Keeping the cart behind the horse

Published by Lori Pickert on September 21, 2009 at 05:21 PM

A question from Jess:

Your blog has answered lots of questions, but I definitely will have more … for example, my daughter absolutely loves rock collecting. Should I not mention the Museum of Natural History that has a rock collection?

If your goal is to have your child experience the entire arc of learning, from initial interest to knowing enough to teach someone else, they need adequate time to explore outward from that beginning point.

Your mind will leap ahead to great possibilities, like visiting the museum. Write them down in your journal. But keep them to yourself for now.

Imagine if your child was deeply engaged in making a house from a cardboard box, working intently. You come in the room and watch a moment, then say “You should do this for the stairs … you could use that magazine to cut out rugs and pictures … those spools would make good furniture …”

Depending on the child, and the day, your suggestions might be well received and inspire them further — or, you might kill their interest altogether. In any case, whose project is it?

As you build a strong, trusted learning relationship with your child, they need to know that you will support them and get them whatever they need but you won’t take over. They will remain in control.

Anything that you do for them takes away their opportunity to do it for themselves — including having ideas and making connections. Of course you are going to make those connections quickly; of course you are going to have wonderful ideas! Save them, and later, if they never come up in any other way, you can introduce them. But give your child the chance to make their way there on their own — possibly much more slowly, or via a circuitous path. Slow learning.

Another analogy — when your three-year-old is hunting for Easter eggs, you don’t want to point out each and every egg. They would hate that. On the other hand, if they are looking too hard and long and making no progress, becoming frustrated and upset in the process, a little hint or a bit of subtle redirection can get them back on the right path and happily working again. There’s a delicate balance to this, and it’s a learned skill. Try to always err on the side of doing less; you can always do more later.

Your goal here is for your child to work independently and have their own ideas. Of course, you could plan a fun unit study, but that’s not what we’re doing. We’re planning along, not planning ahead. We’re seeing what form our child’s work takes over an extended period of time, allowing it to take its own shape without imposing our preconceived ideas.

Rather than making direct suggestions about places you could visit, back it up a step or two or three and ask “What kinds of places might teach us more about rocks? Where could we go? Who could we talk to?” Write down every idea your child has and start following them up one by one. It’s entirely possible that along the way, she will stumble across the museum on her own or gather that suggestion from someone else, making it her discovery. The more they own their work, the more they will learn and the more pleasure and pride they will take in it.



Comment by Lori Pickert on September 21, 2009 at 06:22 PM

p.s. Thank you, Jess, for your great question!

Comment by Kellyi on September 21, 2009 at 07:29 PM

This is really interesting and really relevent to me! I am guilty of getting over enthusiastic and trying to "assist". My boy wanted to learn about crocodiles so I ordered a load of books from the library, bookmarked some websites and suggested a visit to look at a real one. All he wanted to do was watch the whole of Crocodile Chronicles, and I kind of killed it.

Lesson learnt.

Comment by Mamie on September 21, 2009 at 07:34 PM

What an important post! I can always tell when I make my daughter's learning about me rather than her (my expectations, my excitement, or my need to make every learning experience unforgettable). So much talk about "teaching" problem solving skills and yet we (parents and teachers) have difficulty allowing kids to hone these skills when we take control.

I just found this site a couple of months ago and my "visits" here feel like talking to a wise mentor. Thank you so much, Lori, for taking the time to share your thoughts! And thanks too to those of you who make comments!

Comment by Arwen on September 21, 2009 at 07:38 PM

This is something I know I have trouble with. I see so many possibilities and look so far down the road, it is hard not to push to get to that point. I am slowly learning, though, to have patience and enjoy the journey.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on September 21, 2009 at 08:03 PM

This is a great reminder - especially about the slow part. Since we're just beginning at home with Gunnar after years of school, I'm trying to take the time to slow down and let things unfold. It's surprisingly hard to do and to let go of that "keeping up" pressure. Much harder than with a little one. I'm sure I'll get there, slowly.

Comment by Amy on September 21, 2009 at 08:51 PM

So much to think about. This definitely does not come naturally. Thanks and I'd love more columns like this!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 21, 2009 at 09:17 PM

kelly, it’s very, very easy to kill it in the beginning with too much enthusiasm. (enthusiasm of *yours*, that is! ;^) one of my favorite metaphors is making a campfire. you want to coax along that little spark and just feed it bits of dried grass .. then tiny twigs .. etc.

because if you dump some huge chunks of wood on it, you’ll put it right out!

just don’t be afraid to try again. :^)

mamie, exactly. we want kids to become great at solving problems but we interfere before they can even create a problem to solve!

this touches on another of my pet concerns. we want kids to grow up to make good choices when they are teens and young adults .. yet we hardly ever let them make any choices at all. (especially at school.) when they start to make a “bad” choice (like deciding to attach two pieces of wood with a piece of scotch tape), we intervene and tell them it won’t work instead of letting them figure it out for themselves. if kids are going to become resilient and good at analyzing, if they are going to become thoughtful choice-makers, we need to let them develop those skills.

and thank you!

arwen, yes, i think it’s difficult for everyone — parents *and* teachers. of course, *we* are good learners. but in this relationship with our children/students, we want to be mentors — not lecturing them on how to do it, but creating circumstances for them to do it themselves, and supporting them along the way.

the journal really helps me in this way — i can express all my great ideas, without expressing them to the kids! ;^)

sarah, mmm, yes. like you could fall behind by slowing down. this is really such a different road that you can’t compare “progress” between the two radically different approaches. along the way i think you would have pointed to my boys and said, well, they are moving sooo slowly on this or that — yet at this point (turning 10 and 13), they are in many ways far ahead. and not just in school-measured things, but in the intangibles that school doesn’t even care about.

i’ve said before, but i’ll repeat ;^), that i like to look at two years rather than a single “school” year — it really helps to even things out. you can spend a lot more time digging deeply into one area knowing that when that interest has been fully explored and excavated, they will turn naturally to the next, new thing and do the same with it.

i’ve never worked on a project that didn’t eventually branch out to cover virtually every part of a normal curriculum (even if that‘s not a concern to me personally). and now that the boys are older, this way of approaching learning has really turned them into deep diggers who take their time — they know it takes time to find the gold.

thank you, amy, and i have more coming! if anyone else wants to e-mail me a question for me to address on the blog, please do! (to lori (at) campcreekpress [dot] com)

Comment by Sherry on September 21, 2009 at 10:23 PM

Another fantastic post, Lori--great food for thought! thanks.

Comment by Stacey on September 21, 2009 at 11:03 PM

How then does something like this translate for younger children. I find us jumping from project to project, we finish things but usually over a day or two. Or perhaps at three this is what it might look like.

Comment by Sally on September 21, 2009 at 11:47 PM

Nice posting. Great points for us to remember as we guide our children, not direct them. Keep up your great wisdom.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 22, 2009 at 12:21 AM

thank you, sherry! :^)

hi stacey. :^)

younger than three? i think the best thing is to begin to introduce this way of learning, with both environment and experiences. as a child transitions from two to three (and some a bit later), they will move from absorbing to sharing and from listening/reacting to initiating.

we’ve done months-long projects with three-year-olds. the aim is to try to stay with one idea (which will become a collection of ideas) longer .. to layer knowledge, activities, and experiences, field work, etc., to create something more complex.

slow learning again — to do this, you move very slowly. slowly read and accumulate books. slowly talk and collect questions. slowly locate and examine materials — then represent your learning in many different ways. drawings, paintings, stories both written down or dictated and stories acted out in dramatic play. and so on.

i wrote a little about this here -

and here -

for children younger than three, you can still stay with one idea a long time even though you will be doing more of the “work” — read a series of books on the same subject, talk about it when you are making art (2-D and 3-D), make sure you make or have open-ended materials so they can play with the ideas (e.g., blocks, dress-up clothes).

if you can put together a mixed-age group for some of these activities — even a one-time playdate with some older friends — that can be a wonderful thing for a younger child.

hope this helps!

sally, thank you! :^)

Comment by se7en on September 22, 2009 at 06:35 AM

Oh I love this post... When I first started homeschooling I read a snippet from somewhere and this was the gist of it "If you find yourself trying to TEACH your children everything then find something to learn yourself, alongside them" And I have found it to be so very true!!! When I get tempted to get too involved I go and explore my own topic... It is one thing to talk about a topic with them and quite another to dive in and steal their thunder!!!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 22, 2009 at 01:35 PM

se7en, i recently read something written by a (young) teacher that said homeschooling is a terrible idea because parents can’t possibly know everything that children need to learn.

as if we have to know things before our children learn them!

as if teachers know everything children need to learn!

schools and teachers *define* what children *will* learn and even under those very prescribed circumstances they often don’t meet their own goal.

i don’t attempt to *teach* my children everything, just as you say — i create the circumstances in which they can teach themselves what they need or want to know.

i agree with you so much re: parents needing to find something to learn themselves, too. it always amazes me that some people think they can raise “great readers” when they themselves don’t read, or they want “passionate learners” when they themselves have no hobbies or intellectual interests. a classic case of “do what i say, not what i do”.

it’s hard for me to not get involved in the boys’ interests — because they just make them so darn interesting. :^) plus, i am their first, best audience for being told everything they learn! but after years of practice, i have learned to mostly control my impulse to stick my fingers in. :^)

Comment by patricia on September 22, 2009 at 01:50 PM

Theoretically, I *know* this. I get what you've written and I agree with it. I even printed out your post "Making Space For Their Ideas" and have it hanging beside my desk.

Still, it sure helps to be reminded. My Teacher Lady side is one forceful cookie, and she needs a good shove back down on a regular basis! ;-) Next time she shows up, I'll try to relegate her to a journal. Thanks for the reminder!

Comment by Kat on September 22, 2009 at 05:12 PM

Lori is BACK!

Comment by Jess on September 22, 2009 at 05:25 PM

Thanks for answering my question.:o) I especially love the Easter egg example! I will have to work hard to step back. I absolutely love to research, find books, plan trips etc. I will try to find projects for myself! I understand now what I am taking from the kids...all the fun of discovery!:o) We are currently enrolled in an online charter school, however...since finding your blog I am now slowly venturing in different direction. In the back of my head I worry about their education but then I remember just how little I got out of school and know this could be a better route! Thanks again for creating such a wonderful blog! I look forward to reading it inside and out:o) I am also excited for your book to come out!

Comment by Lise on September 22, 2009 at 06:33 PM


What a great post! I linked to it in an email to the families in my early childhood program. Thanks!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 22, 2009 at 06:44 PM

patricia, i know, it’s all about being a *recovering* teacher. the urge never fully goes away! ;^)

one thing i suggest to struggling wanna-teach'ers is to choose something apart from their child’s interest/project — maybe one of their own passions — and teach *that*. so you can share your passion and knowledge for knitting, cooking, gardening, woodwork, civil war battlefields, … and still let your child own *his* work.

in the meantime, i just use my journal to plot out all the different directions i can foresee a project going … then let it go where it will. :^)

lol, kat — thank you for your enthusiasm! :^)

jess, thank you for your great question! i have another for later this week from another reader that touches on that “in the back of my head i worry about their education” problem.

and thank you re: the blog/book! :^)

thank you, lise! i’m glad you found it useful! :^)

Comment by nancy on September 22, 2009 at 06:52 PM

I almost "killed" a project my kids and their cousins were working on today. I suggested some ideas and then Ian changed his mind about doing it "my" way. My first instinct was to convince him "my" idea would work better, but for some reason I didn't. His face was amazing when he described what he was going to do. His enthusiasm sincere. It's sooo hard to not step in, but I'm gradually learning to step away and let them roll with it now that they are getting older and more capable.
BTW, we have cousins that just moved in next door temporarily; ages ranging from 12-5 and they are homeschoolers. I now have many hands working in my studio and learning right along side me. It's crazy but fun!
I'm glad you're back:)

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 23, 2009 at 12:11 AM

how awesome to have next-door hs’ed cousins! :^)

there’s no doubt that we could “improve” their projects by jumping in; it simply defeats the purpose of doing projects in the first place. that’s what we have to keep reminding ourselves! :^)

Comment by Deb on September 23, 2009 at 03:48 AM

Wow, I really needed this post, it's something I'm STILL working on, after almost 16 years of being a parent.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 23, 2009 at 12:45 PM

thank you, deb :^)

Comment by estea on September 23, 2009 at 04:36 PM

narrowly avoided killing a cardboard house project just last week. whew. :)

thanks to your blog i'm doing a better job at watching, holding back, waiting for my moments. keep it coming!

Comment by Sarah Jackson on September 23, 2009 at 05:19 PM

I'm jumping back in looking for suggestions on transitioning a kid who has been in school for several years to project learning. It has worked pretty successfully with my younger child, but as I'm working with Gunnar (age 11) to develop a project scope, he keeps getting stuck. He's so used to being given a defined set of work that he genuinely doesn't know how to conceptualize a large project of his own making. He's not sure how to get from one step to the next. And I'm getting frustrated because he's rather sit at the table and build with Legos exclusively than think about how his passion for creating with Lego and for Star Wars can translate into "real" project work. He is interested in exploring the possibility of life on other planets and learn about how the origins of life on this planet. I also think that his fascination with the droids could result in some really cool exploration of robotics, etc. The big question for me is how to I motivate him to start asking the bigger questions and seek out answers?

As a side note, he is not a willing reader. He has dyslexia, so reading is slow and frustrating for him. The more I can mix in audio and video resources the better. Any ideas?

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 23, 2009 at 07:47 PM

thank you, estea! :^)

sarah, for what it's worth, i would just dial it back a notch and treat gunnar’s interests the same way you would a three-year-old’s … let him do what he is doing naturally, observe and journal about it for your own edification, talk with him about how he might find out more, offer your support in getting materials or taking him places, etc.

rather than trying to jump him ahead to the end game, take your time and let him get used to having lots of time to explore a single interest and time to develop his own ideas and questions. create a workspace and a bulletin board and start collecting his images, notes, photos, etc.

think about how you could feed and support that interest in Legos and see where it goes rather than anticipating a great place it could go and trying to get him to see the line between his point A and your point B. take photos of his work and put them on his bulletin board, look for Lego books and magazines at the library (there are tons), give him shelves so he can create and leave things up for awhile. but give him time to ask questions and have his own ideas.

a crucial difference between a project and a unit is that the child is the architect of his own learning — and that means stepping back and letting it develop slowly and naturally, allowing him to tease out what he knows/doesn’t know/wants to know, etc.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 23, 2009 at 07:55 PM

one more thought —

children who learn this way become what i call “project-oriented” — they tackle every new interest and new learning opportunity with this full array of familiar tools. they demand art materials, they sketch, they plan, they look for field work opportunities, they ask for resources, they start collecting images, they pile up books, they talk to other people…

but no matter how old you are when you begin this process, whether you’re 3, 6, or 11, you first have to go through all the steps and learn them for yourself. what it means to stay with one idea for a long time. what it means to seek out help and advice from others. how you identify what you know and don’t know and what you need to know. how you identify your questions and decide when they’ve been answered.

a child who has successfully negotiated a long-term, self-managed learning project will jump in feet first the next time. he is building habits of mind that will serve him well for the rest of his life.

project work tends to accumulate an enormous number of artifacts — books, posters, pamphlets, photographs, sketches, drawings, paintings, sculptures, models, etc. etc. etc., all visual representations of the learning that happened during the project. but this accumulation — both of knowledge and the artifacts making that knowledge visible — takes time. and it starts from one small beginning point. so concentrate on making an environment, a schedule, and a family dynamic that encourages and supports this kind of work — then relax and let it happen at its own pace.

Comment by Sally on September 24, 2009 at 06:14 AM

Thank you. I've been mashing thoughts like these around for a while, and not coming up with the words. I've just shared this (with link for credit, of course) with my local homeschool email group. This is how I try to live with my kids, not just as their "homeschool mom," and while I'm still imperfect, this is a great standard to strive towards. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 24, 2009 at 03:12 PM

hi sally, and thank you! :^) i’m glad you thought it was worthy of sharing!

Comment by Meredith Floyd-... on September 24, 2009 at 04:33 PM

What a great post! It's so true that education is all about the discovery! I've always felt (but not always remembered) that the job of a teacher to create moments of wonder. Wonder is an opening that allows new, creative ideas to enter. What a great reminder your post is!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 24, 2009 at 05:27 PM

thank you, meredith :^)

Comment by JT on September 24, 2009 at 10:52 PM

Thanks for the post. I have been pondering a thought related to this and developing it slowly. I teach fourth grade and I have been doing these experiential simulations to guide my students to possible suggested outcomes. Sometimes its just a question on the board that we can attempt to delve into "Are you afraid of Questions", other times its a challenge for them to enter the room (enter the room without touching the 30 pieces of paper in front of you). My job is to provide "unique problems" and allow them to create the solutions that will work for them. Some work...some don't. We all learn through the process and their minds are a busy buzz. My ultimate goal is to lead them to a place where they can have the confidence and enthusiasm to solve problems on an individual and collaborative level. It's the journey that is important while learning. Fostering that journey with care was perfectly said above.

Higher level learning processed through open ended questions is another approach that I love to use. I have a bunch of these at school that I will bring in and post that I think some might appreciate.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 25, 2009 at 01:52 AM

thanks for your comment, JT

Comment by Kelly on September 25, 2009 at 03:22 AM

Sarah, I completely understand where you are coming eldest sounds alot like your son. She had several years of private school that formed some habits we are trying to undo.

Lori, Your explanation to Sarah has furthered my understanding yet again:) I am seeing that it is my attempts to guide the project from the outset that is the major hindrance. Seems that I am learning right along with my girlys about this new way of learning.

Comment by Barbara in NC on September 25, 2009 at 04:06 AM

Ahhh, Lori, your posts are like this calming breath of air for me....because I always feel like "I can do this!" and "This makes so much sense!" after I read them. Thanks, I've been missing you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 25, 2009 at 04:33 AM

thank you, kelly, and i’m glad! :^)

thank you so much, barbara, on both counts. :^)

Comment by OMSH on October 20, 2009 at 07:07 PM

We homeschool very differently. I have an extreme need (have my entire life) towards organization. Two of my three need organization as well - the other, not so much. This is what has moved me along a different path.

I can't say I fully embrace unschooling, but I have chopped-away at much of my rigor because I see where I needed room to move (as a child AND now) and I see where my kids need it too.

Comment by We Cloth Diaper! on November 17, 2009 at 02:57 AM

Independent learning is what made me who I am today. I was part of that early 1980's wave of homeschooling, way back before homeschooling was cool. Being left to my own devices to learn things made me a more capable and curious adult. Now, in my late 30's, I constantly marvel at how limited so many people are in their thinking. They don't know they CAN because no one ever let them learn on their own. I am in shock every time I hear an able-bodied, intelligent adult tell me they can't do something because they don't know how. GO LEARN HOW!

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