project-based homeschooling

Small Wins Wednesday: Observational drawing

Published by Lori Pickert on February 26, 2014 at 09:21 AM

Carrie shared this photo of her daughter’s project notebook on Twitter: “Notebooks aren't just for grown-ups! Love my kid's #pbh book.”

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Every Wednesday we’re going to share a small win from the forum, Twitter, the Facebook page, or (with the writer’s permission) from the mail bag.

 

Family field trip to the dam for their National Engineering Week event. For the first time packed clipboards and paper for sketching, per Lori’s suggestions. To be honest, I thought they would just be something extra I had to lug around for five hours, but something utterly unexpected and utterly amazing happened. My son made five different sketches. Three of them were during the guided tour into the powerhouse where he had to sketch fast. I thought that would discourage him but it didn’t.

Later he said his favorite thing was the sketching, although he amended it to second favorite. First favorite was going partially inside a generator.

Bonus: In an attempt to model sketching, I sketched my own version of the powerhouse generators. The ranger who accompanied the tour said to me, “You’re BOTH artists!?” I looked at my *sketch* and had to chuckle. “Ya…ya…I guess we are.” — Kat, from the current Master Class forum

 

Why do we share small wins? Because we put on our attention on what we want to grow, and we want to leverage those small victories. We support each other, celebrate each other’s successes, and we do everything we can do make more of the good stuff!

Have you had a small win this week, whether it’s related to PBH or not? Please share in the comments!

How to save a child’s love of learning in one easy step

Published by Lori Pickert on February 19, 2014 at 07:51 AM

This is the way that it works — and I ran a school, after-school, and summer learning program for seven years plus I’ve taught numerous homeschool and adult workshops and I have two homeschooled children who have learned this way since they were in preschool and are now in their teens, so this is from life experience, not pie-in-the-sky idealism.

If you give children complete control over SOME PART of their learning, they will not only rise to the occasion and attack their interests with gusto, but they will turn around and approach all of their required learning with a newfound sense of self-confidence and self-determination. They will look for a way to learn that fits their new sense of themselves as people with interests, abilities, and important ideas.

Do you want your children or students to love learning? Don’t say “Here, we know what’s best for you — sit down, be quiet, and listen.” But also don’t just say “Go, do whatever you want.” Do better than that. Support their interests and their self-chosen work fully — with your attention, your time, your space, and your cold hard cash. Invest in their interests. Invest in their talents. Instead of letting them ride in the back seat while you take them on a wonderful adventure, show them how to drive the car. Mentor them to be self-directed learners.

If you do that, they will figure out that learning is how they can do the things they care about — the things they want to do. Once that switch is flipped, they may still be disappointed, frustrated, or disconnected when they’re forced to do dull, meaningless, irrelevant tasks, but at least they won’t call that “learning.”

They may be more demanding, more inquisitive, and they may interrupt more because they have more confidence in their own ideas. But on the whole, wouldn’t you rather have a child whose insistence on being in charge of his own learning disrupts your plan rather than a quiet, bored child who can’t wait to do what’s necessary so he can escape?

Teach children to direct and manage their own learning and they will love learning because they own it, they control it, and they can connect it with everything else they love.

Prioritize this one step and all the others will fall away because they just don’t work anymore.

 

See also: Ten steps to getting started with project-based homeschooling (whether you homeschool or not)

and

“We’re not just making learning less fun, less meaningful, less useful, and less relevant, we’re actually making it less educational.” — Self-directed learning: the neglected subject?

Job crafting: Passion matters after all

Published by Lori Pickert on February 8, 2014 at 03:54 PM

I saw Cal Newport on Brainpickings this past week reiterating that following your passion is a big mistake, so I reshared my own take on that subject (and my review of his book):

Career advice tomes like this are not written for project-based homeschoolers — or for other homeschoolers/unschoolers who have already had years to deeply explore their interests.

Newport’s book has some good advice for 18-25-year-olds who have been pushed toward achievement their whole lives and who have a non-reality-based, pipe-dreamy idea of what they’d really like to do, which they call their “passion.”

It’s advice for people whose interests have never been connected with their work in any meaningful way.

Most career advice is for kids who came up through the regular system. It won’t help kids who were educated via an alternate path.Why Skills Don’t Trump Passion

Recently I was reading through If I Knew Then — advice from the graduates of Harvard Business School class of ’63 — and there was a lot of advice about passion:

As my good friend and author, Richard Leider, says, “Heed your life’s calling — that inner urge to give your gifts away.” This requires being clear about your gifts, values, and passions, and using them as a compass to find your career path. It is an “inside-out” process. — RichardI L. Peterson

Try to find your passion — what you love thinking about and doing. If you can find a career doing something you are already passionate about, the finances will flow, along with a better balance in life. — Jim Utaski

To greatly enhance the odds of enjoying a career which is both fulfilling and successful, one must find an endeavor, a subject, métier, process, environment for which one has a passion. — Charles Hale

Choose work you enjoy and that serves as many people as possible. Focus on serving others — not on building wealth. Serve well, and money will follow. — Norman Barnett

Work and pleasure are not synonymous, but they’re not opposites, either. Loving what you’re doing (well) can be infectious and motivating to others. Ultimately, that’s leadership. — Rod Murtaugh

Decide you like what you do, and do it better and smarter than anyone else. If you can’t, change your career. — Joan O. Rothberg

But maybe that’s a case of retroactive memory.

Then I ran across an academic paper about job crafting that seems to support the idea that passion actually does matter — because it makes work more meaningful and more enjoyable.

Job crafting is when individuals actively shape their jobs to inject them with more meaning and purpose and connect them with — you guessed it — their passions.

“[J]ob crafting … may help employees get more enjoyment and meaning out of work, enhance their work identities, cope with adversity, and perform better.” — What is job crafting and why does it matter?

By thinking about where they invest their focus … employees are able to re-craft their jobs to better align with their strengths, passions, and values.” — The building blocks of a year worth living (Psychology Today)

Crafting your job to better align with your values and your deep interests makes your work — and your life — more fulfulling.

Interestingly, not everyone is capable of crafting their job. Those who are able to do it need certain attitudes and abilities — ones that resonate with self-directed, self-managed learning:

“A job crafting perspective implies that the tasks and interpersonal relationships that make up a job are a flexible set of building blocks that can be reorganized, restructured, and reframed to construct a customized job. These building blocks expose employees to a variety of resources — people, technology, raw materials, etc. — that can be utilized when job crafting. The success of a job crafter may depend largely on his or her ability to take advantage of the resources at hand.” — What is job crafting and why does it matter?

In other words, a person has to be able to actively take charge and seek out opportunities — they have to know it’s possible and then they have to take the initiative to do it. Because no one else is going to customize your job for you — it’s something you have to do for yourself. No one else is going to figure out where your personal interests and passions can be connected to your career — that’s up to you.

The secret to high performance and satisfaction — at work, at school, and at home — is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world. — Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

If you aren’t used to directing and managing your own learning and shaping your own projects, then you may not realize what’s possible. If you haven’t experienced meaningful work, you may not continue to seek it out.

When we give our children the opportunity to direct their own learning, we are giving them the experience they need to know how to be self-determining and we’re giving them the skills they need to live their best lives.

Giving meaning to those educational buzzwords

Published by Lori Pickert on December 3, 2013 at 09:19 AM

What skills will you need to succeed in the future?

I shared the above infographic (found here) on my Facebook page with a note saying “We need to compare the skills listed in this infographic with the education/experiences our children are receiving and adjust accordingly.”

I got an interesting comment:

Lots of buzz words in that poster....would be great to discuss actual ways to carry out these suggestions.

Leadership, critical thinking, collaboration — are these just buzzwords today?

How do solid skills become buzzwords?

When the path isn’t clear. Everyone agrees that critical thinking sounds essential, but they go home mystified as to how to really teach it. You see it mentioned in blog post after blog post but there’s no clear steps laid out showing how to incorporate it into what you’re already doing.

When it’s all talk and no walk. Everyone agrees collaboration is an essential skill, but it isn’t built into the curriculum. The new budget shows us investing in desks, not tables. The new schedule doesn’t allot any meeting time for children or adults.

When inspiring ideas aren’t followed up with ongoing support. Whether it’s a professional development day, conference session, workshop, book, TED talk, or blog post, everyone gets all excited about a great-sounding idea — but then, left to figure out how to put it into action on their own, with no ongoing support when things get difficult, that great idea never gets off the ground. Disappointment sets in until the next exciting new thing … that dies without support. And then the next. And so on.

They’re not buzzwords because they aren’t real or achievable  — they’re buzzwords because in some places, they’re just noise and no action. Not this place though.

So, back to what I said about this infographic:

We need to compare the skills listed in this infographic with the education/experiences our children are receiving and adjust accordingly.

Buzzwords or no, these are real skills your child needs.

If you look at how your child is learning (notice I said how your child is learning, not what your child is learning), do you think they’re acquiring these important habits and skills for thinking, learning, and doing?

If the answer is no, then you move on past the buzzword to:

What experiences does a person need to acquire these skills?

With PBH, these deeper thinking and learning habits are the curriculum:

Leadership

From the graphic: Take a cross-disciplinary approach to project teamwork. Participate in leading and following.

What does this actually mean? Kids need experience playing every role in contributing to a team effort. They need the chance to be the oldest and the youngest, the most experienced and the least experienced, the one who spearheads the effort and the one who makes a contribution. They need experience seeking out opinions from the group and they need experience speaking up and offering an opinion when they aren’t in charge. It’s not enough for them to always be the follower or always be the leader, always be the youngest or always be the oldest — you need to make sure they are getting a variety of collaborative experiences.

Concrete ways to achieve this goal: Don’t always mix with the same crowd where your child slips into the same position each time. Your child will find it easier to step into a new role with adults and peers who haven’t pigeonholed who they are and what they can do. Encourage your child to dig into interests whether you think they have natural talent or not — don’t feed the idea that they should only do things they excel at. Help your child start organize their own group activities and start their own communities. Make sure you haven’t pigeonholed your child — change their environment, invest in their motivation, and wait to see what they can do.

Critical Thinking

From the graphic: Engage in self-directed, project-based, and applied learning.

What does this actually mean? If other people are preparing your learning experiences, they’re cutting your intellectual meat for you. By the time kids are teens, they should know how to prepare their own curriculum: know what they want to learn, choose their own resources, research at the library and online, locate mentors and experts and peers with similar goals, communicate clearly with each of those people, create communities, and so on. If they can’t do this, they haven’t received an adequate education. How do they get these skills? By developing them from the very beginning.

Concrete ways to achieve this goal: Help your child become a self-directed learner. Help them work on projects that last weeks, months, and even years. Don’t constantly introduce new things. Help them dig deeply into a single idea. Practice slow learning.

Communication

From the graphic: Learn in an environment that requires participation in many modes of communication.

What does this actually mean? You can excel at classroom learning by figuring out what the teacher wants and giving it to them. You can do this without ever really understanding or caring about the material. Being adept at communication requires having something you want or need to say, understanding it yourself, figuring out how to articulate it to someone else, then delivering it in a way that makes sense for that specific situation. It requires knowing how to talk, how to write, how to persuade, how to ask, how to be polite, how to engage in social media, how to use images to convey ideas, and so on. It requires moving from a one-way-only form of learning and sharing to a flexible and freely transferable way of learning, thinking, doing, and connecting that is platform-independent.

Concrete ways to achieve this goal: Tap into your child’s self-motivation. Start by helping them care enough to want to communicate. Then help them find an audience. Help them share. Help them publish. Use tech for something other than entertainment — help them produce what they consume. Don’t think you have to teach them how to do everything, therefore limiting them to the modes of communication you’re comfortable with — invest in their interests and their ideas and help them connect with experts who can help them do what they want to do. Don’t turn everything they do into a teaching/grading momentgive them some area of their learning life where they don’t have to worry about spelling and grammar and can focus on their ideas. Give them the opportunity to care about improving their own abilities — which means getting out of their way.

Collaboration

From the graphic: Choose work that is collaborative and measure success by team results. 

What does this actually mean? Collaborative work is work done by a group of people who are combining their efforts to meet a large goal. Why measure your success by team results? Because if the team isn’t happy, then it wasn’t a collaborative effort. You need shared meaningful goals and a process for working out how to meet those goals together.

Why is collaboration important? Because you can’t do everything yourself. You need friends. You need colleagues. You need mentors. You need cohorts and followers, employees and colleagues. Collaboration teaches children how to translate what they want to do from their bedroom to the real world.

Concrete ways to achieve this goal: The best way to teach your child how to collaborate is to show them by being a good co-learner. You are their first audience, their first mentor, their first friend. When you help them own their own learning, you are collaborating with them on their education — creating a negotiated curriculum.

Next, make sure they have the opportunity to work with other kids and adults toward a shared goal. This can be as simple as inviting friends over to help with a project. You can create your own communities and groups focused on your child’s deepest interests. You can help them find places in your community where they can contribute to goals they care about.

Collaboration is how we get things done, and we want to help our children become people who can make their ideas happen.

Adaptability

From the graphic: Take advantage of flexible work schedules and learning platforms to work, raise a family, volunteer, and learn.

What does this actually mean? In my opinion, nothing. It’s an advertisement for the University of Phoenix, which prepared the infographic.

What should it mean? Adaptability is the ability to fit yourself to the situation. You don’t sit around complaining that the world isn’t giving you what you need and want — you figure out how you can change what you’re doing in order to meet your goals even when conditions are less than ideal.

Concrete ways to achieve this goal: Stop saying you don’t have enough time to do the things you want to do and learn to use the time you have. Show your child how to get up, dust themselves off, and start taking action on your goals. Can’t afford to get them the tools or materials you wish they could have? DIY it. Barter. Have a bake sale. Team up with some like-minded friends. Stop advocating and start doing. Can’t find the experiences, communities, or opportunities you wish they could have? Create them. Slowly realizing your daily life isn’t aligned with your deepest goals? Make a fresh start. Constantly taking one step forward and two steps back? Stop preshrinking your opportunities.

Believe in yourself so you can believe in your child. It isn’t about the conditions — it’s about what you do, every day: your choices, your actions. Get out of your own way. Know that you can keep going, keep working, keep improving, so you can help your child know this. It’s what you do that matters, so start doing the things that matter most.

Productivity and accountability

From the graphic: Provide a code of conduct in learning situations to build accountability and productivity.

What does this actually mean? Hmm, not much. A bit circular, am I right?

What should it mean? Productivity means getting things done. Accountability means someone is expecting you to get those things done and tracking your progress.

Concrete ways to achieve this goal: Help your child set their own big goals, break them down into achievable tasks, keep track of their plans/ideas/intentions, post reminders in their workspace, and remember what they want to do. Set aside time dedicated to doing their meaningful work — make it as important as the commitments you keep to others (dance class, tae kwon do, etc.). Create a family culture that honors meaningful work.

Regularly meet with them and talk about their big goals, their plans, what they need from you, and how they plan to proceed. Help them be accountable to themselves first and foremost. As they move into the world and contribute to different groups and collaborative projects, they will be held accountable by coaches, teachers, friends, and bosses. This is your opportunity to help them own their own goals and learn to make their own ideas happen just because it matters to them.

Innovation

From the graphic: Seek out learning environments that build technology and media fluency.

What does this actually mean? They blew this one entirely. Let’s move directly to…

What should it mean? Innovation doesn’t equate to technology. Innovation is doing things in new ways.

“Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” — Theodore Levitt

Concrete ways to achieve these goals: Innovation is something that is probably overemphasized. Many businesses succeed not by innovating (doing something complete new) but by solving an existing problem in a useful way. Tim O’Reilly had this to say about innovation:

In the latest issue of Wired, Tim O’Reilly, the brilliant technology thinker and book publisher, offered his corrective on innovation, in this case with respect to entrepreneurs: “The myth of innovation is that it starts with entrepreneurs, but it really starts with people having fun. The Wright brothers weren't trying to build an airline, they were saying, ‘Holy !*&#, do you think we could fly?’ The first kids who made snowboards, they just glued skis together and said, ‘Let’s try this!’ With the web, none of us thought there was money in it. People said, ‘This document came from halfway around the world. How awesome is that!’”

So what if we all stopped trying to “innovate” — and started trying to have fun and really do something new? And what if we set ourselves a more basic (and more authentic) set of challenges as we look to the future:

What difference are we trying to make in our field? What do we care about? — Please can we all just stop innovating?

To help your child be creative and innovative, you have to give them adequate time. You have to help them see themselves as people with great ideas who can do interesting things.

As to building technology and media fluency, stop fighting about screen time and help your kids make something awesome. Dump your scarcity mindset and realize that your kids can love video games and books, TV and the outdoors.

Accessing, analyzing, and synthesizing information

From the graphic: Seek out a curriculum focused on real cross-functional issues to help you think about how issues interconnect.

What does this actually mean? Cringing at that awkward phrasing. I don’t know what they’re trying to say here, so let’s move on to…

What should it mean? Your child needs access to information, and they need the opportunity to analyze and synthesize that information themselves.

Concrete ways to achieve this goal: Stop cutting your child’s intellectual meat into bite-sized chunks. Give them direct access to resources, knowledge gatekeepers, experiences, artifacts, and so on. Don’t hand them library books — help them ask the librarian for help and let them sort through the books and choose the ones they want to bring home. Don’t find cool science experiments and neat crafts for them to do. Let them find their own cool stuff. Skip the faux-DIY/hacking/making groups that still have adults doing all the real work. Give your kid the tools, the control, the space, and the support to make her own ideas happen and slowly accumulate the knowledge and skills she needs to do that.

Don’t just answer your child’s question and cut off a potentially rich line of inquiry. We already know how smart you are. You have nothing to prove. Give them the opportunity to dig into an interest and generate their own questions then find their own answers.

Help them find multiple resources with different points of view and decide what they believe and why. Don’t stop with one or two books — let them range about and find different perspectives and opinions.

Embrace rigor. Get your kid out of the backseat and into the driver’s seat, and do it now. I’ve worked with three-year-olds who could do this. How is it we have teenagers who can’t?

Entrepreneurialism

From the graphic: Develop the ability to solve current and relevant issues.

What does this actually mean? I heavily edited their text to get down to the nut of how they were defining this and it’s pretty weak. If they’re saying that a successful business should solve a real problem, that is correct. However, it doesn’t really address how to nurture entrepreneurialism.

What should it mean? Work is changing. Every person needs to operate as an entrepreneur, even if they work for someone else. In today’s work world, everyone needs to run their career the way they would run a small business. That makes these skills essential.

Concrete ways to achieve this goal: Teach them to own. Help them develop authentic self-confidence. Give them the opportunity to start businesses now, as children and teens. Help them become financially literate. Show them how their interest connects to real jobs and real businesses.

I started my own company when I was 22, fresh out of college. I ran that business for over 20 years. I founded and ran a private school. I’ve worked as a consultant. I’m not just talking through my hat here. I know what it takes to start and run a business and I think it’s an essential skill that every child should learn — but not every child does. Most adults suffer from a lot of wrong ideas about business ownership, and they pass those along to their kids. The biggest wrong idea is “that’s the kind of thing other people do — people who aren’t like us, people who have more money and more contacts, people who have more experience and went to better schools” and so on and so on. Not true. Your child may grow up to have a traditional job (if they still exist), but they may instead be part of the freelance economy. Help them master all of the skills on this list and they’ll be ready for that.

Global citizenship

From the graphic: Learn in a diverse classroom to gain opportunities to build cross-cultural understanding.

What does this actually mean? Get out and mix with a diverse group of people. Don’t always stick with people exactly like yourself. Don’t let your learning experiences be too homogenized. Get experience now with meeting, talking with, and working with a wide variety of people.

Concrete ways to achieve this goal: Eschew labels. Mix it up. Diversity isn’t just about skin color or religion. It’s about connecting with people who have different ideas and vastly different experiences. More and more we are moving toward a global economy, a global community. The last PBH Master Class had participants from over a dozen different countries. I have good friends I speak to every day who live across the globe from me. The internet has made the world easier to navigate — you don’t have to get frisked at the airport to travel somewhere new every day. This is the new reality: your neighbors aren’t just the people who live on your street and your friends and coworkers can live anywhere.

Take a real look at this list. These aren’t just skills that can help you get a job. These are skills that can help you do the work you most want to do, whatever it is.

If the buzz sounds good, and the skill or experience seems valuable and worth having, you’ll probably have to do the hard work of figuring out how to make it happen for yourself and for your child. No one is going to hand you a prepackaged curriculum for authentic, self-directed learning — you have to build it yourself. Set big goals, break them down, find experiences, make connections, and build your own learning life from scratch. Sure, it’s harder than clicking the “Like” button. But it’s what we want our kids to be able to do — so we have to walk that path ourselves.

In the end, it’s only a buzz word if you click away. If you’re willing to do the work, you can have the reality behind the noise.

Permission to be yourself

Published by Lori Pickert on November 19, 2013 at 10:32 AM

Today I was reading William Zinsser’s newest book of essays and was struck by what he said about his students, mostly women, who take his memoir-writing class:

Most of them are paralyzed by the thought of writing a memoir. How can they possibly sort out the smothering clutter of the past? But mainly it’s fear of writing about themselves.

… I want them to think of themselves as people — women who lead interesting lives and who also write, trusting their own humanity to tell plain stories about their thoughts and emotions. Why do they think they need permssion to be themselves? “Who would care about my story?” they say. I would. I give them permission to write about the parts of their lives that they have always dismissed as unimportant.

What Zinsser does for his students is what we do for our children when we support them to pursue their own meaningful work.

If they begin early enough, they may never hesitate and think that they need permission to be themselves. But if they start a little later, or if they hear messages from peers and the other people around them: Shh, don’t embarrass yourself. Don’t embarrass me. You’re not good enough. You’re not old enough. You’re not smart enough. Maybe later. Shh.

These messages don’t even have to be spoken out loud; they come through as gestures and grimaces and parents changing the subject. Enough of that and they may believe no one cares about what interests them. They may doubt that anyone will be interested in what they have to say. They may doubt whether they can be writers and artists and builders and makers. Does the world need or want what they can offer?

By being your child’s first audience, you send the message: Someone cares about what you think. Someone cares about what you make and do.

By supporting their work, whatever it is, you show them that they can produce what they consume. They can contribute something of their own. Their perspective and their opinion matters. Their ideas matter.

Many of us are paralyzed at the thought of doing whatever it is we want to do. We think no one cares or wants to hear what we have to say. We think our contribution is so negligible, it’s not worth anyone taking notice — and if they did take notice… well, our heart beats faster just at the thought.

When we do our own meaningful work and when we make it possible for our children to do theirs, we’re helping them avoid falling into this trap. They don’t need anyone’s permission to be themselves. They don’t need to be picked. They don’t need to be praised or rewarded. Their ideas matter. Their opinions matter. Their interests matter. The sooner they learn that — the sooner they know it’s true — the sooner they can own their feelings, their interests and talents, and their life.

Make sure they know they have your permission to be themselves.

It looks good on the surface. Adults love to see kids wearing protective goggles. They’re hacking! They’re tinkering! They’re making! It’s STEM-y or even better STEAM-y! These kids are going to figure out how to get us to a new Earth-like planet when the inevitable dystopian future arrives!

It’s not that we’re not moving in a good direction. Doing it yourself? Good. Making? Good. Hacking and tinkering? Good.

The problem is that everyone has sat down and taken out their picnic things and said, “Whew! Great, this works for me!” But we’re only partway toward the good stuff. We’re stopping too soon.

We’ve got a partial handle on it, but we could do so much more for the kids. Better options are right there within our reach. We just need to go a little further.

If you’re excited about a DIY/maker/hacker/tinker-like group or activity, please take a hard look and ask yourself these questions:

- Are the kids’ ideas driving the making/hacking/tinkering?

If your child’s ideas aren’t required, then keep looking.

If you are thinking, “Well, my child doesn’t have any ideas” or “What if my child doesn’t have any ideas?” or “My child only likes to do X and I hate X,” then you are treating this as an “apply externally” situation (“apply learning experience liberally to your child’s exterior; wait for projected results”) when you really need to be diving deep to find out what your child cares about and what your child wants to do.

- Are the adults doing all the teaching?

Is peer-to-peer teaching happening? (Are kids teaching other kids?) Do kids have the opportunity to turn around and mentor someone else? Do they get to grow in their role from beginner to expert?

Is all the learning happening unidirectionally, with kids absorbing what adults are teaching?

Are skills being learned from a variety of people of different ages and backgrounds, or do all of the “experts” look alike?

Are kids encouraged to create learning tools for other kids?

Do adults have all the power positions?

- Is there an adult-imposed schedule or adult-imposed deadline?

Authentic learning does not thrive inside an imposed structure. How can it? All kids do not learn at the same pace. Any time there is a structure that sets time limits, some kids will be bored and others will be left behind.

Authentic learning generates questions which require research that in turn requires talking to people, finding resources, and discussing relevance. None of those things can happen if we all have to have our remote-controlled planes finished by the Maker Faire six weeks from Monday.

Major red flag: adults doing kids’ work for them, doing work for kids who have missed sessions to “catch them up,” or finishing their work for them in order to meet a deadline.

- Are adults jumping in to solve kids’ problems or tell them what to do to avoid problems?

Authentic learning is problem-producing and problem-solving.

Do kids get the opportunity to make mistakes, discover problems on their own, brainstorm with peers, seek out help when they decide they need it, and solve their own problems?

A streamlined learning experience smooths off all the rough edges and the rough edges are generally where most of the learning happens.

- Do all of the projects look the same?

When you start nit-picking (please, come sit by me), you’ll hear a whole lot of “Well, you have to start somewhere.” But that is frankly a cop-out. You do have to start somewhere — so why start *there*?

If you see a table full of kids working with identical-looking projects in front of them, then you are looking at something that is not authentically self-directed or self-motivated. It is just a “cool,” “fun” project that an adult dreamed up for some kids to do, that an adult planned, that an adult organized, and that an adult carefully translated into directions the kids could follow. Look at all the work being accomplished *by the adult*. That is so much closer to what we expect to see in a classroom and too far away from real learner-centered education.

Sitting at a table following instructions is the equivalent of sitting on the bench. Kids need to be on the field, not on the bench.

- Are kids following directions to complete a project?

Again we hear “You have to start somewhere!”

Again, there are a million opportunities in life to follow directions and make something that looks like the sample. Prioritize kids’ ideas. Prioritize individuality. Save the group cookie-cutter projects for another day. If you never get to them, it will be *fine*. Their value is negligible if not zero.

- Are children offered limited choice?

If a child’s input into a project is deciding which stickers to apply to it, that is not a good thing.

- Are follow-directions projects jumping-off points or ending points?

Okay, you-have-to-start-somewhere people, this is your chance for redemption. What happened after that follow-directions project? Did the kids explode off into a dozen different directions with ideas of their own? No? :: buzzer sound ::

If kids cycle from one follow-directions project to the next, with everything on a time schedule (“We have to finish our rockets this week because next week we start remote-control planes!”), then what you’re looking at is not innovative, not learner-centered, and not offering deep understanding or long-term engagement. It’s the same old hash repackaged as something new. Don’t be distracted by the protective goggles.

- Is there a revision stage (or, preferably, many revision stages)?

The lack of a revising stage is a red flag for an adult-imposed schedule. If there isn’t time to do multiple iterations and revise your ideas, your ideas are not going to be deep, complex, or layered.

Everything should be open-ended. Work should be done until mastery is achieved *and only the learner should decide when mastery has been achieved*.

If a child is ushered through a “project” from beginning to end without the chance to share with others at various stages then return to their work to revise, add, subtract, extend, ask for help, take suggestions, and so on, then the learning potential was severely diminished.

I saw an infuriating video (can’t locate, sadly; it’s possible I destroyed it with my rage) where an adult leader chuckled over how one child only realized his (very individual) project couldn’t work at the very end, when it was (according to the adult-imposed schedule) shared with other children and someone pointed out his mistake. The child was not given the time to go back and improve on his idea. The project was over; everyone moved on. So what was the point?

Real learning requires testing and revision.

- Are kids getting peer feedback during the making progress?

See just above. Kids should be collaborating, supporting, learning how to offer and ask for help and how to say a polite “no, thank you.” They should be copying one another, getting excited by each other’s ideas, and extending one another’s ideas. They should be challenged by what another child does with their idea and want to go back and incorporate that child’s extensions into their own original plan.

If that is not happening, again, what is the point?

Real learning requires multiple iterations, feedback, collaboration, and sharing.

- Are the children working on REAL real-world problems or FAKE real-world problems?

There is a horrible trend among educators to give students “real-world” problems to solve — but the problems are fake.

In a more recent project, Richardson was surprised when her students became so invested in a project to reduce poverty in their area that many of them became genuinely upset when they found out that their plan would not be enacted. — read the article here

Please, no. No, no, no, no, no. Do you think these children who put forth tremendous effort and were emotionally and intellectually invested in their work only to find out they’d been *tricked* tackled their next project with the same level of enthusiasm? I’m going to guess no. Are we motivating children to become “lifelong learners” with this kind of bait-and-switch? What happens when they catch on? How do they feel about themselves, their teachers, and education in general?

This kind of “problem-based learning” shows a complete lack of respect for children’s ability to do real work. Please do not waste their time by asking them to work on “real” problems if their efforts are going into the recycling bin.

[P]rotoyping a recyclable lunch tray; setting up a water delivery system to guard against urban fires; building a public awareness campaign to combat hunger. These are just a few of examples of the types of tasks students are taking on… — A design challenge to students: Solve a real-world problem

One of the teachers from the above article is quoted as saying, “They get excited about it and they want to accomplish more than is realistic.

So, once again, you get kids excited about doing real work and then you yank the rug out from under their feet. You explain that their work is not actually going to solve that problem. You set limits; you put up fences. You tap into true motivation and then you waste it. You had an opportunity to engage a child with something meaningful and purposeful and you blew it.

Rather than asking children to think about problems they cannot actually affect in any real way, it’s a simple thing to let them work in their own community to solve real “real-world” problems. They can even identify the problems themselves before they set out to solve them.

If they choose their own problems, the work is self-leveling. And if there’s an adult who says “pish posh, who cares about this petty subject when they could be applying themselves to solving global warming?” … well, move back, because my head is going to explode.

The real world is RIGHT HERE — we live in it every day. It’s in your community, in your school, in your backyard. Children live in the real world. They can change *that* world. Don’t waste their time asking them to put real effort into imaginary solutions. Help them do real work that matters.

- Are extrinsic rewards are being offered?

Is your child being awarded a badge for the work she’s doing?

There’s some controversy about how damaging extrinsic rewards are, but it’s pretty generally agreed upon that you shouldn’t offer them for anything a child wants to do. Extrinsic rewards are okay if it’s dull, rote work that isn’t enjoyable. But if you offer an extrinsic reward for something a person likes to do, you sap their enjoyment. And you take their focus off their ideas and put it collecting badges.

[R]ewards cause people to lose interest in whatever they were rewarded for doing. This phenomenon, which has been demonstrated in scores of studies (Kohn, 1993), makes sense given that "motivation" is not a single characteristic that an individual possesses to a greater or lesser degree. Rather, intrinsic motivation (an interest in the task for its own sake) is qualitatively different from extrinsic motivation (in which completion of the task is seen chiefly as a prerequisite for obtaining something else) (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Therefore, the question educators need to ask is not how motivated their students are, but how their students are motivated. — Alfie Kohn

The data suggest that the more we want children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.

Deci and Ryan (1985) describe the use of rewards as "control through seduction." Control, whether by threats or bribes, amounts to doing things to children rather than working with them. This ultimately frays relationships, both among students (leading to reduced interest in working with peers) and between students and adults (insofar as asking for help may reduce the probability of receiving a reward).

Moreover, students who are encouraged to think about grades, stickers, or other "goodies" become less inclined to explore ideas, think creatively, and take chances. At least ten studies have shown that people offered a reward generally choose the easiest possible task (Kohn, 1993). In the absence of rewards, by contrast, children are inclined to pick tasks that are just beyond their current level of ability. — ibid.

[G]ood values have to be grown from the inside out. Attempts to short-circuit this process by dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Children are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and why) they are learning. Rewards — like punishments — are unnecessary when these things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case. — ibid.

People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself — not by external pressures. — Theresa Amabile, “How to Kill Creativity,” Harvard Business Review

It’s an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation, around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they’re part of something important. — Dan Pink, TED Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

“Extrinsic motivations crowd out intrinsic motivations.” That’s economist-speak for: if someone loves doing something and then you start paying them, money undermines that natural desire. — Is money a lousy way to motivate people?

What the research shows … is that the great wellspring of creativity is intrinsic motivation — that is, I do my best work for personal rewards (out of love or intellectual fulfillment) and not external motivation…” — Malcolm Gladwell

“[A]rtists who pursued their painting and sculpture more for pleasure of the activity itself than for extrinsic rewards have produced art that has been socially recognized as superior… It is those who are least motivated to pursue extrinsic rewards who eventually receive them.” — Dan Pink

[B]eing offered a reward for doing the work results in less creative output than being offered nothing. — Geoff Colvin

We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean’s lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else. — John Holt

If you start kids the wrong way — say, by rewarding them… — then their intrinsic motives will vanish. … [Rewards] can have the unintended effect of dismantling a child’s drive to learn for [learning’s] sake. … [Y]ou are telling them what kind of consequence matters, and what motive to pay attention to … And [learning] will suffer. — How to motivate learners

Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.What really motivates us? 

What message do we send when we reward kids with badges for doing their own meaningful work? Doesn’t it belittle their effort and engagement? I think it does. Isn’t it patronizing for adults to pat kids on the head and say here’s a little prize for you? I think it is. It’s not the way I want to treat my children or their work, and I think they would be so insulted by it, it would be damaging to our relationship as well as their feelings about their work. I literally cannot imagine handing my son a badge for the challenging and meaningful work that he does.

Do you really want your child to focus on something as mundane as collecting badges when she could be focused instead on digging deeply into something she cares about?

I can already hear the “but my child LIKES badges,” so here’s my response: Your child deserves to do work that is intrinsically motivated, that matters deeply, and she deserves to learn how to care more for her own opinion than the validation of others. So let’s do more of that.

- Is your child the driver or the passenger?

True self-directed learning is not assigned. It is not done within a structure provided by someone else. It proceeds at its own natural, organic pace.

It is self-motivated. It grows out of a desire to learn something, create something, and/or solve a problem — but the motivation is personal.

The learner is absolutely necessary — he connects a collection of ideas, plans, questions, and actions to create something unique. If you can lift your child out and shove any kid in there, then it isn’t personal, which means you can do better.

- Is your child choosing the skills he needs or someone is teaching him random skills?

“You have to start somewhere.” Okay. Then start with a particular, individual child and find out what interests her and then help her make her ideas happen. Along the way, she will need to acquire knowledge and skills. Help her figure out how she’s going to do that. That is an authentic, meaningful process. That learning will last.

When you say, “You have to start somewhere,” you are really deciding that to acquire any skills at all is just as useful as to discover what interests you, set a goal, work toward something personally meaningful, and figure out how to do the things you want to do along the way. It isn’t just as useful. Random skills will be forgotten; personally meaningful work done for a real purpose set in a context of uniquely individual authentic interests and desires will never be forgotten.

 

You can throw it against the wall, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stick. If your child comes away from this group experience full of personally motivated plans, goals, and ideas that will no longer fit into a preplanned structure, then it worked — and now off-the-shelf will no longer suffice. And if he does NOT come away on fire to go further, do more, and make his own ideas happen, what’s the point? No matter how you slice it, unless your group supports individual kids’ ideas and plans, it is only a starting point. Eventually, you have to mentor your child as an individual and help your child build the learning experience he needs — the one that is custom-fit for him.

Start with the child, find out what’s personally relevant to that child, and every single ounce of effort you invest will return to you tenfold.

This is why learner-centered homeschooling is always, always going to drink formal schooling’s milkshake. Because it’s personal, relevant, tech-neutral, unscripted, deadline-free, fully customizable, and self-leveling.

And every parent can give this to their child, whether their child is homeschooled or not. Every parent can mentor their child to become a self-directed learner. Every parent can learn to be a self-directed learner themselves.

This can be accomplished in community-based groups. Children can do authentic project work with the support of adults who want to mentor rather than lead. It requires adults to put the individual before the structure rather than plugging kids into a preplanned framework.

Throw away the instructions. Throw away the agenda. Throw away the schedule. Apologize to the kids. Say, “I’m sorry. I got super pleased with myself and forgot this isn’t about me — it’s about you. I have my notebook. I’m listening. Please tell me what you want to learn. Please tell me what you want to do. I will help you help each other.”

We offer this kind of learning and imply that when kids are adults they’ll be "life-long learners" who can take over and do what they need and want to do. But all we’ve shown them is how to ride along in the backseat. They don't know how to CREATE opportunities. They don't know how to SELF-SELECT their projects. They don't know how to articulate their own goals and then break them down into manageable steps. They don't know how to shift their own habits and behavior to get what they want — because they've never had to do any of that. But they so easily could — if we let them.

Please look at the group you’re considering and ask yourself these questions. (I’ve made you a handy abbreviated checklist here.) Then, if the group doesn’t measure up, start your own group. You don’t need special materials; you don’t need to know the things the kids want to learn. You can find the materials; you can find the experts. You can acquire the skills. You can make it. You can hack it. You can DIY it. And by making it yourself the way you want it to be, you can show your kids how that is done.

You can do it. Don’t settle for something less just because it’s easier.

I don’t think every parent should have to form their own group or eschew the existing groups completely. What I really want is for these groups to pack up their picnic things and decide they’re only partway there after all and if they hike a little further, they’ll end up some place much better. It doesn’t really take a lot more effort — just a change of mindset and a change of heart. The work is really the same. If you’re involved in one of these groups, maybe you can speak out, start a dialogue, and instigate some change.

So, we need two things:

First, we parents — who buy our kids organic and handmade everything — need to be less complacent about accepting off-the-shelf, mass-produced learning experiences for our kids.

Second, we group leaders — who care deeply about the kids we work with but bend so readily to the constraints of time, parental expectations, and the exigencies of managing a group — need to take a hard look at our true objectives vs. our xeroxed agenda and see if we can reorganize ourselves around the true center: the individual child as learner.

Until kids are combining skills with their own ideas, we’re not there yet. Until kids are allowed to do their own organizing, researching, and decision-making, rather than waiting for adults to do it all, we’re not there yet. Until the adults step back and let the kids take over, we’re not there yet.

If adults are doing all the teaching — and if they’re offering the kids badges for acquiring skills — then we’re just glancing off the surface of what self-directed learning can accomplish.

If you’re out there trying, I’m a fan of you. I just want us all to think a little harder about why we’re doing this — then work a little harder to give kids the learning opportunities they deserve. Let’s help them rigorously pursue their own ideas.

 

See also: What to Look for in a DIY/Maker/Hacker/Tinkering Group for Kids

Some good stuff here: Kathy Sierra on gamification of education, incentives, and rewards

Launching: PBH Tip Sheet

Published by Lori Pickert on October 25, 2013 at 02:41 PM

Once you resolve to make a change and set yourself on a new learning and doing path, you need to build a structure to help you touch base regularly with your goals and intentions. You have to commit (and recommit regularly) — and you have to follow through. This is a little bit of structure we’ve built for you. Check it out.

Self-directed learning: the neglected subject?

Published by Lori Pickert on September 9, 2013 at 08:26 AM

Last week I tweeted a series of thoughts…

I had run across the umpteenth request by a parent for suggestions for resources for a child’s deep interest — and the child in question was a teenager.

What does it mean if we have teenagers who still aren’t capable of building their own curriculum — even if it’s something they’re really interested in?

These days, children might enter school at age 3 and not leave again until their mid-20s. It’s possible to make it all the way to adulthood without ever becoming a self-directed learner — without anyone in charge of your education saying, “Oh, and I guess I should probably show you how to drive this car as well as ride in it.”

You can sit back and let someone else provide the learning agenda, rustle up the resources, plan the “fun” activities, organize the classes, then arrange to assess whether or not you successfully absorbed the knowledge and skills they think you need.

 

If your child is four or six and really wants to learn about, say, space shuttles, then he or she would be much better served by doing all the work of figuring out where to find out more about space shuttles, going to the library and looking through all the books and films available and choosing the ones that seem most promising, looking for websites and places to visit and so on. All of that learning is truncated when a parent does it for them. Boom! Here you go, kid — a stack of books, fun Pinterest activities, and we’re going to the planetarium tomorrow. With any luck, we’ll burn through this by Monday!

When adults do all the work of making learning happen, children lose out.

They say that cutting wood warms you twice: once when you split it with your axe and again when you bask by your fire. In the same way, project-based homeschooling is twice the learning. You learn about your project and along the way you learn how to learn. Instead of dumping it out of a box, you have to go out and build it from scratch. It warms you twice. - Project-based homeschooling curriculum

I’ve seen parents mention how fun it was to pull together books and activities for their child’s interest — totally oblivious to the fact that their child could have had that fun.

Project-based homeschooling — self-directed learning supported by thoughtful mentoring — offers three levels of learning:

- Primary: learning about our interest.

- Secondary: Acquiring the skills we need to do the things we want to do.

- Tertiary: Learning about learning, making, doing, and sharing (meta-learning).

When adults keep cutting the learning meat for their kids until they’re adults, they never get the chance to experience all of these levels. We’re not just making learning less fun, less meaningful, less useful, and less relevant, we’re actually making it less educational.

This weekend I came across this article in the Harvard Business Review:

Before Karen was promoted to vice president, her annual evaluations had included detailed comments that guided her professional growth. This year, she was determined to elicit specific feedback, especially since she had just endured a stressful year leading a major project that defined the company's future.

But when she pressed for more specifics, the president simply said, “I trust you to continue doing what you do so well, and I expect you’ll ask for my help if you need it.

In that moment, she realized something profound: He was telling her that she was free. She was in charge of her own considerable domain — and her own life. Somehow, amid the pressures to meet operational goals and balance budgets, she had failed to notice the full implications of that shift.

She wanted to make sure she understood correctly. “You mean to say that I can push the envelope as far as I want, as long as I believe it is in the best interest of the company, and you'll tell me when I’ve gone too far?”

He nodded his agreement. She was buoyed by the possibilities that her newfound freedom presented, and at the same time, she felt the weight of the responsibility this change implied. Before she even made it to the door, Karen started thinking about how she could take ownership — and advantage — of this situation. — Claim your freedom at work

Here is an adult who apparently has made it through college and the early part of her career being successful by following orders — someone who is floored to realize they are now being handed the reins and given responsibility for being in charge.

Self-directed learning — or working — is not mandatory in America today. You can just be quiet, follow instructions, and get all the way through college and halfway into a career without ever being self-directed.

Someone else can set the agenda, lay out the expectations, and deliver the rubric — all you have to do is connect the dots.

A major reason Karen hadn’t recognized, until her moment of truth, how much freedom she had was that she had never received formal leadership training. She is not alone. … [T]he qualities that made them exceptional individual contributors didn’t prepare them for the challenges they later faced leading teams or projects.

Along with the freedom that comes with being the boss is the obligation to know what you don’t know and secure the resources you need to excel in your role. — ibid.

Why do we need to make sure self-directed learning is part of our children’s education? Because without it, you don’t know what you don’t know — and you don’t know how to find the resources you need to be successful at what YOU want to do.

If you never transition from being a passive recipient of knowledge and skills to being an engaged, self-directed, self-motivated learner, you never learn how to find resources and experts, how to weigh the relevance of research materials, how to set goals and break them down into tasks, how to build and use community, how to find places where you can get the skills you need to make your ideas happen.

And if you only ever learn how to connect someone else’s dots, you end up with whatever picture they plotted out for you.

If we want our kids to take control of their lives, first we have to help them take control of their learning.

Here’s how the standard line goes:

Kids need to be bored! They’re over-scheduled! When we’re not shuttling them from activity to activity, their screens are standing by to entertain them 24/7! Boredom is the answer!

Here’s the thing, though. I’m never bored. Like, never ever. And before I wrote about this, I checked in with both of my kids.

Me: Are you ever bored?

Son: [Thoughtful pause.] No.

Me: Ever?

Son: No.

I asked the other son and his answer was the same. We talked it over and agreed: There aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things we want to do. And we’re not talking about the kind of time most people have — just a couple of hours after work, after school, after dance/swim/soccer, after homework, and so on. We are people who have giant swaths of free time. Our schedule is as wide open as the Montana sky. We are the least harried family on the planet.

We still don’t have enough time to do all the things we want to do.

Space + time + materials + experiences + skills = interests that spill over the edges of every day. My kids get up every day excited to do the things they want to do and they never run out of things they want to do. And we don’t do any activities. And we schedule nothing.

 

So, sorry, but here it is:

 

Boredom is a really crappy, cheapskate answer to helping your kids develop creativity and authentic interests.

 

Boredom? That’s what you’re offering? You funnel immense resources into your child’s education and planned activities. You pay for class fees, sports equipment, uniforms. You drive hither and yon. You spend all the really nice fall Saturdays sitting in a camping chair on an athletic field wearing a hat and sunglasses and clutching a large cup of coffee. You cheer from the stands. You pack the duffel bag. You buy everything on the supplies list.

 

But when it comes to that part of your child’s life where they develop their own authentic interests, explore their unique talents, develop creativity, and learn to be self-directed — your contribution is a chunk of empty time and boredom. Huzzah!

 

No. Not huzzah.

 

Children need unscheduled time! Yes, they do. Unscheduled by someone other than themselves, that is. My thirteen-year-old just came to me a week ago and asked me to sit down and help him hammer out a schedule. He had so many projects he was juggling, he was starting to feel like he wasn’t going to meet all of his goals. He wanted help building a schedule and he wanted me to buy him an alarm clock. The kid who doesn’t have to get up and go to school wants an alarm clock so he can get up earlier so he can work on his own projects.

 

We sat down and worked out a schedule — a schedule that includes things like swimming, playing Xbox with his dad and brother, walking the dog, and playing badminton with me after dinner. There was even time to watch TV. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to watch TV again,” he marveled.

 

So how do you get a kid like this? A kid who has all the free time in the world and is still thinking he won’t have time to watch TV because he is so interested in pursuing his own projects?

 

We need a complete sea change in how we think about helping kids balance their scheduled time. It’s not about teaching them to deal with boredom. It’s about helping them connect with their own interests and ideas.

 

We pour all of our money, time, and energy into supporting kids’ scheduled activities, but we don’t invest anything in their “free time.”

 

We want them to choose intellectual, creative activities — in general, we want them to choose higher-value ways to spend their time. But how do we support that?

 

Parents bemoan the fact that all their kid wants to do is watch TV and play Xbox. Yet the heart of their home is set up to look like a shrine devoted to exactly those two things. There’s a TV the size of a twin bed and every chair in the room — the most comfortable chairs in the house, by the way — are arrayed around it in rapt devotion. The Xbox is nestled alongside.

 

When you compare that shrine to screen-based entertainment to the area of the house devoted to their child’s other interests… Oh, wait. There is no area like that.

 

We invest time, attention, and resources in our kids‘ organized activities. Those, we go at with the energy of Henry VIII attacking a turkey leg. But when it comes to our kids’ “free time” they’re “free” to be bored out of their skulls until they are hit with an epiphany and realize they want to learn how to build and program their own robot.

 

In absolutely zero places in adult life do we take a group of intelligent people we want to encourage toward meaningful, worthwhile activities and say, “The key, ladies and gentlemen, is to get them really bored first.”

 

It’s only kids who are expected to be put in at the absolutely bare, gravelly bottom of the well and MacGyver themselves somewhere good. It’s only kids who we cut loose like an untethered astronaut in deep space to “make their own fun.”

 

Think about how often you wish you had some time to yourself. Now imagine that you get an entire afternoon next weekend to yourself, but you have to spend it in a hotel room where the TV and the Wi-Fi are broken and your phone has been confiscated. How do you feel now? Energized and excited about filling your time? If you get bored, maybe you could “weed the garden,” “write a poem about your favorite pet,” or “invent your own board game.” Fear not —boredom is the gateway to innovation — necessity will lead you to fill that time and enjoy yourself!

 

Why do we think dance and soccer and tae kwon do need to be scheduled and organized, but creative play should happen all on its own?

 

Because it’s not enough for children to develop interests outside of simple entertainment — TV, Xbox, Minecraft. We want more than that. We want them to really work for it. Like soldiers dropped in the middle of the jungle without a map or canteen to find their way back to base, they need to be given nothing and somehow make their way to an authentic, deep interest and onward to challenging, meaningful work.

 

Good luck, kids!

 

The whole “kids need to be bored” strategy is doomed from the start because it’s a whiplash-inducing 180 from the way the kids spend the rest of their time — you can’t flip the script from “totally scheduled” to “totally on your own” and not hear the scream of resisting gears.

 

To keep a child entertained and scheduled 95% of the time and then leave them naked and resourceless and expect them to use that time well (after going through the requisite period of boredom) is not the optimal way to teach a child to manage and fill their own time.

 

Boredom, rather than being an on-ramp to creative play and invention, is just as likely to be the on-ramp to passive consumption and a fear of empty time.

 

There’s another way. It’s cheating, I know, but we could actually invest in our kids’ interests and abilities. We could maybe scale back from the twin-size TV to the crib-size and put that money into materials and tools. We could create a studio space for our kids — not a cobwebby basement or attic space that no one ever goes to because it’s in the Siberia of the house, but a warm, central space that is as warm and beckoning as that plush faux-leather shrine competing for their time.

 

If a house does have a studio, it usually belongs to the parent. If there’s a workshop, it belongs to the parent. The two spaces we typically allot to kids are their bedroom and the shared TV space. Anything creative is called “craft time” and the dining table is cleared off while it happens — but usually that table is covered with the detritus of life. There’s no space that is always waiting for a child to build and create. There’s no time set aside and protected so that making can be part of everyday life.

 

Does always-available electronic entertainment destroy a child’s ability to create, design, make, and do? Not if they produce what they consume. Not if you feed and support their interests and give them enough time to take them further. Not if you don’t limit the amount of time they can play so severely that they can only be a passive user.

 

They need time to achieve mastery and become a creator. But not just time — they need support. They need space. They need tools and materials. They need collaborators and cohorts. They need community. They need a parent who appreciates their interests and their efforts. They need a mentor.

 

They need the habit and routine of coming regularly to the space and to their own ideas.

 

We put all of our energy and resources into our kids’ organized activities and trying to shore up their deficits. Anything that they do well, anything that interests them, we assume can be left alone to develop on its own. Are you crummy at reading and great at science? We’re going to laser-focus on reading and cross science off our list of concerns.

 

When it comes to things our kids do well or things they care about, we figure that’s something we can safely ignore. Why invest in something that’s fine on its own? We give them the minimum — a chunk of free time — and go back to worrying about where they don’t measure up.

 

One article I read recommended that we schedule boredom. I have a different idea: Let’s schedule not-boredom. Let’s schedule interest and excitement and creativity and experiences and meaningful work.

 

Championing boredom for kids doesn’t even scratch the surface of best practice. We can do so much more than just leave a hole in their schedule where they can wallow. Boredom is the least possible amount of effort we can make in the right direction.

 

We can invest in our children’s interests, abilities, talents, strengths, and ideas.

 

We can invest in their unscheduled time and flood it with tools, materials, collaboration, and support.

 

We can build a place in our home that honors making and doing, not just watching other people make and do.

 

We can build a family culture that celebrates meaningful work.

 

Give your kids too many bored afternoons and you run the risk of making them so fearful of empty time that they’ll try to avoid it like the plague. Make it too challenging for them to discover the pleasure of making ideas happen and they may never discover it.

 

Compared to over-scheduling, boredom seems like a valuable anteroom to having ideas and doing higher-valuer activities — the first step down a path toward self-direction.

 

But boredom is the easiest, chintziest, least-effort-expended way for you to help your kids head down that path. And the return on your scanty investment is in no way guaranteed.

 

You can do better.

 

Give your kids a workspace — an art studio, a workshop, a lab for ideas.

 

Give your kids a block of time devoted to making and doing — and protect that time. Make it one of your big rocks. Honor it. Invest in it. Give your child’s interests at least the same level of attention that you give soccer and tae kwon do.

 

Give your kids an example to follow. Don’t just send them off to do something that you yourself never do. Live the life you want them to live. Work alongside them and become a family of doers.

 

Forget about boredom and become the kind of people who are never bored, because there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things you want to do.

 

 

From the mailbag, a series of similar questions:

How should I handle my kids’ huge plans that can’t really happen?

Some of my child’s ideas are down-right unrealistic…

My concern is that he will feel let down…

If I try to find the possible in his dreams, I see his disappointment. He doesn’t like my sugggestions for making it “doable”…

Your three-year-old wants to build a rocket that really flies — one that he can sit in.

Your six-year-old wants to build a three-story treehouse with a fireman’s pole.

Your nine-year-old wants to write a novel that will be published by a real publisher — or a screenplay that will be produced by a real movie studio.

How can we help kids tackle their big, ambitious, seemingly unachievable goals?

When you say, “here’s the lesson — do this,” you know from the outset what’s possible. When you instead start with a child’s question and build outward organically, you eventually end up with a big piece of work — a project — the result of authentic inquiry. It’s big, it’s real, and it’s meaningful. That’s not something you can preplan. — Stop Preshrinking Your Opportunities

Why is it important to let kids move forward on their plans, even when they seem totally unrealistic?

I often tell the story of a four-year-old girl at my school who built a very detailed robot out of cardboard and found objects. Her parents and teachers all appreciated the hard work she’d put in, her creativity and her concentration. Then one morning she told her parents she needed to bring batteries to school — because she was ready for her robot to “really work.”

She cut a flap in the back of her robot, pushed two AA batteries inside, taped it shut, and was pleased as punch that now her robot would move and walk.

The adults were all worried that she would be very upset when she discovered her plan had failed. But there was no big meltdown. She was disappointed, but in a frowny, thoughtful, scientific way. She decided she needed to do more research — she needed to investigate the inside of other machines to get a better idea of what made them work. So another line of inquiry began.

Before you move to stop your children from trying to do the impossible, take a breath and remember what your job is: to mentor and support, to brainstorm and listen, to remind and reflect. Your job isn’t to step in and tell them their ideas won’t work and their plans are doomed.

Remind yourself:

You don’t know what your kid can do.

If you guess, you may woefully underestimate. Don’t set limits where limits aren’t necessary. Don’t set limits where they will not only curtail what your child can achieve but may discourage him from getting started in the first place. Big doers need big, complex, far-reaching ambitions. Set the goal small and his motivation will shrink right along with it.

In my experience, adults guessing at what children can accomplish set the bar far too low.

When we move to protect our kids, sometimes we’re actually protecting ourselves — from embarrassment (maybe theirs, maybe our own) or from having to deal with big, messy emotions like frustration and disappointment.

Start ramping your kids up to independence now. Don’t wait until they’re 18 and then drop them off a cliff; let them take steps toward being in charge of their own learning and their own future. Let them have their own ideas. Let them have their big, towering dreams and ambitions. Let them work away at something that seems impossible to you. You don’t know what’s possible. They have all the time in the world to get where they want to go. You don’t know what they can do if they try. Instead of worrying about how long it will take for them to be successful, worry about how long it will take them if they never start.

The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do. — Sarah Ban Breathnach

You don’t know where his project will go.

He may deftly switch directions. He may spend months concentrating on just one part of his overarching goal. He may, along his “unrealistic” path, discover a deep interest that will last the rest of his life.

I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else. — Pablo Picasso

Children grow and mature at an astounding rate. When your nine-year-old says she wants to write a novel and have it published by a real publisher, and you reply, “Well, sweetheart, I love you and I think you’re very talented, but that is highly unlikely to ever happen,” she’s likely to lay down her pages and walk away. You haven’t prevented disappointment — you’ve only brought it from the misty future to the right now, and you also killed all the learning and skill-building that would have happened in the interim.

Your child may work on her novel for a year or more and then decide on her own to put it in a drawer and start another. In the meantime, she’ll be building her skills, reading books about writing, and producing steadily improving prose. She may go on to publish a novel when she is 14 or 15 — all because she started now, because you believed in her and supported her now.

Choose to deliver your bad news — that her dream is statistically unlikely — and what will happen to her ambitions? What will happen to her idea of herself as a writer? Will she wait and start her writing career at 15? At twenty? Never?

You are looking ahead and predicting failure, but you are guessing about the path your child is going to take — and you’re probably plotting out a very linear A —> B path. Meanwhile, your child is most likely going to take a circuitous, rambling path as she explores all the different aspects of her ambitious plan. She’s going to dig deep into one thing, then another. She’ll probably change her plan as she moves along. She’ll take a sudden left; she’ll circle back; she’ll add in a whole new line of inquiry she needs to explore.

You cannot predict the path an authentic, self-motivated learner is going to take. When you guess — and then decide to go ahead and pull the plug because you know it won’t work out — you eliminate all the learning that happens along the way.

Ideas fly in flocks. To hold one idea in mind means to hold a cloud of them. — Kevin Kelly

Real learning takes a long time.

When we nervously move to cut our children off before they waste time on an impossible undertaking that’s sure to lead to disappointment, what we really mean to say to them is: You’re not ready for this yet.

We want them to hold their big ideas, dreams, and plans until their abilities catch up. What we fail to realize is that the only people who acquire those abilities are the ones who are chasing big dreams. The ones who give up stop trying and so they stop learning. They stop working hard. They stop believing in themselves and in what’s possible.

They don’t hear, “You can’t do that yet” — they hear, “You can’t do that.”

We don’t meant to kill the dream; we only mean to postpone it. But succeeding at a big undertaking isn’t like buying a ticket to ride the ferris wheel. You don’t wait until you’re “this high” and then boom, you’re all set. Big doers start chasing big, ambitious dreams long before they’re ready to make their final ascent.

I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it. — Picasso

You don’t know how your child will react to failure.

If you interrupt him while he’s building and say, “That won’t work,” you take away his opportunity to learn from his mistakes, brainstorm alternatives, and feel the rush of self-esteem when he finally solves his own problem.

Likewise, if you try to protect him from getting his dreams crushed, you instead crush his motivation, his ownership, and his self-confidence. Out of fear that he may feel disappointed later on, you take away his opportunity to find his own way, to be resilient, to invent a new plan, to find another way. You eliminate the possibility that he might discover on his impossible journey a very realistic focus for all his ideas and energy.

It’s the experience that teaches — not the outcome. If outcomes truly did the job, then every soccer medal would lead to a place on the Olympic team. You are focusing on the outcome and trying to save your child from emotional trauma, but actually working toward his goals is what’s going to make him strong, resilient, confident, imaginative, and joyful. Let him choose his own goals to work toward — it’s the working that matters.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them. — Henry David Thoreau

Self-motivated, meaningful work is never wasted time.

Do you think she’d be better served working on something she could really accomplish?

Is that because she would be acquiring more knowledge and skills? Or is it because you would have something more reasonable to share with family and friends?

Working toward big dreams, kids acquire the same skills as working on “doable” tasks — and more. They are working at their challenge level: the front edge of what they’re capable of doing. They are powered by intense motivation. Every big dreams breaks down into smaller goals which break down even further into achievable tasks.

If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it. — George Polya

You help them break it down. No matter how big or ambitious a goal is, it always breaks down. When they eventually run into something they can’t do (if it happens), then you ask them, “What can you do?” You model for them how to work on big, ambitious goals — by taking it one step at a time.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” — Anne Lamott

How you mentor the big dream

Instead of trying to convert your child’s dream into something “doable,” help her break her big goals down into smaller tasks. Help her find something she can start working on today.

Reflect her ideas and plans back to her. Help her see herself as a learner, maker, and doer.

Honor her work by giving her the space and time she needs. Invest in her deep interests.

Let her maintain ownership — don’t take over. Let her go at her own pace and set her own course.

Always take the approach of “If not X, then what?” Model how to take a break, step back, brainstorm, and look for alternatives.

For older kids and teens, treat their ideas with respect while communicating realistic constraints. Let them find the doable inside their own dream.

Older kids and teens are more likely to nix their own ideas and preshrink their own opportunities. Help nudge them past their own negativity and focus on what’s possible. Don’t put it off until the misty future when they think they’ll have more money, time, and freedom to chase their dreams. Help them understand that the more they learn to work with what’s available now, the more likely they’ll be to eventually become dreamers who do. The more they push things off until it’s easier or there’s more money or someone else chooses to help them, the more likely they’ll be to become dreamers who don’t.

If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it out while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come. — C.S. Lewis

Your goal is to help your child become a person who can articulate ideas, make plans, break down goals into achievable steps, and see things through. How do you do that? By letting him fully immerse himself in his deep interest and his big ideas.

Eventually he will set a big goal, make a plan, figure out what he needs to do to make it work, do the hard work, make mistakes, solve problems, and finish. That’s the goal you’re working toward. Those are the habits and skills that you are building. But the entire journey is one of learning and discovery — not just the big finish. Miss the journey and you miss everything. It’s the doing that will build your child’s thinking, learning, and making muscles. It’s the doing that will form his thinking and learning habits and his character. It’s the doing that matters.

Supporting your child’s big ideas, big plans, and big dreams is how you help him become someone who’s capable of actually achieving them.

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