Strong, capable, resourceful

Published by Lori Pickert on October 20, 2008 at 01:52 PM

How does our image of the child affect how we work with children?

Do we believe children are strong, resourceful, and capable of constructing their own learning?

What do strong, resourceful children need from a teacher?

How do we help children understand that they own the learning process? that these skills and tools are for them, for pursuing their passions?

Is it important, or necessary, for children to practice using learning skills and tools for their own purposes?

Does the way our children learn convince them that they are strong, resourceful, and capable of constructing their own learning?

What do students want?

Published by Lori Pickert on October 18, 2008 at 02:15 PM


Most teachers have a fairly good idea of what they want from students. They want students to become people who can think intelligently and creatively, communicate clearly and expressively, critique freely, work for the common good, and link consciousness to conduct (Ayers, 1991).

But what do students want from teachers? — “Instructional Design for Inquiry”


Creative players of childhood

Published by Lori Pickert on October 17, 2008 at 02:20 PM


What happens to the creative house, store, and restaurant players of childhood in middle school? Children who invented new worlds, objects, and environments and set up everything as a great display at home come to school and say they have no ideas. It is these home players — the ones who can design all spaces, animate all objects, and design any new project — who need support. — George Szekely

Assessing project learning

Published by Lori Pickert on October 5, 2008 at 03:39 PM

I answered a question from Megan in the comments here, which I thought was important enough to share here in the main blog:

You *can* assess your children’s project learning. You can, for example, download your state’s learning standards for your child’s appropriate grade and keep track of what goals and benchmarks your children meet as they progress through their project. Then, if you wish, you can cover the material unmet by the project in other, more direct ways.

Most schools use the standards to plan what they will teach, thus breaking learning up into pieces that correspond to the different subject areas (math, language arts, science...) and even to the specific benchmarks. This is an example of “teaching to the test”.

Project learning is holistic. Reading, writing, researching, drawing, constructing, measuring, computing, experimenting, comparing, contrasting, discussing, reporting... But you can still identify work done during the project as meeting those original learning standards. You just do it as you go along, and you plan to make up for anything that isn’t covered.

Allowing children to learn this way requires trust – trust that delving into a long-term project really will give children what they need. In a school setting, it requires the administrators to trust the teachers — that they will make sure the students are meeting the learning standards and that they will address any areas that aren’t satisfied during the project work. It requires allowing classrooms to do different work — because every group of children will create a unique project. Usually, schools are not comfortable with this. In homogeneity is safety.

The need to assess varies greatly among homeschooling parents, but is uniformly very important to institutional educators, who at every level are required to meet standards imposed from above. This need has created a situation where students are learning facts and skills that are disconnected from each other and from real life.

Authentic learning requires authentic assessment.

This week, I’ll talk about keeping a project journal (parent’s, not child’s), which can be a tool for ongoing assessment if that is something you want to do.

Reinvent the wheel

Published by Lori Pickert on October 3, 2008 at 03:27 PM

When we grown-ups set out to do something, we always want to stand on the shoulders of those who went before. We don’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel.

With project work, however, we do want to reinvent the wheel.

We want to start at square one and not a bit past it.

It’s easy to inadvertently squelch a child’s budding interest by simply answering a question.

A question is a beginning. If a child says, “How?” or “Why?” and we give them the answer, that is the end.

No, you can’t give every question a coronation. Children ask a lot of questions.

But a question, given the chance, will turn into two more questions. And so on, and so on, fed by interest, until a whole world opens.

Imagine the whole of knowledge in the form of a globe. You touch anywhere on the globe, and it connects to everything else, eventually.

Six magic words: “I don’t know. Let’s find out.” Whether you know the answer or not. Those magic words are the equivalent of swinging open a door for your child and letting him, or her, step through. Then you follow.

No, you can’t open that door to every single question an intelligent, inquistive child will ask. But you can open one.

Once children are helped to perceive themselves as authors or inventors, once they are helped to discover the pleasure of inquiry, their motivation and interest explode. — Loris Malaguzzi

Project-based learning: A teacher’s perspective

Published by Lori Pickert on April 16, 2008 at 05:43 PM

My good friend Emily, who used to teach K-3rd at my tiny private school, left a great comment on my post Observational drawing: Where do we go from here?. It was so great, I’m going to reproduce it here in its entirety so more people can see it.

I know this comment is after-the-fact for this conversation, but I am a "late reader" and so I'm only seeing this for the first time.

As soon as I read your post, Lori, I knew I *had* to write a comment because I still think about all the wonderful things that happened during our instrument project. Learning the instrument families --- no! Becoming *experts* on instrument families, learning how sounds travels, making the ears, the "Keyboard Controversy," all of it was amazing. It's all become a magical memory for me. One that keeps me motivated to keep trying projects in a public school setting even if it is hard and sometimes frustrating. One that reminds me all that children are capable of --- so much more than I sometimes give them credit for. One that encourages me to challenge kids. One that makes me mourn the loss of that class, and the simple fact that my own son will not ever get to experience that moment with those circumstances. (Although I hope to recreate it for him at home.)

Thank you for giving me another moment to relive that year!

I also wanted to share another story related to the "keyboard controversy." As estea pointed out, the piano is a string instrument, and, of course, we knew that as well, but the PROCESS they took to learn that fact was much more worthwhile for them since they had to discover it on their own. They learned so much more than how to classify a piano. They learned that everything written in books isn't necessarily true, as you mentioned. They learned how to debate. They learned how to make hypotheses and conclusions. (In the end, they decided that a piano was, indeed, a string instrument, BUT an electronic keyboard was a percussion instrument since it doesn't have strings.)

The story I was thinking of happened about that same time. A child in the class became very interested in the Loch Ness Monster. He asked me if it was real, and, of course, I answered, "I don't know. Why don't you try to find out?" So, he did! He checked out books on the subject, interviewed his classmates to see what they thought, and we probably looked online for information too. And then all of sudden, one day, his interest was gone. *Poof!* No more discussions, no questions, nothing. When I asked him about it, he replied, "Oh, I asked my dad what he thought, and he said it wasn't real. So now I know." And just like that, he lost so many valuable learning opportunities.

And now I've rambled for long enough. Thank you again, Lori, for writing about this!

Emily, thank you so much for taking the time to share this.

Confidence issues and the young artist

Published by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2008 at 01:29 PM



My kids most of the time see what I've drawn and right away start complaining that they can't draw and that they want me to draw it for them, or saying "I don't know how to draw it". — Heather

Never draw for your children. It sets up a dynamic where they are going to try to copy your example, and that's not what we're after. We want to observe and try to draw what we see, not mimic someone else's drawing.

Instead of drawing for your child, talk to them and support their efforts.

The child who says "I can't draw!" or "My drawing looks terrible!" is expressing a lack of confidence or maybe just looking for confirmation or denial. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by something that seems too difficult.

If they complain that they are making mistakes or their drawing isn't good, point out that we have to make mistakes when we are learning something new. If we aren't making mistakes, we aren't learning.

Focus their attention on what they are drawing. Talk together about at which point they might start drawing the object. Have them trace it with their finger before they start. Talk about all the things they notice about what they are drawing — the textures, the details.

Try breaking the exercise down into smaller tasks. "Can you draw this line?" Once they have drawn that line, "Can you add this detail?" It is always helpful to ask, "What do you think?" They will usually point out to me what they haven't yet drawn, or some detail they've so far ignored. They may point out something they don't like about their drawing. "It's too small." "It's the wrong shape." In that case, say, "I see what you are saying. Why don't you draw it again over here [on a blank piece of the paper or a new sheet]."

Let them see that they are learning. This is why I like to use a sketchbook. Flip back and look at their first drawings and ask them what they think. Can they see their own progress? Remind them that the two things that will make them better at drawing are observation and practice.

My son compares his drawing to his older brother's and becomes upset and says he doesn't want to draw anymore. What should I say? — Pam

If a child compares himself to an older friend or sibling or to you or another adult, point out that that person has simply had more practice than he has.

When my younger son made this same lament, his older brother said, "You are a much better artist than I was at your age — when you are my age, you will probably be better than me!"

If I was working with a child and they admired my work, I would say a genuine "Thank you!" and maybe "I've been working really hard on this." (Modeling desirable behavior.)

If the child went on to say, discouraged, "I'll never be that good", I would point out how much progress they've made and/or point out how much better I get when I practice. (Praising effort, not results.)

I have a question about using erasers--how would you handle objections?? My oldest is Mr. Perfectionist and I can already hear him griping at me for suggesting this. Any ideas?? — Jill

My older students especially can spend the entire class erasing and trying to perfect each line as they go. Stress that sketching is practicing and when you stop being happy with your drawing, instead of erasing you're just going to move to another part of the paper (or a new page) and keep drawing.

How about a little sports analogy? If your son was practicing batting, he would hit 100 balls in a row. He wouldn't stop every time he missed one and say, wait, pitch that one to me again — I need to redo that! You just keep practicing and after hundreds of balls, you're a much better hitter.

How do you encourage them to follow their own ideas instead of feeling like they should copy you? — Michelle

Copying isn't necessarily bad. In the clasroom, we loved to see kids copying each other, because they would get into a fantastic group dynamic, extending each other's work. For example, child #1 makes an aquarium by wrapping a piece of cardboard into a tube. Child #2 "copies" the first child and also makes an aquarium, but he finds a piece of acetate in the recyclables and makes a transparent tube. Child #1 goes to find his own piece of acetate and make a new, transparent aquarium. Child #3 is now on the scene and also wants to make an aquarium — but he adds beads to the bottom for rocks and tapes cut-out fish to the sides. You can see how this kind of dialog improves everyone's work.

I wouldn't necessarily assume that a child lacks confidence in her own ideas if she switches to making the same thing that you are making, or the same thing as the child next to her. In some ways this can be "restaurant syndrome" — I thought I wanted a salad until you ordered the club sandwich. I had an idea, but once I saw your idea, that looked great, too!

If your child has a lot of opportunities to make authentic art — preferably every day — they will eventually work on their own ideas. If you sit down to, say, play with wire sculpture with your children, you might hang back and wait to see what they are making and encourage their efforts.

Try having your child draw from her imagination while you are nearby but busy with some other activity — cooking dinner, for example. Have her tell you about her drawing while she makes it. "I'm drawing our house. This is me. This is you. This is Daddy. This is Grandma coming to visit" etc. When you are making art together or with a group of friends, try not to worry too much if she's "copying" someone else's idea. She will probably add her own ideas, like seasoning, and she is still getting great experience learning about the materials and what she can do with them.

Related stuff:

Drawing with your children

Drawing with your children, continued


Drawing with your children, continued

Published by Lori Pickert on March 17, 2008 at 06:17 PM


The best reason for drawing with your children occurred to me only after I wrote the last post. (Of course!)

If you don't draw with your children, then you are getting out the materials, sitting down with them, talking about the goals of the drawing exercise, and then .. what? If I was drawing — and trying something new — it would make me nervous to have you sit and watch me! I would wonder how you thought I was doing, if you thought I was doing a good job, if I was doing it right or wrong. I would know you were watching me, and I would realize you were judging my work.

When I bake with my children, we put on our aprons, get out the bowl and measuring cups and ingredients, divvy up the tasks, and we get to measuring, mixing, stirring, spooning, etc.

I don't step back and have them do everything because I'm worried about intimidating them with my awesome baking skills. We work together, side by side, cheerfully, as a team.

This is the same kind of cooperative environment that I am suggesting for making art.

I'm not sitting and watching you draw (with an implied judgment). I'm just sitting here drawing, too, concentrating on my own work. We may show each other what we did, and we may talk about what we like and don't like and how successful we thought we were (talking about our own work), but I'm not here to critique a child's work.

Draw with them, but don't draw for them.

So, again — draw with your children! Show them that's it about the fun of acquiring a new skill, not about you judging their efforts. Get on their level and draw alongside them. It's fun!

Art lesson: Free exploration/ working purposefully

Published by Lori Pickert on February 24, 2008 at 07:41 PM


Imagine two children who are asked to paint a picture of their house. The first child hasn't used these paints before, or for a long time. The second child was given them to play with yesterday.

The first child is a bundle of frustration. The paint colors are running together! My house is beige, not brown, and I can't make the color I want! I used the black paint and now I've ruined the yellow paint. And now it's all dripping on the floor! I quit!

The second child learned a lot yesterday just by playing with the paints and painting several pictures. She waits for one area to dry before painting next to it with another color. She mixes new colors on a clean sheet of paper. She cleans her brush carefully between color changes. She is working intently. When she finishes her first painting, she talks about it and then asks for another piece of paper. She's ready to try another.

The child who was given time to play and explore can now work purposefully.

If you paint two big wet spots next to each other, the paint will run together. Imagine how interesting and fun this can be when you are just playing and experimenting — watching the yellow paint swirl with the blue, and then the center is turning green.

Imagine how disappointing and discouraging this same effect is when you really wanted a yellow dress covered in blue flowers.

The lessons we learn during play, we apply when we are working to create something important to us.

To work with a purpose is to choose deliberately, with a definite goal in mind.

Imagine two children sitting down to draw a bird with a collection of pencils. One child hasn't used these pencils before; one has. Who will be more successful? Even pencils have different personalities — hard and soft leads make different kinds of lines, we can apply too much pressure so they break or make a hole in the paper, color can be dragged across with the edge of our hand and spoil our work.

To work purposefully is to reach for a material or a tool confidently, choosing it because we know what it will do.

We cannot work purposefully until we have become familiar with the materials and tools.

Free exploration means we have no goal in mind, we're just seeing what this material can do and what we can do with it.

We learn through play, and what we learn, we can use when to create work that is important to us.

(W)ith a sense of certainty, play is almost always mindful. People take risks and involve themselves in their play. Imagine making play feel routine; it would not be playful. In play, there is no reason not to take some risks. In fact, without risk, the pleasures of mastery would disappear. … We tend to be more adventurous at play because it feels safe. — Roger Kelly, Leisure

(Did you figure out this was a lesson for you and not for the children? :^D)

Children Make Sculpture

Published by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2008 at 05:27 PM


I ordered this book after I saw Lena's copy.



“This book attempts to show children involved in making sculpture. Their work does not have to be good, finished or artistic. What matters is the activity itself and the knowledge gained by the child…”


This book was written in 1972. It is the work we did with children from 2000 to 2007, and it is the same message we tried to spread through our own work with children, workshops and conferences, and educational consulting.

It is not a new message. We are saying the same things that Elizabeth Leyh was saying in 1972; unfortunately they are still largely ignored. We were constantly having to explain to parents, education students, teachers, visiting administrators, etc., that what the children were doing was important and meaningful and a better use of their time than coloring in a mimeo book about apples or making a follow-the-directions craft.


Many of the books that sustained me during the running-a-private-school years were written decades earlier. Yet the vast majority of the work with children that we observed in both public and private schools didn't reveal one one-hundredth of what we knew children were capable of doing, making, experiencing, and expressing.

That's not to say we shouldn't keep trying. What I'm trying to say is, we must keep trying.