2008 at 11:54 AM

You pretty much summed up what I feel when I take my kids places like that.I always wondered if I was hindering them by not leading them more. But they seem to figure it out themselves. It is fun to take a backseat and watch them learn for themselves.

Comment by Christina on September 20, 2008 at 06:44 PM

my greatest fear is that our kiddo won't like our cheesy roadside pitstops and travels and will look aimlessly at the floor as her weirdo parents admire the taxidermy.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 20, 2008 at 09:14 PM

sara, i couldn’t have said it better myself!

christina, i’m pretty sure love of taxidermy is engrained in their DNA. ;^)

Comment by Christina on September 21, 2008 at 06:35 PM

Ha Ha lets hope so... or that she doesn't become immune to it since her father's Garage/art studio is filled with "it"/skulls/heads etc... :not this again MOM. *)

Comment by molly on September 23, 2008 at 10:00 PM

lori, this is so good. i'm read it twice. you get me with these posts every time. such a good reminder.

and speaking of taxidermy--when my sister was in college, she took a tax. class. we used to collect good "specimens" that we'd find around the farm and keep them in the freezer for her until she came to pick them up. Nothing like opening up a brown paper bag, thinking it was full of frozen cookie dough, only to realize it was holding a little brown bat and a sapsucker. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 26, 2008 at 06:31 PM

molly, thank you so much :^)

lol re: specimens in the freezer - i like my taxidermy old, molting, and in a lodge, visitor center, or nature center - not mixed in with my popsicles! ;^) (although i could totally see jack getting into that...)

Comment by Dawn on December 30, 2008 at 03:13 AM

This reminded me of when my Naval aviator brother-in-law used to talk about going to "Mandatory Fun" when he had to go to some dressy military function.

I actually don't even get the chance to bore my kids with anything they are not intrested in...because they are usually sprinting through the museum... then all of a sudden grind to a halt and stay in the "intresting spot" long enough for me to watch my fingernails grow.
Back to that attention span thing! So very intresting how it really all turns around...

Comment by Lori Pickert on December 30, 2008 at 04:06 AM

dawn, lol mandatory fun. an oxymoron if i ever heard one.

Comment by Suan Eng on March 1, 2009 at 12:47 PM

I demontsrated to children used carboard to make 3D airplane but
my principal said I shoudn't do that.I should just give the materials to the children and let them create themselve inorder to avoid 'factory products.
My main concern is this group of children have no experience of 3D products
further more they dont understand what is 3D.
We are still very new in Reggio Emilla approach programe.We always have conflict in art and craft area .
I will be very please if you could give me some ideas. Thank you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 1, 2009 at 04:01 PM

hi suan, please e-mail me and tell me about your school and where you’re located!

exploration is great, but reggio instructors feel it’s important to teach technique as well. where an american teacher would think she was supposed to hang back and let children figure it out on their own, a reggio teacher would say “this is how it’s done”. that is not to say they tell children *what* to do, but rather how to do it.

if you are doing a project on airplanes, it makes sense to me that your principal does not want you to guide the children’s work too much. are you talking about a model of an airplane or a large child-size construction?

if you provide plenty of open-ended materials including clean recyclables (boxes, plastic bottles, cardboard tubes, plastic tubes and pipes) and things to attach them (masking tape, duct tape, colored duct tape, colored rubber tape), the children will naturally beginning working in three dimensions. they may or may not make the intuitive leap to get three dimensions from two, if you only provide flat cardboard and paper.

what kinds of conflicts are you having in the arts & crafts area?

Comment by HomeGrownMommy on September 24, 2012 at 04:24 PM

Amazing insight! THank you!! I am trying really hard to let go of more control over learning. This morning, we took a trip to the library to grab books for my kids' very first project based learning experience! I almost ruined the entire thing - I could feel myself get tense as they picked out books I didn't think would help them as well as this other book or as they changed their topic to something not as exciting or as they just didn't know what to study at all. I wanted to leap in so many times! I also realized that I had some pretty high expectations (a la "Light Up Your Child's Mind"-style outcomes) but finally let it go and told myself "it's ok if they just report on something they learning, they don't have to change their world on this very first project!"

By the way, you simply must install some social sharing buttons so we can more easily circulate your articles on facebook and pinterest!!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 25, 2012 at 07:50 AM


thank you! i have asked several times for social sharing buttons — i’m just waiting! :P

here’s the thing about letting them pick out their own books — *you* could choose really relevant materials for them, but then they wouldn’t be building that skill. allowing them to sift through the books, choose some, bring them home and read them, then repeat and repeat again allows *them* to build the skill of being able to choose relevant materials. *that* is what you want.

we tend to zoom right in on the books that we think are best — the ones that are the “right” reading level, for example — when a lot of learning can occur when kids pick out their own books. they tend to range more widely, reading books under and above their natural reading level. they are more curious, so they will grab books that are tangential in subject. they are, in other words, less discerning at first — and that is a good thing. we *want* them to try to read books that are challenging; they may balance that by choosing books that are “easy.” they explore around the edges of their interest, and they may head off in some new direction — that is fine, too. we can’t overly pre-define what their project will be; they are creating it organically as they go.

good job staying hands-off. ;o)

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