Getting beyond the surface of learning

Published by Lori Pickert on November 11, 2008 at 03:26 PM

The photo above shows some of Jack’s notes on his current project.

One goal of project-based learning is to stop skimming around on the surface of learning and dig deeper.

Make learning more complex, more layered, more sticky.

How do we get beyond the surface? By sticking with one idea longer.

Imagine a little stream flowing by, burbling, moving, dancing. How many gallons of water are zipping by you every day? This is your child’s natural learning output — a flow of questions, ideas, misconceptions, opinions, interests, declarations.

What we want to do is slow things down. At that little stream, a beaver drops a few trees, slaps on a load of mud and twigs. Swiftly moving water becomes a pond. The water is suddenly slow, still, and deep.

It’s the same water. But now we have time to see what’s there.

We want to get beyond the surface of learning — skimming from one topic to the next, learning a little bit about many different things. We want to stop moving on to skim another topic and, instead, stick with the same topic longer.

We can do this by keeping track of all that learning output in a project journal, then gently redirecting back to unanswered questions, unexplored ideas, unfinished plans.

We can do this by making an environment that reflects children’s ideas, questions, thoughts, and plans — hanging photographs and sketches and posters, displaying constructions, pulling resources together.

We can encourage our children to keep their own notes, journals, blogs … and make time to review them together.

Every effort we make to slow down makes more opportunity to exercise higher-level thinking.

[L]earning science — an interdisciplinary field that includes cognitive science, educational psychology, information science, and neuroscience — suggests that the best learning occurs when basic skills are taught in combination with complex thinking skills. Decades of research reveals that there is, in fact, no reason to separate the acquisition of learning core content and basic skills like reading and computation from more advanced analytical and thinking skills, even in the earliest grades. — Elena Silva, “Measuring Skills for the 21st Century”


Comment by skye on November 12, 2008 at 12:14 AM

I'm feeling so with your 'flow' at the moment Lori. I just started reading a book called 'In praise of Slow". Slowing down and seeing, connecting, being more mindful and less harried-so much richer to be this way.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 12, 2008 at 04:15 AM

if we have slow food, why not slow learning, right? :^)

i’m going to check out that book!

Comment by Paula on November 12, 2008 at 02:59 PM

Hi Lori,
You answered some of my questions about this topic on Saturday. Thanks. I am wondering how to encourage deeper learning without taking over. My daughter is 6. She is an early readers, so her research is somewhat limited when it comes to books and computer. My tendency is to pick the books (because I can find them) and then read them to her. This does work for her learning but not for her independence.

Here is one example of how it has looked at our house. She currently loves everything dog. We do not have a dog because of allergies. At the library we went to the kids section on dogs and she picked out some books. I found a large encyclopedia type book and stuck it in the bag. She often sits and looks through it and from time to time we read about a particular breed. Often her play revolves around pretending to be a dog or playing with the dogs she has.
Sometimes she pulls out a coloring book page with a dog on it. What would deeper learning look like at this age? What would be my part?

On other topics when I've done the work and initiating, she is learning a great deal of information, so much more than I would have expected.

Thanks for any help.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 12, 2008 at 03:36 PM

hi paula,

one - i would let her take the lead in finding resource materials. encourage her to ask the children's librarian for help, then let her choose what she checks out. a reading 6yo is going to be equally attracted to books that are beneath her ability and far above. let her know that you will read anything to her that she needs; *she just needs to ask*. let her peruse harder books on her own. give her a pad of post-its (or just cut up skinny strips of paper) so she can mark passages she wants you to read to her later. if her asking you to read becomes disruptive (which would be great ;^), set a time during the day when you will read her research materials.

two - get her a large notebook or sketchbook for keeping notes on her project. let her be in control, but feel free to suggest "you could put that in your notebook". introduce her to the idea of xeroxing pages (10 cents each at our library), copying information, making notes, cutting images from newspapers/magazines, sketching (i prefer sketchbooks with no lines for this reason), etc. let her use her journal as she wishes, but you can get the ball rolling by making suggestions.

three - make her a space and pull her materials together. have some sort of bulletin board or wall space where she can collect images, notes, etc. once again, try to get the ball rolling and then let her take over.

four - the dramatic play stuff is *great*. again, make a space if needed. pull in some clean cardboard boxes of various sizes (incl very large!) and see what happens. will she make a doghouse? a veterinarian's office? try not to suggest and simply give her some materials to enhance her play. also, she should be *building* for knowledge -- rather than give her a stethoscope etc. to play veterinarian (for example), suggest she could make one, then provide materials. the more she does herself, the more learning is taking place.

five - relax and let her interest ebb and flow naturally, but purposefully help her stay with the idea. start a project journal yourself (see mine in an earlier post) and start keeping track of her questions, ideas, plans, etc. use them to gently remind her if she seems to be drifting away. often a gentle reminder is all that is needed to get things going again.

it sounds like you have a great start. i hope these suggestions help. let me know how it goes!

Comment by katrien on November 16, 2008 at 12:25 AM

Your simile about the stream and the pond is so right on. I have seen it with my 3yo. She easily flits from one thing to the next, but then will get really stuck in one thing - like drawing, making snowflakes, learning to read, or the ocean diorama we're making for a friend for Xmas. She loves her new big desk where she can work on several projects at a time. I often sit with her, quietly seeing that pool deepen and calm.
Thank you for this insight,

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 16, 2008 at 12:43 AM

katrien, thank you. i have a lovely image in my mind of your daughter working. :^)

Comment by Andrea on March 15, 2009 at 01:56 PM

this helps a lot. we have so many little projects going on often being unfinished.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 15, 2009 at 03:05 PM

andrea, i’m glad this helps. it can be tricky to move things to the next level. let me know if i can help.

Comment by Kendra on August 3, 2011 at 09:05 PM

I wish I could borrow you for a day and ask so many questions that your ears would spin!

This approach speaks to me. It grows every time I come back and read more.

But i don't know where to begin. My two oldest were (12 and nine now) in a public Montessori charter until two years ago. We have been homeschooling since. We use a mix of styles, but do sometimes lean towards school at home, which I do not want, but it is familiar.

I think my children were taught in school and maybe some by me, to be passive learners. They don't get excited and they don't begin projects on their own. How do I get them to take that first step?

I am thinking of purchasing them project journals, nice ones and then opening up the time with a few requirements. For example they need to know this is not free time and that they need to be actively engaged. But i know they will try for just the bare minimum and i don't know how to get them past this.

Hmmm, still thinking and absorbing

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 3, 2011 at 10:30 PM

hi kendra,

i think the first step is for you to just observe them and document what they do and play and talk about and try to figure out what interests they have. then begin to feed those interests.

you can approach it from the direction of "what would you like to learn about?" but be prepared for them to say "nothing". ;)

if you document their conversations and free time, i bet you hit on something they are already interested in. try it and let me know how it goes.

Comment by Kendra on August 4, 2011 at 05:28 AM

Wow, thank you for your quick reply!

I like your first step and I think I already am doing that, or at least I am attempting to. I know what attracts each of them ie: 12yo = electricity & animals; 9 yo space, knights & mythology; 7 yo = fairies, butterflies and bugs

When we go to the library I let them roam free to choose what they would like. But as they are doing that I browse the shelves. Ac ouple fo weeks ago I found three books, one on castles, one on knights and one magic school bus on a similar subject. So I grabbed them up along with any other books I know they would like. When we get home all the books we have checked out (ast week it was about 40 books! ) I stand up attractively around the fire place hearth. If i do that then I'd estimate 90-95% of the books get read at least by one child but sometimes by multiple kids.

But my problem lies in the next step. They are VERY happy to read.....and then put the book back down they don't take it to the next step. That is except on the rare occasion where my oldest finds himself interested in an experiment that was laid out in the book and then he 'may' try that.

How do I get them to take it to the next step without turning it into drudgery? Because as you know, as soon as they think, "mom made me" the light bulb goes off.

Thanks again, I really appreciate this dialog as I try to work this out in my mind.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 5, 2011 at 06:11 PM

hi kendra,

ah well, i've been very tardy with everyone else — you're the lucky one. ;)

do they have a workspace set up? shared or individual? if so, i would start gathering their materials together there. separate out the books on, say, electricity, knights/castles, and butterflies and group them together, and make sure drawing, painting, building materials are nearby and accessible.

you might ask them (separately, one on one) to tell you about what they've read/learned. ask them if they are interested in learning more about it. if they shut it down immediately, you can go back into stealth mode. but they might be enthusiastic or at least curious about what you have in mind.

if they go for it, start a list of questions, ask them what they're curious about or want to know more about, and start brainstorming ways to learn more — other than reading more books. and set the stage for making representations — get the art and making materials out and next to the books. as you gather more resources, bring them in.

i'll stop there for now...

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