Project-based homeschooling: Choosing a topic
I was wondering if maybe I should talk about a different project ... because as much as I lecture other people (literally lecturing! behind a lectern!) that projects work no matter where the starting point, the whole comics thing seemed to be pushing it.
I always get asked if I would allow a project on anything, like … guns? video games? And my answer is no, I wouldn’t start projects on just anything. (It’s not so much “allowing” as it is “deciding to actively support.”)
Possible project topics are not one in a million — your child will have more than one authentic interest. True, if you reject their deepest interests, you are less likely to spark a really complex and layered investigation. But if you can’t or won’t support a particular interest, you can simply look for another one.
I advise teachers not to choose project topics that they don’t find interesting themselves. How can you facilitate a group of students for months on end if you think the topic is boring? A group of children will offer up a well of interests; be sure to pick one you also find interesting.
Don’t choose something that you already know everything about because you think it will be easier. It’s actually more difficult because you are already out in front, trying to tamp down your own knowledge about the subject. You may feel more confident, but confidence is boring. Better to pick something you always wished you had time to learn about, because guess what, now you do.
(A big part of mentoring rather than “teaching” is that you are helping children find the answers to their own questions — not answering their questions for them or making them answer yours. So, really, your knowledge is beside the point and can actually work against you. It’s easier not to blunder in with the answer if you don’t have it in the first place.)
Now that I’m homeschooling and have only two students instead of 20 to think about, I don’t worry about whether I’m particularly interested. My kids are old enough (8 and 11) to do their projects with minimal input from me. It’s very different from working with a multi-age class of 20 kids (age 5 through 9) or a large preschool class.
(Finding a topic I don’t already know everything about is easy, as long as we stay away from Star Wars and the works of Jane Austen.)
In a classroom situation, you only do one project at a time, because all your work (your facilitating, your support, your mentoring) is focused on this topic and the myriad directions it will shoot off to — you’re only able to handle one project at a time because it will quickly become multi-branched and complex. A single large project is made up of dozens of smaller projects. The children explode in different directions like a handful of marbles dropped on a linoleum floor, and soon you have umpteen different mini-projects to support. Luckily, they are all connected, and the kids learn from each other as fast as they learn on their own. It’s magical.
At home, each son is usually doing one or two projects. Two projects on very different subjects tend to cover a lot of subject areas, and I’m not overtaxed in helping them find materials and get what they need because, after all, there are only two of them and they can only work at a certain pace. In a classroom of 20, working alone or in small groups, with diverse interests and focusing on different things and needing different things constantly, you can quickly be overwhelmed. With two children and a few projects, you can maintain enough focus to dig deeply.
That said, if you are just beginning, a single project is best — for you, that is. Remember, your project is to learn how to best support your child to direct and manage his or her own learning. Start slow and start small, then complicate things later when you feel like you have a handle on things.
What is a project anyway, and how is it different from regular learning? A project is an in-depth study. You are going to help your child stick with an idea, an authentic interest, for a good long time. You are going to marinate yourself in it. Anyone who thinks small children don’t have a decent attention span should see a group of 3- and 4-year-olds dig into a project topic. They will happily study the same topic for a full year, then come back to school the following fall with big grins asking to resume the same topic.
It’s we, the grown-ups, who have lost our ability to stick with a subject longer than five minutes. Kids have short attention spans? Hello, haven’t you met a two-year-old who wants the same exact book read (in the same exact way) every night for a year? A four-year-old who knows absolutely everything about dinosaurs or space or trains? Kids don’t have short attention spans. Actually, it’s just the opposite. They have the ability to immerse themselves in something until you think your ears will bleed listening to the exhaustive differences between types of dinosaurs, or Thomas the Tank Engine characters, or Dora the Explorer stories. We’re the ones who are ready to move on, not them.
Learning through projects means stopping the constant forward movement and taking out your shovel to dig deep instead. No more shallow glazing over things, we’re going to stop right here for awhile and see where we get.
I was thinking maybe I should talk about a different project … but I was wrong. Again. Why do I doubt the process? Already, the project has … well, I’ll save it for the next post.