interest-led learning

Here’s an article I ran across this week:

Are we obsessed with children’s interests?

Reading that title I preemptively started rocking back and forth and whimpering in anticipation.

The article is actually a very good description of how many educators whiff the opportunity to help children dig into their interests (“whiff” as in swing the bat but fail to connect with the ball).

A better title would be “Why do we keep giving kids OUR ideas and lame activities instead of helping them make their own ideas happen?” — because the problem isn’t with children’s interests, the problem is in how we respond to them. Let’s toss out the bathwater, but please, please, let’s keep the baby. Children’s interests are key to generating the important ideas this writer values.

The problem isn’t supporting children’s interests, the problem is how we respond to them.

If we respond with attention and support in an environment where kids are in charge of doing what they want the way they want, interests are a gateway to deep and lasting learning.

If we respond to every question or spark of interest with a flurry of our own ideas, we take away children’s autonomy — we make their ideas unnecessary. When autonomy goes, motivation and engagement follow.

The writer of this article bemoans the fact that teachers aren’t engaging with children’s thinking — a definite problem. But why turn on children’s interests? Or our interest in their interests? That’s moving a further step backward — now we want them to do challenging work in an area that WE have chosen. We’re not just saying, “Your interests are crap — here, do this instead” … we’re saying “School/learning isn’t about doing things that interest YOU.”

The last thing we want is to have children think of learning as something that has nothing to do with them.

You won’t see children’s best work if you maintain 100% control over what they do and how they do it. You won’t help them become self-directed learners and doers. And you risk children coming to believe learning is “stuff other people give you to do and then they judge it and tell you whether you did it right or not.”

The writer describes an unfortunately typical response adults have to a perceived interest — we do not want to do this:

“A recent example was an educator who noticed a small group of children playing ‘restaurants’ in the sand play area — on one occasion — and interpreted this to be children’s interest at play. The very next day she had set up a dramatic play area in the shape of a restaurant and was ready with activities for menu making, cooking and a party for the mums that Friday. However, when the children arrived, they completely ignored the restaurant and went off on another ‘interest’ based play activity for the day.”

All that work of creating a restaurant in the dramatic play area should, of course, be done by the children themselves — and it should happen organically, not because an adult suggests it. For it to happen organically, the environment must be ready, the interest must be genuine, and the adults hanging around must be attentive and appreciative without getting in the way.

As we say so often in the master class, the process itself teaches you how to support children’s interests. If the interest fades away quickly, if you overstep and they tune out, if it is abruptly dropped because of a lack of space or materials — all of these outcomes help you figure out how to do better the next time. To become better, you must practice.

But this doesn’t mean children’s interests aren’t key to the enterprise; it just means you need to do a better job of supporting children to make their own ideas happen.

I’m concerned about why “interest” is in quotes up there (and elsewhere in the article). Are interests not real? Not worthy of our attention? Are children’s interests so fleeting they aren’t worth bothering about? Is the writer saying the teacher in the example is confusing anything the children focus on for five minutes with long-term interests? (I’m hoping it’s the latter.)

Agree 100% with what the writer says here:

We should seek those experiences that children return to time after time — and listen deeply to what children are telling us about the attraction of these experiences and how they might help us better understand our work with these children — rather than popping in and out of our meer cat holes looking for the puzzle, book, game or activity that we can give to children as our input in to this serious endeavour of searching for new meanings.
Yes, yes, yes. But I would add: If you’re new to supporting your children to be self-directed learners, makers, and doers, you may very well want to practice on any old short-term interest that pops up. The way you respond to a short-term interest says a lot to your child about how you will respond to something that is deeply important to them. It gives you the opportunity to say, look, I’m here to help you do things that you want to do — NOT to take over. And it gives you a chance to practice offering attention and support while letting your child stay in charge.
Those short-term interests can also give birth to further interests and pretty soon you have a project that started one place and ended up quite another. Several short-term interests that are linked can become a long, in-depth exploration. If we focus too much on finding an “ideal” project, we may end up discarding a lot of useful experiences that help our children AND ourselves become better acquainted with what doing meaningful work is really like. 
I winced reading through the comments on this piece. Professional educators struggle to get on the same page about what interests are and how they should be supported. Some have no respect for children’s very real interests in television shows, video games, comics, and so on — they are considered unworthy of deep attention. (If we discard children’s real and immediate interests, how likely is it they will ultimately focus on more academic subjects?)
This kind of picking and choosing doesn’t usually bode well for helping children make their ideas happen. When you start saying “this is okay, but that is not,” you swiftly diminish your opportunities for success — and you leave your children a narrow path toward deeper work. We should be opening up possibilities, not shutting them down.
Remember: ANY interest is more likely to be investigated longer and more deeply if it is supported — if it’s given space, time, materials, and attention. And children are more likely to do very long projects after they have experienced doing shorter-term projects — and you are not likely to be able to predict which is which before the work has even started.
I’m pretty sure that the author of this piece simply doesn’t want us to be obsessed with children’s interests to the exclusion of engaging with them intellectually about those interests. But clarity here is essential. Too many adults are struggling with this process. Stop paying attention to children’s interests and you’ve lost before you’ve even gotten started.
The truth is, as a society, in school and out, we are not at all obsessed with children’s interests. We demean them. We reject them. We overlook them. We pointedly ignore them. We claim they exist when we’re desperate to avoid a long-term obsession we’d rather forget. We try to usurp them. We push our own agenda and try to stay in our comfort zone — leading to a lot of lookalike projects in classrooms where teachers frequently replicate the projects they’ve seen at conferences or in books … leading to parents who are frustrated because they keep trying to build a campfire with damp wood.
If you’re doing the hard work of paying attention to your child’s actual interests and supporting them without taking over, you deserve celebration and support. It isn’t an either/or choice — interests OR ideas. It is an if-then choice — if interests are supported, then ideas flourish. We need to keep children in a space where their ideas are NEEDED. This means immersion in something that is meaningful to them, where they have space and materials and support, and where we aren’t getting between them and what they want to do, inserting our ideas instead of listening for theirs.
We need to support children’s authentic interests as an entry point to doing meaningful work, because the less we care about what children care about, the less likely it is they’ll be inspired to have ideas and need to make them happen.
This is the where the work begins, not where it ends.
Supporting children to do challenging work means resisting taking over at every stage of the process. Their interest. Their ideas. Their plan. Their choice of materials. Their budget to control. Their judgment about whether they met their goals. And so on.
We need to be absolutely clear when supporting each other down this path that we can’t have the good stuff at the end without doing the hard work at the beginning. We can’t simply shift children’s engagement, motivation, and commitment away from what they need and want to accomplish — school has been trying and failing to do that for a hundred years. Let’s stay obsessed with children’s interests and simply add being obsessed with their questions, their ideas, their thought processes, their suggestions, their plans, and every other part of what it means to be a thinking, learning, making, sharing, doing, whole person.

Interview on Interest-Led Learning

Published by Lori Pickert on October 18, 2012 at 08:07 AM

Come check out part 1 of an interview Christina did with me about project-based homeschooling on her site, Interest-Led Learning.

Project-based homeschooling is about learning how to help children stay with one idea longer. They have their own interests, their own questions, their own fascinations. We just have to pay attention to those interests and help them find answers to their questions and make their ideas happen.

Children can keep having a lot of different interests — we don’t try to keep them from getting excited about new ideas. We simply focus on supporting one strong interest so they can dig a little deeper and stay with it a little longer. We create a learning life that allows them to return to that interest again and again, over weeks and even months, until they are satisfied.

In essence, we encourage them to keep having a rich variety of interests while using projects to show them how much you can do with an interest.

Come read the rest!


Published by Lori Pickert on August 25, 2011 at 02:04 PM

Gever Tulley’s TED Talk about the importance of tinkering. Via MindShift.

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.

Real “hands-on” learning

Published by Lori Pickert on July 8, 2010 at 01:54 PM

Big ideas can always be watered down until they are almost nothing except the name, like painting with plain water.

In the world of learning, “hands on” is watered down until it means literally simply that kids get to use their hands. They get to touch something rather than just look at it from their desk.

When learning math facts, they get to hold some plastic bears. When learning science facts, they get to push a bean seed into the soil.

What does real “hands-on” learning look like?

When we hand over control to the children. When we pass them not the bean seed, but the lesson plan.

Children who have been trained to be passive learners simply watch and wait. They watch you do, and they wait for it to be over.

Children who are active learners look at everything as a possibility, a beginning, a spark. A starting-off point. They are looking to see what they can do with what you are showing them. They see it as something to be played with, manipulated, explored, tested for abilities and boundaries and potential.

A child who is truly allowed to get his hands dirty learning knows that his ideas are valued — not only valued, but absolutely essential. There will be no learning until he grabs hold and sees what can be done with this chunk of life in front of him.

This is about ownership. Are we going to put learning into their hands or keep a tight grip on it? Are we showing them the skills and tools of learning, then dictating how they use them? Or are we mentoring them so they can take over immediately and start apprenticing as makers, doers, creators, explorers, thinkers?

Children know the difference.

When a child reads a great book and then races to write his own mystery/sci-fi adventure/secret code, he is grabbing learning with both hands. He is taking what he experienced and turning it into something brand new — he is learning with his hands, his brain, his whole self.

Whatever he confronts — a new type of story, a movie, a science experiment, a building material, an art technique — he must know that (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.

Creating knowledge, making it with his own two hands and his own ideas, sharing it with someone else, seeing what they do with it, using their new ideas as yet another jumping-off point — this is what our family culture must celebrate.

Real hands-on learning is this: Everything is here for you to work with.

You can build something new with it. That new thing comes from you and only you. And I want to see what you do.

Passion requires autonomy

Published by Lori Pickert on February 10, 2010 at 10:31 PM

Parents who want their children to discover a passion for music, sports, or other hobbies should follow a simple plan: Don’t pressure them.

“Passion comes from a special fit between an activity and a person,” said Geneviève Mageau, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal. “You can’t force that fit; it has to be found.”

In one study, the researchers followed 196 middle-school students as they picked up a musical instrument for the first time. After five months, the psychologists found that one major variable that predicted whether children developed a passion for music was if their parents allowed them the freedom to practice on their own schedule. The passionate kids on average scored 9 percent greater on the autonomy scale than the non-passionate kids, which is a big effect in a psychology study, Mageau said.

“I’m not telling parents to let their kids do whatever they want without limits,” Mageau said. “The most important message is to focus on the child’s interests and not to impose one’s own on them.”

Want Passionate Kids? Leave ’em Alone (thank you to Sarah for the link)


We had a somewhat difficult time finding music teachers for our sons who would honor our desire to not force them to practice. I made it very clear that we wanted them to further develop their love for music and do whatever they wanted to with it, and we did not care about speed or amount of progress. Still, twice we had to replace teachers who pressured the boys or scolded them for not practicing enough.

My younger son only practices piano 5 to 10 minutes a day, but he loves music and writes his own pieces.