Inquiry-Based Learning

Curating their experience

Published by Lori Pickert on July 13, 2010 at 01:45 PM

A response to Real Hands-On Learning:

This part makes sense. I get making an environment that my child can feel free to explore and move in new directions and try things. But when do you rein things in? I know 4 is young but sometimes I feel like we just try lots and lots of things without sticking to any of them. Our small pile of unfinished projects makes me squirm when I walk by it.

How do you balance the freedom to try things with creating a calm ‘space' for exploring things deeply? Maybe it's just summer but I feel like we're at a life buffet lately and we keep taking little tastes.Stacey

Our mission is to integrate two big ideas:

1 - children owning their own learning


2 - digging in deep instead of just skimming around on the surface.

How do we combine them?

Yesterday’s post (Real “Hands-On” Learning) was about making sure that when a child confronts something new, they know

(1) it can be worked with — changed, played with, experimented with, altered, extended, turned upside down,

(2) he is capable of working with it, and

(3) he is allowed to work with it.

The first goes to experience. Has he had ample opportunity to explore materials, tools, experiences, places? Has he mostly been a passive observer, or has he been handed the building blocks of learning and allowed to play with them? Has he been given a significant period of playful exploration to learn what materials and tools can do? Has he been encouraged to play with new ideas and experiences — to literally incorporate them into his play?

The second goes to self-knowledge. For a child to become a self-confident thinker and learner, he needs ample time to develop the skills of self-directed learning through play, exploration, experimenting, building, making, sharing ideas, asking questions, and solving problems. A child who has a long history of being a scientist, artist, explorer, writer, actor, storyteller, teacher, student, organizer, etc., will continue to develop those talents as he grows and as his interests become more sophisticated.

The third goes to family culture. Is knowledge something that children are encouraged to build themselves? Do they have input into what is studied and how? Are their ideas respected? Are they co-constructors of the curriculum? Are they used to getting their hands dirty with whatever is in front of them? Is yours a culture of play, exploration, and curiosity? Are mistakes accepted as the norm so that fear of failure is replaced with determination to succeed? Is learning seen as static — a fact is a fact, memorize it and spit it back — or malleable — here is some knowledge to experiment and build with?

How do we combine that idea with letting children lead, following their own interests, with the idea of staying in one place long enough to dig in deeply? If they’re in charge, doesn’t that mean they can skim to their hearts’ content?

We curate their experience.

This is a negotiated curriculum, a shared and mutually respectful learning realtionship between learning mentor and child. Each of you plays a part in building something important — both a long-term project and, more important, a successful self-directed learner.

How do we curate their experience?

We create the space in which they work. We make the time for them to work. We give them our focused attention and support.

We draw them back, gently, resolutely, to their own ideas and questions so that these important things aren’t lost and forgotten. We put up a bulletin board, help gather research materials and constructions/drawings into one place, talk about our project and share it with others.

We name what we are doing so that it stands out as something meaningful. We are working on a project; we are studying this. We are learning about it; we are teaching others what we learn. We honor meaningful work because it is something important to us.

The work that the children do is incredibly important, but our work is equally important. We create the circumstances under which they can manage and direct their own learning. We help them remember what they wanted to know and what they intended to do — their unfinished plans. We get them the materials they need — or supply a budget and a ride so they can get them themselves. We ask good questions. We listen. We help them articulate their own questions and figure out how to find their answers. We celebrate their work so that they know it is important. We invest space, time, and attention.

The child’s role is active — playing, exploring, reading, writing, drawing, painting, building, constructing. But the learning mentor’s role is just as active. You are engaged, talking, thinking, drawing, photographing, listening, supporting, watching, asking, exclaiming, sharing — and you’re also doing and sharing your own meaningful work. You show your children what it means to be engaged and interested and working with knowledge. You show them what it means to connect with community and share questions and answers. You make your own learning — your small wins AND your mistakes — visible. You are a true co-learner and a true collaborator.

When their attention wanders (and when the world constantly peppers them with distractions), your focus helps gently draw them back to their own interests, questions, and unfinished plans.

You not only help steer them back to the questions and ideas they haven’t fully examined, you create a supportive learning environment that helps accomplish that same goal. Work space, bulletin board, books and artifacts, xeroxes and sketches — the environment also helps gently remind them of the work they are doing.

Each of you plays a vital role.

He has interests. You create an environment that reflects them and supports independent exploration.

He has questions. You help him keep track of them and find his own answers.

He gathers facts. You help him put them into a larger context and see their relationship to one another.

He has ideas. You help him explore and articulate and share them.

He has plans. You help him make them happen.

Not that ironic

Published by Lori Pickert on February 9, 2010 at 03:18 PM

Why should we be working toward incorporating more real-life tasks, carefully structured group work and multidisciplinary projects in our classrooms? For one thing, the countries that are eating our lunch in those international tests use them — and their assessments reflect the higher-level thinking skills involved, too. And because well-done inquiry learning is centered on, reinforces and integrates the acquisition of useful knowledge. Ironically, many homeschoolers take their children out of public schools so they can adopt wholesale progressivism: long-term projects, lots of field trips, passionate pursuit of individual interests.

So why do some people insist — obstinately persevere in asserting — that project-based learning is fluff? That inquiry is an “ed school orthodoxy”? That discovery learning has nothing in common with a rich, planned curriculum?

— Nancy Flanagan, Fluff and Nonsense

Designed to raise children, not test scores

Published by Lori Pickert on February 7, 2010 at 02:36 PM

Our current educational approach — and the testing that is driving it — is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike.

In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on.

What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run. Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.

Along the way, teachers should spend time each day having sustained conversations with small groups of children. Such conversations give children a chance to support their views with evidence, change their minds and use questions as a way to learn more.

Our success depends on embracing a curriculum focused on essential skills like reading, writing, computation, pattern detection, conversation and collaboration — a curriculum designed to raise children, rather than test scores.

— Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams College, New York Times Op-Ed column Playing to Learn

The value of work

Published by Lori Pickert on December 11, 2008 at 01:17 PM

A visiting teacher is standing in our preschool classroom, surrounded by three-, four-, and five-year-olds who are busily working and playing.

There are children in every part of the room doing every type of activity — reading, writing, drawing, painting, building, singing, dancing, playing house, putting on a puppet show.

Her: How much time are the children required to spend working on their project?

Me: None.

Her: So, they are required to do anything?!

Me: No.

Her: They why do they do it?!

Now, I understand what she was saying, but I still find it a little depressing. So, two ideas:

Work is enjoyable.

Healthy, happy people seek meaningful work.

Do you agree with these statements? Do you believe them for adults? Do you believe them for children?

Do you believe them for yourself?

In my experience, young children eagerly seek out meaningful work, and once they have the opportunity, they apply themselves to it joyfully.

The word “work” can have negative connotations — for grown-ups and children who associate it with “something I don’t want to do”. Play and leisure become identified with “things I want to do”. A child can be taught that “work” is something that he has to do, whether he wants to do it or not. And he can remember that lesson forever.

Many teachers — and administrators, and parents — beileve that children must be coerced to do work. They can’t believe that children would choose to work when other choices are available.

The other day we asked the question, Can you teach an autodidact without being an autodidact? Can we foster values in our children that we don’t actively live ourselves?

That teacher recognized something happening in our classroom that she wanted for her own students. But she was held back by her beliefs — her belief that work is a negative thing, and her further belief that children would never purposefully choose to work when they didn’t have to.

Can we help our children find the joy in meaningful work if we haven’t found it ourselves?

I believe children have the right to meaningful work as well as play, that there is joy to be derived from each, and that they are not mutually exclusive. I know that children don’t have to be coerced to work, but a school or family culture that celebrates work is more likely to introduce them to its pleasures. And once they have experienced it, they will seek it out on their own.

Once a child is on a path in which work brings as much joy as play, and the two mingle freely, I believe they are on the path toward a happy adult life. Not a life without problems, without mistakes, without strife, but a life rich with possibility. To give them that life, we may need to change our beliefs — we need to believe in what is possible in order to show it to them.


See also: The Work/Fun Conundrum

Homeschooling autodidacts

Published by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2008 at 07:04 PM

I want my children to teach themselves.

How do you teach someone to teach themselves?

The other day I saw this sentence: “The goal of classical education is to teach the student to enjoy investigation and learning.” How do we teach a child to enjoy investigation and learning?

If you believe (or want to believe) that children are powerful and can construct their own learning — do you believe that about yourself?

Often we champion one form of learning while trying to transmit it in an entirely different sort of way.

Thus: The school that hired me to teach their staff about Reggio-inspired, project-based learning, but wanted me to ram it down their throats in a traditional “learn it, memorize it, repeat it back, start on Monday” sort of way.

No wonder education majors and new teachers are a bit wobbly when they are told “follow the interests of the children … and do it exactly like this.”

“We want to encourage curiosity, individuality, and self-expression … for the children, not for you. You, we want to follow directions and do as you’re told. Stick to the script.”

To champion a form of learning for your children that you wouldn’t use yourself seems … hypocritical at best.


If we want children to teach themselves, can’t we accomplish this best by modeling it? by teaching ourselves the things we want to know and sharing that process with our children?

If we want our students to be self-directed learners, shouldn’t we trust our teachers to find their own paths as well?

Can you homeschool an autodidact without being an autodidact?

The necessity of diversity

Published by Lori Pickert on December 4, 2008 at 02:58 PM

I am a possibilist. I believe that humanity is master of its own fate. … Before we can change direction, we have to question many of the assumptions underlying our current philosophy. Assumptions like bigger is better; you can’t stop progress; no speed is too fast; globalization is good. Then we have to replace them with some different assumptions: small is beautiful; roots and traditions are worth preserving; variety is the spice of life; the only work worth doing is meaningful work; biodiversity is the necessary pre-condition for human survival. — Robert Bateman, naturalist

If we acknowledge that biodiversity is necessary for human well-being, why do we educate by checklist?

What happens when we iron out the wrinkles of diversity, uniqueness, individual strengths and aptitudes in our children?

When we embrace a standardization of education, can we simultaneously promote the richness of variety in ourselves?

If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place. — Margaret Mead

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. — M.M.

Checklist for learning

Published by Lori Pickert on December 2, 2008 at 07:32 PM

I once worked with a school that told me they couldn’t do projects (even though they wanted to).

Why? Because they had to meet the state standards. And to do that, they had to teach each standard one by one, checking them off a big list.

I pointed out that we taught to the state standards. They were astounded. How ever could this be? We followed the children’s interests hither and yon.

We crossed off each standard as we covered it, then we looked at what was left over and either looked for opportunities to incorporate that material meaningfully or simply taught it separately.

The administrator said to me, dubiously, “Well … but we don’t have a sheet for that.”

It’s not a matter of needing a new checklist; it’s only a matter of allowing people to use that checklist in a flexible way.

The only real difference is allowing teachers to check off items not in order. Don’t plan ahead; plan along.

Flexibility is a skill. If we want to encourage it in our children, we should probably learn to utilize it ourselves.

Project-based homeschooling: Planning

Published by Lori Pickert on December 2, 2008 at 03:28 AM


Don’t plan ahead — plan along.

Plan the environment.

Plan time to observe and document.

Plan one-on-one time. 

Plan to supply resources as they are needed/requested.

Plan time to collaborate.

Plan time to reflect.

In a traditional curriculum, all the planning is done ahead of time, and determination of success is based on how closely the learning follows the plan, how well the student learns the facts pre-chosen by their teacher.

Learning through projects doesn’t require less planning, just an entirely different sort of planning. Rather than planning outcomes, which can’t possibly be predicted, the adult plans to observe the children, document their learning, give them what they need, collaborate and reflect on the project’s progress, assess the children’s learning, and determine how best to support it.

Deciding that you won’t pre-define what your children will learn opens up the possibility that they will learn so much more than you ever imagined possible. We owe them that possibility.

In our work, we speak of teacher planning, understood in the sense of preparation and organization of space, materials, thoughts, situations, and occasions for learning. — Carla Rinaldi

It is true that we do not have planning and curricula. It is not true that we rely on improvisation, which is an enviable skill. We do not rely on chance either, because we are convinced that what we do not yet know can to some extent be anticipated. What we do know is that to be with the children is to work one third with certainty and two thirds with uncertainty and the new.

…We can be sure that the children are ready to help us. They can help by offering us ideas, suggestions, problems, questions, clues, and paths to follow; and the more they trust us and see us as a resource, the more they give us help. All these offerings, merged with what we ourselves bring to the situation, make a handsome capital of resources. — Loris Malaguzzi


Accidental learning

Published by Lori Pickert on December 1, 2008 at 07:21 PM

Every day I make an effort to go toward what I don’t understand. This wandering leads to the accidental learning that continually shapes my life.

— Yo-Yo Ma

Points of entry

Published by Lori Pickert on November 24, 2008 at 02:15 PM

Picture the whole body of possible knowledge as a globe. Children learning through projects begin at a very particular place — like reaching out and touching the tip of one finger to the globe … and that interest spreads in lines of inquiry … which branch into new lines of inquiry … and if you were given infinite time, you would eventually go everywhere, know everything — all venturing out from that one spot.

Everything is connected.

Project-based learning allows children to apply — and develop — their basic skills while pursuing a strong personal interest. It supports and enhances general knowledge (reading, math, reasoning, problem-solving, creative thinking) and it respects and honors individual interests and talents.

In a project, we talk about points of entry — a topic should offer many different places to enter, like a house with many doors. A group of children can find different ways to relate to the topic, which honors their varying interests, talents, and temperaments.

If the topic is the bakery, some children might be very interested in cooking, some in the business aspect (the cash register, the money), some in the building, some in the machines (oven, bread slicer), and etc.  In this way, a single topic can hold wide appeal for a large number of children — in a classroom or in a family.

As they study and learn, even though they may have a strong interest in a very particular part of the project, they share their enthusiasm and their knowledge so that at the end, every child knows everything that was learned.

Even a child working on a project by himself will, following a single interest, touch so many related pieces of knowledge and, following a single line of inquiry, open so many other lines of inquiry. There is no part of our world that lives in a vacuum; to reach out and touch one part that particularly interests you is like touching the surface of a still pool of water. Everything you discover leads on to new and interesting territory.

Everything is connected.

See also: Limits can be so… limiting