Mistakes are valuable

Published by Lori Pickert on November 13, 2008 at 04:20 PM

What happens when we don’t allow and even encourage mistakes?

When we step in and redirect, when we say “that won't work — do this instead”?

When we fail to make it clear that if we aren’t making mistakes, we aren’t learning?

We create a culture that doesn’t tolerate mistakes … and if mistakes aren’t tolerated, then neither are

• hypotheses

• innovation

• creativity

Allowing mistakes — admitting that they are inevitable in a life of making and doing — allows us to build habits of mind like

• flexibility — the willingness to try another approach

• perseverance — the willingness to try again

• collaboration — the willingness to ask others for input

School administrators may dictate to their staff that children should be allowed to make mistakes, but are teachers allowed to make mistakes? Are they allowed to try their own ideas? Are they encouraged to innovate and allowed to fail?

As parents, we may say “it’s okay, it’s okay” from the sidelines, but are we nervously reaching out to give advice or prevent failure? Are we giving the distinct between-the-lines impression that it is NOT okay?

Do we try to hide our own mistakes from our children, or do we cheerfully acknowledge that something didn’t go well and model perseverance?

Do we try to hide our own mistakes from our family, our friends, our community? Our children are watching. What message do we send when we try to put forth a false view of perfection? That it’s better to look perfect than admit fault? That perfection is achievable and it’s better to lie than admit failure?

How can we change things when we accept mistakes and begin to see their value?

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. — Linus Pauling

Fall down seven times, get up eight. — Japanese proverb

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. — Calvin Coolidge


Part 1: Mistakes are good

Mistakes are good

Published by Lori Pickert on November 12, 2008 at 12:57 PM

It is so easy to accidentally step on our children’s toes, to get in their way when they are learning.

We want to raise children who are creative thinkers and dynamic problem-solvers, yet when they are about to try something that won’t work, we immediately say “that won’t work”.

Letting them try and fail allows them to experience a small failure and handle their disappointment, overcome it, try something else, persevere, maybe try a third and a fourth time, and eventually experience authentic self-earned success. You can shorten that experience (or even eliminate it), but you’ll be taking away learning — taking away their chance to become truly resilient.

Are we so wrapped up in our own egos that we can’t allow our children to fail, even a little bit, even just momentarily? Do we feel like we’re better teachers if we make sure everything they do looks “right” from the beginning?

Learning to handle small failures, learning how to try again and not give up — these are lessons that they can use later in life, with bigger problems.

Also, when you don’t immediately redirect to the answer that you think is best, your children will sometimes surprise you. Their solution will work. Maybe it’s unorthodox, maybe you are sure it won’t last, maybe you “know” you have a better solution. But if your child is satisfied, let it be. Again, perhaps it will fail eventually. Then they will have to deal with it.

We want teenagers to make good decisions — about very important issues. But how much experience have they had making any decisions at all?

Smoothing your child’s way when they are small may actually make things harder for them when they are older.

Let them exercise their decision-making now. Let them learn to handle disappointment and frustration now.

What better preparation for life could we give them?


Part 2: Mistakes are Valuable


Who decides what you can and cannot do?

Published by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2008 at 03:47 PM

A visitor stands in our classroom, surrounded on all sides by children at work. A child in a sparkly purple cape is painting at an easel. Three children sit with their heads together over a book. A child is making a book next to another child making a set of cards. Two children sing and dance on a stage, while another pretends to film them. Two children with clipboards are sketching a telescope near where a small group of children are working on a very large construction.

They are in the midst of a months-long project on space. They are three and four years old.

The visitor stands with her hands on her hips, slowly shaking her head. “This topic,” she says, “is too complex for preschool children.”


A visiting educator shakes her head as well. “Children should do projects on things that are in their own backyard! Children can’t visit outer space!”


Adults, especially educators, do like to decide what children can and cannot do, what they should and should not learn.

So I tell them this story about one of our students and her father.

A three-year-old girl jumps up and down with excitement in her kitchen at home, greeting her tired father who has just arrived home from work.

“Daddy! Daddy! Let’s look at the stars!”

He is tired, and he just stepped through the door. He sighs. But of course he loves his daughter, and he has been putting her off for a little while. “All right, sweetheart. Give Daddy a minute.”

She careens around the room in excitement, bubbling over with talk and gestures.

A little while later, he zips her into her jacket and lifts her up. Gives her a hug. They open the door and step out into their backyard.

“Daddy!,” she cries, pointing excitedly. “Orion!”

He raises his eyes, then looks back at his tiny daughter. His heart swells. “Where, honey?”

“There! Those three stars are Orion’s belt! And look, there’s the Big Dipper!”

Overwhelmed, he lets her slide to the ground. He crouches beside her. He lets her show him the stars.

Who gets to decide what we’re interested in? Who gets to decide what we can and cannot handle? what we can and cannot understand? Who stands between us and what we want to know and tells us where we’re not allowed to wander?

Yes, space is very far away. But it’s also right in our backyard.



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.

Image-makers and knowledge-builders

Published by Lori Pickert on October 28, 2008 at 09:20 PM

“The key to developing confidence in working with children begins with watching. Take time to watch. Observe children’s absorbed attention, their total concentration, their sheer delight as they play with colours and shapes. Watch their gestures and facial expressions. Listen to their words. Appreciate what they do.

Most importantly, give children time — time to look and ponder, time to explore materials, time to repeat things over and over again. And offer materials and tools of the best quality you can afford, materials that let children shape their own ideas and enable them to realise their potential as image-makers and knowedge-builders.”

— Ursula Kolbe, Rapunzel's Supermarket: All about Young Children and Their Art

The youngest learners

Published by Lori Pickert on October 26, 2008 at 03:37 PM

I’ve read a rash of blog posts recently about homeschooling “the littles” — toddlers and preschool-age children.

Unfortunately, most of the suggestions are to gather interesting toys and/or simple activities to “distract” them from interrupting the important work of their elder brothers and sisters.

This reminds me of a teacher who asked me to remove two young three-year-olds from her preschool classroom because she felt they weren’t on task — they weren’t listening, they weren’t paying attention, and in her opinion they were too young to make a contribution to the project work the other children were doing.

First, teaching a group of multi-age children, whether at home or school, means there will be a range of abilities, interests, and maturity levels. If you have taught school, or if you have multiples, you know that teaching a group of *same-age* children means the exact same thing.

Second, there is no better place for a two- or three-year-old than being near focused work. (Of course, I don’t mean filling out worksheets at the kitchen table; I mean a group of enthusiastic, hands-on learners who are talking, asking questions, building, drawing, planning, arguing, helping, making mistakes, solving problems, making authentic art.)

Children who are too young to participate directly can still absorb how their brothers and sisters (or classmates) learn and make and converse and express — they can take in by osmosis the excitement of learning, the mastery of tools and skills, the pride of accomplishment, the management of emotions.

There is no better model or more powerful motivator than an older sibling or friend.

To shrug off “the littles” is to do a disservice not just to them — because two- and three-year-olds are just as capable of intense interests and engaged learning — but to ourselves, because there is no cure for the fever for learning. A very young child who has experienced the joy of learning grows into an older child who simply cannot be stopped — a relentless learner.

Fostering independence

Published by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2008 at 02:17 PM


Yesterday, I wrote about helping pre-readers research.

Every part of this has to do with fostering independence — allowing the child to be in charge of his own learning.

If you can’t read, you are at the mercy of those who can. But if there is a system in place for having someone read to you at a determined time the materials that you have chosen, then you are back in the driver’s seat.

If you can’t write, you are at the mercy of those who can. But if, instead of having to pester someone else to spell the word you want to write, you can look it up and copy it by yourself, then you are in control.

Not only do they get to decide which library books to check out, but they get to decide what is most important.

There are a hundred ways you can help your child work independently. Books and materials can be stored where they can reach them without assistance. Clean-up materials can be sized for small hands and, again, kept where they can be used without having to ask for help. Small children want to take responsibility, if you will let them.

Sometimes we get so caught up in everything we want our children to learn — literature, math, science, geography, language, music, manners — that we forget the most important things. How to make good decisions. How to handle disappointment. How to talk to other people about what matters to us. And so on, and so on. The curriculum of what really matters.

Helping pre-readers research

Published by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2008 at 01:25 PM

Some ideas for helping children who are not yet reading independently:

• Let them choose books at the library — and don’t restrict them to only picture books or books with very little text! They can choose books that they want you to read to them.

• Give them a pad of small post-its and let them flag pages that you (or an older sibling) will read to them later.

• Collect ephemera: posters, charts, postcards, brochures, etc. The more images to compare and contrast, the better!

• Look for videos at the library or on youtube; remember that you can watch only a part of a film or video with a small child — you don’t have to watch the whole thing. Remember also that they will probably want to watch their favorite parts over and over and over again.

• Make a Pinterest board with a selection of age-appropriate, project-related YouTube videos and other online resources. Your small child can now safely navigate this curated collection and choose what to watch.

• Do observational sketches together and ask them to tell you about their sketches as soon as they are finished drawing them — then again the next day. Pre-readers can “read” their own sketches. Just a few lines can prompt them to remember a great deal.

• Label the parts of their sketches, e.g., the parts of a fire engine: ladder, tires, bell. (Ask their permission first! You can also label a xerox of their original sketch.)

• Make illustrated lists of the commonly requested AND project-related words for your child’s reference. Your child can draw the illustrations or, if they prefer not to, digital photographs and xerox copies of book illustrations work great. Print the words large and clear with a black marker. Laminate these sheets if possible; children will use them for the length of the project. They can refer back to these lists when they want to write a word on a drawing, letter, sketch, construction, sign, poster, or book — allowing them to work more independently. (They won’t have to ask you over and over again how to spell, e.g., “dinosaur” or “Grandma.”) (Make illustrations small enough to put a group of related words together on a page, e.g., “Mommy,” “Daddy,” “Grandma,” and sibling names on one page, while a project-related page might say things like “firefighter,” “engine,” “hat,” “ladder,” “dog,” “hydrant,” etc.)

• Make sure your child knows that if they dictate stories, notes, letters, e-mails, and so on, you will be happy to write them down for him or her.  Make sure they understand that you will write anything for them that they need! If they are making very frequent requests, funnel them to your dedicated project time.

Pre-readers and pre-writers can research independently if they know they have a dependable resource for helping them find and decode the resources they need. You don’t have to be at your child’s beck and call 24/7, but you do need to be a trusted resource and you do need a dedicated time when you can offer your attention and support. It’s fine to say “Mark all the pages you want me to read and I will read them to you after lunch/at project time.” But be aware that if you don’t follow through a few times in a row, they’ll probably give up and stop asking.

This is just one way you can support your child’s investigations — being a trustworthy partner in learning, helping them locate and decode the resources they need.