project-based homeschooling

When I was a child, things were different.

There were no screens to speak of — we had no cable TV, no video games, and no one I knew owned a computer yet.

When the summer sun dawned hot and relentless, we would pull on our shorts (cut from last winter’s jeans) and our striped Garanimals T-shirts and head outside.

That billboard I complain about would have been proud: we didn’t have video game controllers clutched in our dirty little hands — it was always a frog or a turtle, a handful of crabapples, a chunk of splintery wood, or a rusty hammer.

Every summer tended to be defined by large, lengthy, all-consuming projects. Projects that took up all of our time and energy, from dawn till dusk. Projects like digging a really big hole. Or trying to break the Guinness Book of World Records’ record for pogo-sticking. Or hammering 8,000 rusty nails out of old planks of wood with an eye toward making a fort or maybe a treehouse.

We spent weeks working on deep intellectual problems like how to catch a crawdad with a broken plastic bucket and a piece of hotdog as bait. No one’s mom appeared with a Pinterest post about how to build a crawdad trap and then, once we had him, how to turn his captivity into a teaching moment about biology and our polluted waterways. We just caught him (finally), then examined him at our leisure, played with him, named him, watched him crawl around in the grass, tried to feed him bologna, and then, if we didn’t kill him with too much scientific curiosity, we put him back in the creek. And no one even knew we had him in the first place.

When I was a child, things were different. We went swimming; no one was on a swim team. We played baseball; no one was on a baseball team. We hatched plans that required stealing balls of string from every junk drawer in the neighborhood; no one came at us with a Pinterest plan and a hopeful expression.

What has changed since then?

It’s not the screens.

It’s not video games or Minecraft or cartoons or comic books.

It’s freedom.

Not just the freedom to roam around physically, but the freedom that comes from not being under the parental microscope all the time — the freedom that comes from just being a kid when no one thought what you did all day mattered that much.

The freedom to conceive a big idea (digging the world’s biggest hole in the empty lot on the corner), rally support among your peers (bring your sandbox shovels and meet me after breakfast), problem-solve (get your baby brother’s wagon to move these rocks), practice leadership and collaboration (it was my idea; if you don’t like it, go dig over there!), and experience true satisfaction with a job well done (that is a really big hole).

No one cared what we did. No one said, “Is digging in the dirt really the best use of your time?” No one said, “How can you sit in front of the fan playing Monopoly for nine hours a day, six days a week?!”

If we had Minecraft back then, we would have played it nine hours a day, the way we played Monopoly and Clue. We would have plowed the vast capacity for single-minded focus that allowed us to dig a hole visible from outer space into building the world’s most complicated Minecraft castle.

How can you give your child a good old-fashioned summer like we used to have?

It’s not about fireflies or picnics or homemade kites. It’s about freedom.

Leave them alone.

Let them be in charge of their own time.

Let them have their own ideas.

Give them big, sprawling blocks of unscheduled time. Give them whole days, whole weeks.

Let them dig into whatever interests them and do whatever they want with it.

You can pull a million cute crafts and activities off Pinterest and arrange them for your child — and end up with a kid trained to expect a steady stream of fun things to do.

You can fill your child’s schedule with a perfect balance of activities combining creativity and outdoor time and language arts — and end up with a kid who doesn’t know what it’s like to be in charge, who doesn’t know what it’s like to make something happen.

You can end up with a kid who’s happy to let someone else have all the ideas and plan all the fun.

When we keep saying “you’ve had enough of that, now go do this instead,” we’re telling kids that their interests aren’t important and their focus isn’t needed. When we fill all their time, they don’t have the chance to fill it themselves.

The best part of the old-fashioned summer isn’t how innocent and simple it is, but how much room there is for growth, for ideas, for hard work, for freedom from micromanagement.  There are things you can learn in an atmosphere of freedom that you simply cannot learn in an organized environment. They aren’t always things about science or history or literature; sometimes they’re things about yourself.

The real difference between the summers of my youth and the summer of today isn’t what kids want to do, it’s how infrequently it’s even taken into consideration. Kids used to be in charge of summer; they used to be in charge of themselves. Now they’re passive recipients of someone else’s ideas, passengers in the backseat being taken somewhere to do something another person has decided they should do. Summer used to be the time when kids shook off the adult control of the school year and rose up, filthy with skinned knees, to create their own worlds. Now they seamlessly move from one adult-controlled agenda to another, from one set of classes to another, from one packed schedule to another.

If you really want to embrace the values of the old-fashioned summer, forget about the surface stuff — the yo-yos and pinwheels and bike parades — and give your kids a really radical gift: freedom.

Give it to yourself as well. Let go of the big expectations; take a deep breath and remind yourself that this summer has little to no bearing on your child’s future career prospects. Be lazy. Drink lemonade. Sit in the shade. Read a book. Cross off 90% of the things on your summer bucket list and really enjoy the remaining 10%. Eschew guilt. Summer is supposed to be about taking a break from the rest of the year, not simply switching from being pummeled by one set of expectations to being pummeled by another.

Pinwheels are nice, but empty days and low expectations are even better.


Ten ways to help your kids pick themselves

Published by Lori Pickert on June 26, 2013 at 09:08 AM

On Monday, I wrote a post about how sometimes, even if someone wants you for their team, it might still be in your best interests to pick yourself.

Here are ten ways to help your kids pick themselves:

- Didn’t get that part in the school play? Build a plywood stage in the backyard, hang a curtain, and hand them a clipboard. Target sells a great plastic microphone for a dollar that works as a director’s megaphone. You can string holiday lights above the stage if you want to get fancy.

- Spending most of the game on the bench? Mow that field behind your house, clean up the empty lot, or tell the neighborhood kids you’ll take them to the park. One bat, one ball, a few gloves — that’s all we ever needed. (Or one soccer ball. Or one football.)

- Help them set up their own minecraft server.

- Writer in the house? Let them know they can publish a zine or a neighborhood newspaper. Take them to Kinkos; give them a budget.

- No one hiring five-year-olds? Let them run their own front-yard business.

- Let them build a skateboard ramp in the backyard.

- No one else into their hobby? Not enough friends? Make your own community. (More tips here.)

- Didn’t make cheerleader? Set up a cheer camp in the backyard for the neighborhood kids. Or grab a room at the community center and make flyers. Ask them what they need.

- Loves movies but Hollywood not in the immediate future? Give them a videocamera and let them make their own movies.

- Too young for culinary school? Let them take over the kitchen.

Whatever it is your kids want to do, even if no one picks them, they can pick themselves. They can get started today doing the thing they care most about.

Want to enhance the experience?

- Give them a budget. Whether they’re baking or making or using up bandwidth, let them figure out how best to spend what they’ve got.

- Let them have their own ideas. Make sure they know what’s possible, then stand back and let them take over.

- Help them. Whether it’s power tools or chauffering them to the store or reserving them a room at the library, let them know you’re ready to help them when/if they need you.

- Encourage them to share. Teach someone else what they’ve learned; invite family or neighbors to see what they’ve accomplished. Spread the knowledge around and inspire someone else.

Support them. Grab the car keys and take them where they need to go. Give them a little budget to control. Give them tools or show them where they can access them in your community. If somebody says “No,” show them how they can say, “Yes.”

Help them produce what they consume.

If they don’t make the team, help them make their own team. If opportunities are scarce, show them how they can make their own.

There are a million roadblocks that appear in life — not enough parts to play, not enough positions, not enough room in the club. The earlier you learn to respond by creating your own opportunities, the better. No one else is in charge of what you get to do. They may be in charge of their class, their club, their team, but you can make your own.

No one can keep you from doing the thing you love to do. The younger you learn this lesson, the better.

Have some examples to share of kids picking themselves? Let me know in the comments and I’ll make this list longer! (Give me links if possible!)

Friday link round-up + updated PBH group guide

Published by Lori Pickert on June 8, 2013 at 07:40 AM

Before we get started, I’ve updated How to Start a Project Group, incorporating the additional suggestions and questions I received after I posted the first draft. If you want to share strategies with other people who are using PBH in co-ops, summer camps, and family PBH groups, join the forum!

We missed last week’s round-up, so here’s what I’ve been sharing on the PBH facebook page for the past couple of weeks…

First, a beautiful blog post Abbey wrote about her “PBH conversion experience”:

“Tonight, I went beyond “mentally committed because this seems like the best choice.” Tonight, I became totally heart-committed and gut-committed to this idea of letting his interests spark and catch fire and burn through acres of material … because tonight, I saw the pure joy in his face at being able to soak up as much information as he could hold with the promise that he would be able to keep coming back for more the next day, the one after that, the one after that, as long as he wanted. …

It was passionate. It was instinctive. It was his idea, his momentum, his knowledge, his research. And yet now, without adult prompting or coaching, he has learned where Argentina is, how big Herrerasaurus was, in what period it lived, what it ate, what its bones looked like, and that it had a small role in the movie Jurassic Park. (A little pop culture knowledge is almost always useful, right?)

I know it might not be like this all the time, but it can be like this at least some of the time. I can do this… I can make this possible for him by creating an environment in which he has what he needs to do this for himself. For the first time, I feel certain that this is the right decision for him and for our family right now. He's more than capable — I’ve always known that.

Now I can picture what it looks like.” — Project-Based Homeschooling: My Conversion Moment @ Surviving Our Blessings

And this is a way we can learn, not just in childhood, but for life:

“Self-directed play allows both children and adults to develop a powerful attention strategy, a strategy that I call ‘relaxed presence.’ …

When you [read or built things as a child], nobody was giving you an assignment, nobody was telling you what to do — there wasn’t any stress around it. You did these things for your own pleasure and joy. As you played, you developed a capacity for attention and for a type of curiosity and experimentation that can happen when you play. You were in the moment, and the moment was unfolding in a natural way.

You were in a state of relaxed presence as you explored your world. At one point, I interviewed a handful of Nobel laureates about their childhood play patterns. They talked about how they expressed their curiosity through experimentation. They enthusiastically described things they built, and how one play experience naturally led into another. In most cases, by the end of the interview, the scientist would say, “This is exactly what I do in my lab today! I’m still playing!’” — The Art of Staying Focused in a Distracting World @ The Atlantic

Bridging from preschool age to Nobel laureates, how does self-directed play and learning look like for older kids? At the IL Math & Science Academy, students get 20% of their time (one school day per week) to work on projects of their own choosing — or just to play:

“Every Wednesday at [the Illinois Math & Sci Acad], students are free to work on whatever they want — to follow their particular passions through self-directed study, internships, or other projects.

“[Peter Chu] spent countless hours playing this Dungeons-and-Dragons-like computer creation, but playing wasn’t enough. He wanted to understand how the game worked and, more importantly, change the things he didn’t like about it. As luck would have it, DikuMUD was open source software, so he was free to download the code that underpinned the game and start hacking it — and that’s what he did.”

“Other IMSA alums have gone on to discover new solar systems, teach neurosurgery, and found such notable tech outfits as YouTube, Yelp, SparkNotes, and OK Cupid. And the spirit that moved Chu to teach himself programming is still very much alive and well.” — Hogwarts for Hackers: Inside the Science and Tech School of Tomorrow @ Wired

This is compared to Google’s 20% time — a perk about which one employee said, “[W]hen you give engineers the chance to apply their passion to their [work], they can do amazing things.”

PBH is about giving kids time to work on their own deep interests, time when they are supported and mentored. It doesn’t have to be the entire curriculum, but it is essential for children to learn to direct and manage their own learning and their own meaningful work.

Kids need white space — they need down time. They need time to relax and play. And they need to develop the ability to manage themselves without being constantly kept busy with activities:

Modern parents are almost obsessed with filling up their children’s time. … [A]lone time is time a son or daughter uses to learn how to entertain themselves or just relax, without help or input from parents, siblings, friends, or babysitters. And it is a crucial aspect of the development of independence.

… The real world is not a constant party, or a day at camp. Real world includes downtime, and it includes alone time. And your job as a parent isn’t to entertain your children 24 hours a day. Introducing your child early on to the idea of spending time alone — and liking it — will help your son and/or daughter become a better companion to others and get more from their relationships with friends — and with you. They will grow to be an adult who can be happy on his/her own, or with someone else. And isn’t that the goal?” — Why Alone Time is So Important for Boys and Girls

In the forum we’ve been talking about how to help a child move from needing 24/7 interaction to being more self-directed.

Since it’s graduation season, we’ve been sharing some advice to graduates — advice that we can integrate into how our kids learn now:

“Jobs suck. At least the traditional version of a job, in which you do something you sorta hate, from 9-5p, and are paid for your time to just grit your teeth and do it. Let’s call this the ‘sell your time’ version of a personal business model: You sell your time to an employer, and they pay you for that time. …

There’s a better way — though it might not be the easiest way. … Learn to make something. Anything.” — New College Grads: Don’t Sell Your Time for a Living @ Andrew Chen

Real skills matter! In fact, they’re the most important thing potential employers care about:

“[T]wo of the first three people I hired for my new company made the decision not to get a college degree, and in both cases, it was the correct decision to make. If you talk to either of them, you will quickly realize that they are more intelligent and intellectual than 99 percent of the ‘degree holding’ population. They read more books than most college graduates I know.

Their head shots are prominently displayed on the ‘Our Team’ page of my venture pitch, and I have yet to have a single investor ask, ‘Where did that guy to go school?’ Investors prefer to ask, ‘What company did you steal them from?’

What’s more, skipping college puts pressure on young people to actually learn real skills and deliver real value — and that is a good thing.” — How Much Does Your College Degree Matter? @ PandoDaily

Scared to deviate from the crowd?

“Standing out seems riskier than conforming. But nobody ever talks about the risks of conforming: boredom (the worst of tortues), an uninteresting narrative (you'll never land your dream job), regret (we don't regret the things we do; we regret the things we don't do), a long and frustrated journey through the rest of your life (stemming from a lack of self-awareness).” — 31 Things I’d Have Told Myself Before College

Personalized education that focuses on your strengths takes you further than one-size-fits-all that focuses on your perceived deficits.

It can be scary to stand out, but even worse to blend in.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.” — Bill Watterson

For those of you attempting to embrace your kids’ love of Minecraft and other screen-related passions, I have some good stuff to share this week:

“I think the potential is really there for us to be raising a new generation of young people who have grown up with technologies that allow them to pursue self-directed learning on their own terms and on their own time schedules.

This is very different from how kids learn in school, where they’re handed a set body of knowledge that they’re asked to master and the expertise really resides in the teacher.

When kids go online in these more informal contexts where they’re pursuing their interests, they can really go, look around, and connect with knowledge, people, online communities that really enable them to tailor and customize what they want to learn, when they want to learn it.

And that is tremendously empowering for kids and motivating for them to learn.” — Dr. Mizuko Ito on Teen Development Online: Interacting with Media

Are your kids fascinated with Minecraft? So are educators:

“‘[T]he really cool thing about Minecraft is there’s an invitation to be creative and an invitation to be customizable and an invitation to engage at that level that’s much more accessible and much more on the surface.’ …

‘I’m interested in how it is providing kids a space to create their own game space and to share those game spaces with each other,’ she says. ‘This is a huge departure, not only from previous games, but previous toys and objects that were given to kids to play. Kids always make their own games in backyards and in schoolyards. And now they have an opportunity to make those games part of their shared culture.’ …

Minecraft certainly promotes some healthy behaviors, she adds.

Aside from rule-free, creative thinking, Grimes says, it encourages and facilitates a healthy co-operation.

‘The fact that you can collaborate in building a world together, you know, it’s amazing,’ she says.” — Minecraft Game Being Hailed as a Teaching Tool


Require self-direction.

Minecraft won’t do anything without the right input from the player. It doesn’t drag you along by the nose, but rather sits and waits for the player to do something important. And with every “correct” action by the player, they are rewarded with more freedom, opportunity and visual evidence of their decisions.” — 5 Lessons to Learn from Minecraft in Education @ TeachThought

Be sure to check out the great Minecraft projects being shared on PBH Kids!

Finally, some encouragement for the PBH grown-ups:

Eventually you will make a decision to forget your craft, or to zero in what you love most about it, truing to it fiercely above the urgent, the insistent, the loud demands that are yelling like a bully in your ear. Eventually it will be up to you to decide to turn a blind eye on the other things, and just pick this one thing. This one thing that feels important to you. That feels like the work you love, and just do it for an hour. Imperfectly. Even if it means you’ll be up a creek later. Even if it means there will be hell to pay. Even if it means the sky will fall. …

Eventually you will make the decision: to let circumstance define you, or to define your circumstance.” — Eventually You Will Make a Decision (or Reminders to Myself) @ Christina Rosalie


Stop listening to the advice of those that say it can’t be done, and seek the advice of those who are successfully doing what you want to do.” — Best Advice I’ve Been Given @ WhipUp

Thank you for hanging out with me on PBH and being part of this community!

I have to say that being a PBH mom has helped me tremendously to see that while being there for my kids, I can support my own work and make my dreams a reality. Learning as I go. — PBH forum comment

Thank you for challenging us parents the way you continually do and sticking up for the rights of children. You know why PBH rocks above all other educational methodologies? Because it’s the only methodology I’ve encountered that requires parents to try to become the best possible version of themselves in order to walk the talk. — PBH parent e-mail

Genuine interest is the magic ingredient that makes learning meaningful — and it’s what learners require to make their best efforts.

When we label a child as a “reluctant learner,” we’re making a big mistake. Not only are we focusing on the reluctance rather than the learning, but we’re telling a child that he has a problem learning. We’re missing the fact that it’s we who have the problem, because we have failed to provide our child with a learning experience that is interesting, relevant, and useful.” — The Myth of the Reluctant Learner


What to do if you hate your child’s interest

Published by Lori Pickert on May 30, 2013 at 08:40 AM

Holly made this comment on the sliver post:

[My son] still goes straight for the t.v. as soon as he walks in the door after being out. He still heads straight there as soon as “school-time” is over. Again, my bias gets in the way here, but I start to go crazy! Really, how many episodes of SpongeBob can one person endure?!

I guess the fact that he chooses to spend his time watching t.v. gets me the most. I’ve noticed that a lot of commenters mentioned Minecraft or other strategy-type games. I could probaby get behind that much more so than something as passive as t.v. watching (e.g., SpongeBob!!). I liken it to the parent who constantly provides entertainment for his/her child. In this case, it’s the t.v. constantly providing entertainment and he’s become totally dependent on it.

Just venting here a bit (sorry for that), but I do wonder if you have any advice or wisdom to share?

If you can’t stand the thing that your child is most interested in — or if you can’t see any real value in it — these are my suggestions for things you might think about or try:

- Look at what you WISH he was doing and then build that into your everyday life. Do those things together as a family. (This is the essential message of the sliver post.) Then you know his day contains those elements as well as TV — and it helps him see himself as someone who has more interests, more experences, and more potential.

- Imagine the ways SpongeBob might connect to activities you would be happier about. Would you be happier if he was writing Spongebob stories? Learning animation? Drawing comics? Is Spongebob really the problem, or is the problem that he isn’t oriented toward making and doing?

- Make sure he has the time and the raw materials to make and do. Does he have a workspace and materials? Are they clean and attractive and enticing? Does he have a desk or table in a place he wants to work (not off in a part of the house where he’d be by himself)? Does he have enough free time to watch TV and pursue other interests?

- Start journaling to identify his strong interests and carve out some dedicated project time. This includes SpongeBob and other interests as well. Open up a space in your life that is focused on helping him take those interests further.

- Sit down and watch SpongeBob with him. (You can just watch one episode.) Have him tell you about it. Ask him about his favorite characters and his favorite episodes. Dig into what he likes. The important thing isn’t SpongeBob — the important thing is connecting with your son, letting him see that you care about what he likes, respecting what he enjoys, and letting him know you want to know more about him and what interests him. You’ll also be able to start dissecting his interest and figuring out if there’s something you can help him explore further in a more active way.

- Make sure he has the ability to produce the media he likes to consume. Break his interest down and think about the component parts. Somewhere down the road, he might produce a podcast or a Youtube show. Right now, he might write his own original story or script, make a storyboard, learn how to do animation, make a flip book, draw a comic, put on a puppet show or skit, and so on.

Because everything is connected, it’s difficult to find ANY interest at all that a child has that can’t connect to books, films, community resources, hands-on making and building, websites, experts, writing, programming, and on and on. Roller-coasters connect to physics and design and business. Minecraft connects to programming and city planning and strategy. Spongebob connects to storytelling and animation and art. His interest is a point of entry that you can help him take in many different directions.

It’s easier to see the rich learning potential of an interest like bugs or dinosaurs or the human body. You nod and say, ah, science. I heartily approve. Yes, let’s explore this educational topic. Onward, ho!

It’s not so clear when your child has an interest like princesses or pirates or SpongeBob. You say, er, hmm. Well. Surely you have other things, better things, you want to learn about. Bugs? Anyone interested in studying bugs?

But when you start shutting down interests, you lose the child because he figures out very quickly that it’s not about him. It’s not about what he likes and what he wants to do. He isn’t in control of this time and these resources, and his interests are being judged as unworthy. That’s not a recipe for an excited, self-confident learner.

If you hate what your child likes, he may not understand enough to separate “Mom hates SpongeBob but she might like some other thing I like.” He may think, “The things I like are dumb.” He may just decide to keep his interests to himself. And if he feels like his interests do have value — whether it’s SpongeBob or Minecraft, comic books or Pokémon — and you loudly declare they have no value, then you’ve created a big dead spot where the two of you can’t share, can’t come together, can’t communicate, can’t understand one another. If you stay open to your child, you can approach any interest as a spark that can start a whole new rich line of inquiry. You can say

“Tell me about what you like. Explain that to me. Show me. How does it work? How would you do it?”

and so on.

If you’re open to it, his interest can be a starting point that goes everywhere. If you’re closed to it, then it’s a shut door and he may not take it further on his own, but even if he manages, you’re unlikely to hear much about it.

The most important thing is to take the focus off whatever he’s interested in that you don’t like and instead plow your energy into building up the making, doing, creating, thinking, learning part of your life. If a child is interested in SpongeBob but doesn’t know what to do with that interest other than sit back, get comfy, and watch episode after episode, then that’s what they’re going to do. If you make a space for digging into his interests and exploring different ways to express what he knows, he might draw Spongebob, write Spongebob stories, sew a SpongeBob doll, screen-print a SpongeBob shirt, make SpongeBob stop-motion animations with SpongeBob legos, and on and on.

You see how this works: It’s the bigger context that matters, and that’s what needs to change. Once the elements are in place for a life focused on digging deep, exploring, making, doing, and sharing, any interest will be explored in a meaningful, active way. And when he switches interests, he takes his skills (and his mentor) along with him.

Now, if your child has a lot of interests, you get to pick and choose what to invest in, and it makes sense to support something that you think is worthy of deep, prolonged study. And you may as well steer away from the things that you have a real distaste for. But I like to think that any parent who really gets experience mentoring their child’s self-directed learning will become more and more interested in their child and what they care about. The more you do this, the less likely you are to easily dismiss something they really care about. You’ve discovered how deep and complex learning born out of self-motivation and authentic interest can be. That’s what I think — that’s what I hope!

Stay open to what he cares about and design a life that is focused on the things you care most about. You won’t go wrong.



Also check out: Video games can actually give you ideas (guest post by my son)


Published by Lori Pickert on January 31, 2013 at 09:06 AM

Outtakes from PBH found in my writing journal:

If you get hung up on the superficial, you can’t make progress on what’s deep and meaningful.

Let go of your ego about what your child’s progress/results/products look like to others. It stands in the way of true understanding.

If YOU really understand what your child is doing/what they have accomplished, you will be able to show it to others and help them understand — and hopefully it will lessen your need for their approval.

You want your child to be self-confident and be discerning about whose opinion they respect. Embody that value in your own life.

Let your children have their own ideas, recognize their own possibilities, find their own way, measure their own progress. If they don’t learn these skills now, when will they learn them?

TV on DVD and the importance of immersive experiences

Published by Lori Pickert on January 9, 2013 at 08:30 AM

Last week we sat down to watch the first episode of season 5 of “Merlin,” a BBC TV show we discovered last year. We watched the first four seasons on DVD and really enjoyed it. In fact, our Christmas card was an homage to the show — the photo above is of the stamp I carved from my older son’s drawing of Camelot for the front of the card; my younger son’s drawing of a knight decorated the inside (see below).

The first episode of the new season was a disappointment — not because the show itself had lost something, but because the experience of watching it was markedly less enjoyable. Commercials constantly interrupt the action (usually at the most exciting part of the story). Scenes that might be related by theme or meaning are so chopped up and separated, any nuance is lost. The scenes become disconnected from one another. You can’t fall into the story world. You stay on the outside of the experience peering in, feeling a bit frustrated.

There is so much more detail and complexity when you see the story as a whole: emotional arcs, symbolism, deeper meaning, relationships. You aren’t having the full experience when it’s chopped into bits (episodes seen days apart) and then minced (interrupted every few minutes by commercials).

The original story loses half its meaning and enjoyment when it’s chopped up for consumption on television — much as interesting topics of study lose their flavor and engaging qualities when they’re chopped up for consumption in learning.

Authentic learning and understanding require immersive experiences. The same material learned in a classroom or delivered in a unit cannot have the same impact, even if the subject is the same. The sad truth is, no matter how hard we may work to make topics of study interesting or relevant, the delivery method can kill their potential.

For a learning experience to be immersive, you must have

- all the time you need

- freedom to explore connections

- as few interruptions or transitions as possible

- the opportunity to think deeply about complex things

- time to build the skills you need to produce the work you envision

and so on. The key is time — and freedom to use that time to connect to the material in your own way.

Have you ever done a project for school that was frustrating because you knew it could have been fun — and you could have really learned something — if only you’d had adequate time to spend on it and do it the right way? I had that experience all the time in college, never mind grade school or high school.

For an immersive experience, you need time — lots of it. Weeks, months, even years. You need freedom — to make choices, to pursue side trails, to acquire skills, to have ideas, to find ways to share what you know, to find cohorts and mentors. You need the ability to concentrate and lose yourself in your work — to be in the flow.

Because we think children need to learn a little about a lot of different things, we structure learning in chopped-up little bits and constantly interrupt them with transitions as we hop from one subject to another. We don’t have time to dig down deep into one idea, so children never move beyond a surface acquaintance with any one subject.

Unfortunately, they come to believe that’s what learning is. They don’t get the opportunity to experience the power of an immersive learning experience.

Somewhere in the hours our children spend “learning,” they need time to relax, brainstorm, plan, try, fail. They need time to collaborate with friends, identify and solve problems, try again with a new idea. They need to learn and compare different tools and materials. They need to acquire skills to do something real — a task they’ve set for themselves. They need to talk to experts and find mentors, to master what they think they know so they can share it with others.

If we aren’t giving children immersive learning experiences, we’re cheating them. We’re only putting them on a nodding acquaintance with what real learning is.

Books and curricula and smartboards and iPads — they’re great. But we have to invest in our children’s education the two things that matter most — time and the freedom to learn to use it to do something meaningful.

Educational goals and long-term thinking

Published by Lori Pickert on December 8, 2012 at 11:32 AM


“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people,” Bezos told Wired in 2011. “But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that." — The Jeff Bezos School of Long-Term Thinking @ 99U

Part of the problem with how we think about children and learning is our focus on very short periods of time.

If you prioritize a “well-rounded education,” you have to preplan everything, label it, chop it up into smallish chunks, and then distribute it across the time you’ve allotted — usually a nine-month school year.

If you have to fragment your learning goals and pour them into your schedule first, then you will have a difficult time fitting in a self-directed, long-term project.

If self-directed learning is a goal, you have to fit that big rock in first. Set aside the idea of a nine-month “school year” and forget about artificially separating out subject areas (history, literature, science). Prioritize slow learning. Focus on holistic learning. Instead of requiring X amount of a certain subject area each week/month/year, measure it over a more generous period of time — say, two or three years. Look at your child’s long-term project work (no planning ahead) and make your authentic assessment then:

What was read?

What was written?

What experiments were planned?

What knowledge was gathered?

What was built/created?

What was shared?

What habits were formed?

What learning was accomplished?

You may find your child is getting a balanced educational diet and requires very little adult-directed supplementation. But you won’t know unless you try. And it requires a leap of faith: a belief that child-directed learning is complex, multilayered, and inherently multidisciplinary.

Investing in your child’s education and taking a long view — giving them time to grow and develop interests, ideas, and plans over months and even years — allows your child to achieve something most schoolchildren never experience: deep, authentic engagement.

There are three levels of learning in project-based homeschooling:

- learning about our topic (primary)

- acquiring the skills we need to meet short-term goals (secondary), and

- developing the habits of mind that help us solve problems, communicate, think flexibly, and so on (tertiary).

One way we can help our children get to those deeper levels is by developing a long-term mindset toward meeting authentic learning goals.

The short-term, preplanned, fragmented form of education was created to fit a particular schedule. Once you break free from that schedule, you can hack that method of learning as well. Living a learning life means you have the freedom and time to fill it with something more meaningful.

You are the best predictor of your child’s future life

Published by Lori Pickert on December 3, 2012 at 04:37 PM


The best way to increase the odds that your child will live a certain way is to live that way yourself. The best way to raise readers is to read. The best way to raise doers is to do.

The best way to raise active, engaged learners is to be an active, engaged learner. Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting. In terms of teaching our children to dare greatly in the “never enough” culture, the question isn’t so much “Are you parenting the right way?” as it is: “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?” — Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Are you nurturing the traits within yourself that you want your children to have?

Also see: PBH for Grown-Ups

Interview on Interest-Led Learning

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

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

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

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

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

Come read the rest!

Critique with children

Published by Lori Pickert on October 15, 2012 at 10:25 AM


Critique can be a valuable experience that even very young children can participate in (although we may not call it critique). When my school’s preschool students (age 3 and 4) shared their work with their classmates (a daily occurrence), they would explain what they had made, then they would ask for “questions, comments, or suggestions.”

The other students would then raise their hands, and the presenter would call on them. They could ask questions about the work. “Why did you put that part on?” They could make comments. “I like how you made the ladder.” They could make suggestions. “I think you should make that part yellow instead.”

The presenter would then respond to them. “I put that there because…” “Thank you.” “I might do that” or “No, thank you.” It was up to them whether they wanted to consider taking someone’s suggestion; if they didn’t want to, they needed to politely say, “no, thank you.” If the child said she did want to make some addition or change to her work, the teacher would note that on a post-it so it would be remembered the next day.

Critique is not only for sharing and talking about works of art — it can be used for sharing any kind of project work.

Sharing your work with others is a crucial part of project-based homeschooling. We really know something when we can explain it or teach it to someone else. And it’s important to make a contribution to the community. When we are working on our projects, we draw on community resources (museums, universities, libraries) and other people (experts, community members, librarians, etc.). When we produce work and share it with others, we are making our own contribution. We give as well as take; we’re part of the big conversation.

We started doing critiques with older children when we had a summer photography class. Much like the preschool class, the students would stand up in front of the group and show their work (first choosing the pieces they wanted to share — narrowing down their work was the first step), talk about it, and answer questions.

Parts of critique that are very useful for a child to learn/experience:

- sharing your work with others — beginning to think about the person who is seeing/hearing/experiencing your work

- beginning to anticipate your audience’s reaction while you are creating

- thinking about someone else’s point of view

- thinking about why you made the choices you did

- thinking about your own process: putting it into words

- thinking about accidental discoveries as well as deliberate choices

- articulating what you think and feel about someone else’s work

- learning to say something helpful — not necessarily about what you prefer, but to help the other person achieve his goal — learning to make good suggestions

- asking good, meaningful questions; making relevant observations

You can lead a critique like this with any group, maybe even siblings — but it is a learned skill. Children have to learn to make useful, meaningful comments, and they have to learn how to respond calmly and politely to the suggestions of others. Commit to doing it on a regular basis, and you give them the chance to develop those skills.


- let the child control the process — speaking first, calling on people

- start by having them share their work, their intentions, their plans

- prompting “comments, questions, or suggestions” reminds them of what is useful to share

- don’t allow negative comments

We start laying the groundwork for critique when we talk to children meaningfully about their work. This can start when your children are very small.

Ask questions like

- What did you make/do?

- Why did you want to make/do this?

- What do you like about it?

- Did you have any problems?

- Is there anything more you want to do with this?

- Is there anything you want to add?

- Is there anything you want to change?

- Why did you decide to do X here? (Encourage them to explain their choices.)

When you talk to your child about his work, you encourage him to think about it more deeply.

You don’t need to save critique for when a work is finished. Sharing what they’ve made, talking about their work and plans, listening to what their peers have to say — all of things are helpful to a child who is in the midst of a work-in-progress. They firm up their own ideas and can decide whether to incorporate the suggestions of others. They pause while making to consider their plans, which may help make their plans more complex.

In this kind of active learning community, children learn to share ideas, think about their choices, help others with their projects, and seek out other opinions when they get stuck.

They learn to collaborate to solve problems, brainstorm possibilities, and look more deeply into their own decisions and the decisions of others.

Yes, the art teacher is the teacher, but a creative studio art teacher is confident enough to NOT make suggestions. Teachers model empathic critique expressing affirmative curiosity. They phrase open questions that focus thinking and allow a diversity of student responses. Students learn to learn to be their own decider in art. The creative teacher coaches students to experiment and find out for themselves what works by empathically asking each other what they see, why it produces the effect, what they think it means, and what purpose they see for the work. The creative coach encourages teamwork and student ownership by deferring to students for their input. The teacher develops student participation by affirming the phrasing of good open questions. …

We increase our learning when the questions build awareness and call attention to discoveries. Creative work always includes unintended outcomes and consequences. We find them. We use them. We build knowledge. We become artistic. Empathic critique is a commonly used skill for a successful artist and a successful life. — Marvin Bartel