Education

Comics project: Inquiry-based learning

Published by Lori Pickert on October 19, 2007 at 02:37 AM

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In our projects, we use an inquiry-based approach.

We keep track of our questions. In the classroom, we would keep a whole chalkboard full of them, or giant posters of questions divided by subtopic. At home, we keep a list in our journal.

Every question is valuable, even if we're not going to try and answer it right away. While the boys write their own questions in their journals, I also keep a list of questions in mine, perhaps things they wondered about but didn't think worthy of writing down. I might bring them up again later, if the project seems to have stalled, or if something related is being talked about. “Remember when you wondered…?”

In the classroom, disagreements are also fertile ground for inquiry-based learning. They might not be obvious questions, but they show that more information is needed. Even if the children decide they agree and move on, we'll write down a note about the lack of consensus, which again we can bring up later.

Making sure we keep track of ongoing questions is part of how we “facilitate” rather than teach. The point is to have the child(ren) drive the project. Their questions are what is important. Helping them figure out how to find the answers to their questions is the goal. Not giving them the answers. Not telling them the facts and saying “I’ll test you on these later.” And not providing them with a set of questions we devised. Helping them articulate what they wonder about, then showing them how to own the process of learning about something they want to learn about.

Some online resources on inquiry-based learning:

Online workshop: Inquiry-Based Learning

The Inquiry Page

Inquiry Page: Definition of Inquiry

Exploratorium: A Description of Inquiry

Project-based homeschooling: Choosing a topic

Published by Lori Pickert on October 11, 2007 at 07:51 PM

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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.”)

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Project-based homeschooling, part 2

Published by Lori Pickert on October 8, 2007 at 10:02 PM

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I wanted to write about J’s comic project, but I've been feeling like I needed to first go through some sort of introduction of terms and what I mean when I say “project,” vis-a-vis project-based learning.

Of course, I’m breaking my own rule (cough, guideline) by calling it the “comic project” (I want to call it the “comical project”) but I’m wide open to what direction it may take … and the fact that later we may be calling it something entirely different.

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Doing projects in the classroom means educating parents (and grandparents … and neighors … and well-meaning postmen). Parents are often doubtful that you can begin anywhere (absolutely anywhere) and get somewhere meaningful (and fast). Teachers who are trying to learn the Project Approach or the Reggio Approach are often dubious as well. After all, in school we separate out the subjects and follow strict learning standards and benchmarks to make sure everything gets covered. Project-based learning, seems, by comparison (to some) a little haphazard.

The fact is, with every project I’ve ever been involved with, the kids started at a particular point, sometimes quite obscure, and always — always — managed to end up with a very wide-ranging, dense web of knowledge. Like a spider spinning, it didn’t matter where they started — from the top of the mailbox, from the corner of the front gate — they always ended up with a big, showy web of knowledge, skills, and experiences.

yarn.jpgAnd when they learn this way — when everything is related meaningfully to everything else, and they are following a path of knowledge that makes sense to them — they have a much deeper, more complex understanding at the end.

Some educators believe that project topics should be chosen very carefully, and I believe that is more or less true for someone who is beginning their first project. After several years, however, I feel comfortable doing projects on virtually anything. It is an “approach,” after all, and I facilitate projects in my very own particular way, not following a set recipe devised by someone else. I’m informed by other educators’ methods, but I’ve arrived at my own way of working with children and projects.

Next, I’ll talk about how we choose project topics.

All pictures taken by J, age 7.

Project-based homeschooling, part 1

Published by Lori Pickert on October 7, 2007 at 01:46 PM

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In broad terms, a theme is a topic that you explore somewhat shallowly for a limited amount of time. In general, a theme links activities in topic only. So, a preschool or kindergarten class might have a weekly theme of “pumpkins” or “dinosaurs.” During that week, children might move from center to center, doing different activities related to the theme. In the math center, they might count and sort theme-related erasers. In the writing center, they might color some pages with facts about the theme, then assemble them into a mini-book. Et cetera. Themes in school are like themes at a birthday party — they determine the shape of the cake, the decoration of the goody bag, but basically any theme can be used for any birthday party and the essential elements are the same: cake, balloons, piñatas, goody bags.

Any facts learned about a theme topic tend to be adult-introduced. The adult selects the information to be learned ahead of time.

A unit usually implies the topic is being explored in somewhat more depth, usually by older children. A unit could last anywhere from a week to several weeks. During a unit on pumpkins or dinosaurs, children might dissect a pumpkin in class or make a diorama of a dinosaur habitat.

In a unit, adults select much (usually all) of what is to be learned. Children may learn some extra facts, for example while writing a research paper.

So what is a project?

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Projects are child-directed and child-managed. Of course, I’ve visited schools that say they are doing projects where the teacher is directing everything, but calling it child-directed. A teacher might say, “The children decided this is the direction they wanted to take, so I brought out these activities and those books and set up this field trip.” “Child-directed” is a delicate operation, and many times what I’ve seen in practice looks like a seventh-grade séance where an overzealous girl is manhandling a Ouija pointer.

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When I say child-directed, I mean the child’s authentic interest in the topic is the beginning, their particular enthusiasms determine what is done in the middle, and their determination that they’re “done” signals the end. They are in control of what is studied and how their knowledge is represented. They are directing and managing their own learning, asking and answering their own questions, setting and meeting their own goals.

Adults facilitate projects; they act as learning mentors. Some adults (teachers or parents) feel like they aren’t doing their job if they’re not arranging curriculum, setting up field trips, choosing books and materials, finding activities and crafts, and assigning work. They’re supposed to be teaching, right? But there is another way. The adult can work in concert with the child, providing the materials the child says he needs, arranging field trips to places the child says she needs or wants to visit, helping the child figure out how to get the information he needs to answer his own questions.

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Projects are open-ended. They last until they’re done — as decided by the child. There is no set time limit.

Projects are not linear. To define a project at the beginning (e.g., “We are doing a project on apples!”) can doom it to failure. From that point, you consciously or unconsciously delete everything that doesn’t fit into your project title (which is in danger of becoming your theme). Projects are organic and fluid; they grow in all directions. They can only be safely named at the end. A project that begins with an interest in apples could go in the direction of farm equipment, trees, cooking, birds, etc. You get the idea. If you start constricting what the project is, you will almost certainly be killing off the thing that makes a project successful — the child’s intense interest and ownership. Projects should really be named at their culmination. (The child can, of course, name his own project and call his work whatever he wants. You should just resist trying to define that work too soon.)

Projects integrate basic skills. Rather than teaching all subjects in isolation, when a project is under way, the adult looks for opportunities to pull in basic skills. Learning about whales, four- and five-year-old children can count and measure as they make life-size drawings of different sea creatures. Learning about Shakespeare, a third-grader might carefully measure, add, subtract, multiply, divide, use fractions, and calculate area in order to build a model of the Globe Theatre. Whatever basic skills can’t be acquired naturally during the project can still be taught separately if that is important to you.

The specific knowledge gained during a project is controlled by the child. Rather than having an adult determine what is appropriate for a child’s age or attention span, the child will begin at zero and take it as far and wide and deep as he or she wishes. There is no limit to what can be learned. The child determines what they can do rather than the adult.

Caveat: Some people say they are doing themes or units, when the way they work is actually more oriented toward project-based learning. These definitions don’t define what you do, they define how we talk about learning.

I'll be writing more about how we homeschool using project-based learning.

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