Provoking investigation

Published by Lori Pickert on October 31, 2008 at 01:14 PM

So, yesterday we talked about the work/fun conundrum and the direct approach to jump-starting inquiry and investigation.

Hey Bart, do you want to research polar bears? Uh, no thanks.

If your child has been project learning for years, she will probably jump on the chance to research a topic that interests her. But we’re just getting started, and “research”, “study”, “investigate” ... these words send up a red flag for a child who is wary of being tricked into, say, writing a 10-page research paper.

So, let’s think about using provocations to spark further investigation.

(This idea works with young children as well.)

You have taken the time to listen and observe and reflect, documenting in your journal, and you think you’ve identified a topic that your child seems interested in, one that would support further study.

What are some things that you could bring to the party to both recognize and respect your child’s interest and also extend it?

• A book (not a dozen books, now — leave room for your child to take over)

• A field guide

• A movie

• A clip on youtube

• A magazine article

• A newspaper article

• A tv show

• A personal story from your family’s past

Try to start small. Let’s say you’ve discovered your child has an interest in hawks. Don’t schedule a visit to the raptor center the next day. Try to hold back the big guns until later.

Don’t be in a rush. Ideas need time to grow. Don’t be disappointed if you slide a book onto your child’s nightstand and he doesn’t immediately respond.

Starting a project is like building a campfire. Your child’s interest is the spark. You want to add kindling. You don’t want to drop a giant log on that spark; you’ll just extinguish it. Tiny twigs, that’s what you want. A bit of dry straw.

When the fire gets going, you will be feeding it steadily, but preferably at your child’s request — they will ask for something, and you will provide it.

(But remember — they need to learn that they can lead and request; taking on the role of teaching themselves is a transition. We’ll talk more about this in a later post.)

If you have a young child (say, age three to five), you can focus primarily on art materials. Say their grandparents have brought them some seashells from vacation. Your child loves the shells and is entranced with them. In a few days, those shells will be old news and they’ll move onto something else. The shells will sit on a windowsill and slowly become dust covered. But what if you sat those shells out on a tray with a magnifying glass, a notebook, and colored pencils? What if you set them out with some clay? What if you had a big beautiful field guide to shells? As they work, you jot down any questions or confusions they express. You model wondering aloud, “I wonder if Grandma knows what lived in this shell?” And now you have a project under way.

Art materials might be a good jump start for an older child as well, depending on the subject matter and the child’s interests. But let’s imagine a very meticulous eight-year-old boy who in general shies away from art and is extremely active and curious. He has watched his father fix the dishwasher and seemed extremely interested in the tools and the process. What if you said to him, “I cleared off that table and we found you some extra tools. I was going to throw this broken toaster away, but I thought you might want to take it apart instead.” (Note, no one said “research electronics”.) Then simply leave, and stop talking. It might take days for him to get started. Eight-year-old boys can be as skittish as a raccoon. Or, he might get started immediately — you never know. (Note: It’s always safest to cut the power cord off of any appliance that you put on the take-apart table.)

One lesson of the hundred languages is that there are many, many entry points to any subject. There are enough diverse ways to bite into a subject that any child, no matter their natural temperaments or inclinations, can find a spot. The process of thinking this over ourselves is *our* project work — puzzling out how we might feed that spark.


Comment by jessica on October 31, 2008 at 01:50 PM

Oh, Lori-- your blog is just what I've needed lately. Thanks for your insight and help in getting me thinking more constructively about HOW to inspire my kids to study and investigate the beautiful world.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 31, 2008 at 01:56 PM

thank you, jessica!

Comment by Ellie - Petalplum on October 31, 2008 at 02:08 PM

I just wanted to say thank you for your lovely and sweet comment on my blog the other day. (It really made my day!).
Your blog is really inspiring. Reminding me and helping me to continue to feed my children - I love your fire analogy; twig by twig we build a fire, just like brick by brick we build a house, and tree by tree we plant a forest..... My brain waves are sparking - you are making homeschooling seem "easier" for me and my children.

Comment by Rathna on October 31, 2008 at 02:22 PM

Thank you very much for this useful post. This will be of great use for the parents who want inspire their kids to study well and to explore a better world.

Comment by estea on October 31, 2008 at 04:28 PM

so what you're saying lighter fluid?? 8^)

"The process of thinking this over ourselves is *our* project work — puzzling out how we might feed that spark."

yes! this is so much *fun work*.

Comment by Lori Pickert on October 31, 2008 at 05:55 PM

thank you, ellie -- and i *do* think hs'ing is easier when you take advantage of your child's own interests. the wind is at your back, so to speak -- and that's *not* to say you're learning less, just learning better. ;^)

thank you, rathna!

e, i will leave the lighter fluid decision up to *you*. ;^)

Comment by Paige on October 31, 2008 at 08:21 PM

Such a wise and helpful post...I have two kids, age 3 and 9, and I'm gonna bookmark this post because it'll be great for me to revisit your words. Tiny twigs and dry straw - I couldn't agree with you more! Thanks!

Comment by JoVE on October 31, 2008 at 10:01 PM

I love the campfire metaphor. Exactly right. This information is all very helpful.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 1, 2008 at 03:44 AM

thank you, paige and JoVE -- i really appreciate your comments. happy halloween!

Comment by Michelle on November 1, 2008 at 04:17 AM

Thanks for this post. The example with the sea shells was useful. I'm beginning to get a feel for how to keep the project process going. I've started on a project with my 5yr old son and it was easy to get going but I've wondered about how to keep it moving since he is young. I need to think more about the provocations.

I had to laugh at the toaster idea. My brother was notorious for taking apart old appliances. He piece de resistance was taking apart the old Washing Machine when he was about 9.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 1, 2008 at 04:47 AM

michelle, that is wonderful that you are going to try a project with your 5yo. i've done projects with three- and four-year-olds, so five is definitely not too young. i think a key element is keeping some kind of notebook where you can keep track of his questions, ideas, etc. then when things slow down, you can reintroduce one of his earlier questions, misconceptions, ideas, etc. good luck, and i look forward to hearing more about it!

Comment by Nancy on November 1, 2008 at 02:38 PM

Hey Lori--
Can I be a bit of a pain here? :) I am in head-nodding agreement with this post, love the picture of slowly feeding a fire. And yet . . . some of this makes me feel like I have to be so bloody careful and choose my words with tweezers and make sure not to *ruin it all* with one wrong move. (Kind of makes me think of those awful "how to win a man" books in which you can never show too much interest or feeling lest you lose him forever.) You've said that screwing things up is fine and I know it's mostly about the effort, not just the successes. But I do hesitate a good bit for fear of botching things with my real, authentic enthusiasm -- seems so weird to bury that (but I simultaneously know what you're saying about kids pulling back from that is completely real). I can't really bring this full-circle with a conclusion or theory, but I wanted to share this feeling. (And I am heeding your suggestions -- I just put one, single book about Pompeii on hold, leaving the others to be discovered by my daughter, or not. That shows a serious amount of restraint for this input-loving mama.) Thoughts? --Nancy in NC

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 1, 2008 at 05:29 PM

nancy, i think your question is so valuable, i’m going to make it today’s post. :^)

Comment by Thimbelina on November 2, 2008 at 07:49 PM

Thank you so much for this post, my daughter loves things to do with art and I think that may be the way in with other subjects that she has shown an interest in. I shall give it a go

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 2, 2008 at 08:19 PM

thimbelina, you are very welcome — let me know how it goes!

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