project-based homeschooling

How to do what you love

Published by Lori Pickert on October 13, 2012 at 02:26 PM

Two nice follow-ups on “Why Skills Don’t Trump Passion”

[Students] come to me and say, “Well, we’re getting out of college and we haven’t the faintest idea of what we want to do.

So I always ask the question, “What would you like to do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?

Well, it’s so amazing — as a result of our kind of educational system, crowds of students say, “Well, we’d like to be painters, we’d like to be poets, we’d like to be writers, but as everyone knows, you can’t earn any money that way.” …

When we finally got down to something which the individual says he really wants to do, I will say to him, “Well, you do that — and forget the money, because if you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing — which is stupid!”

Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.

And after all, if you do really like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what it is — you can eventually become a master of it. It’s the only way to become a master of something … and then you’ll be able to get a good fee for whatever it is. So don’t worry too much — somebody’s interested in everything. And anything you’re interested in, you’ll find others.

But it’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like in order to go on spending time doing things you don’t like and to teach your children to follow in the same track.

See, what we’re doing is, we’re bringing up children, educating them, to live the same sort of lives that we’re living in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same things…

And so therefore it’s so important to consider this question — what do I desire?

Alan Watts

To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We've got it down to four words: “Do what you love.” But it's not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated.

The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition. Life had two states: some of the time adults were making you do things, and that was called work; the rest of the time you could do what you wanted, and that was called playing. …

School, it was implied, was tedious because it was preparation for grownup work. …

By the time they reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, most kids have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one's work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can't blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.” …

The most dangerous liars can be the kids’ own parents. If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house. …

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they'd do it even if they weren't paid for it — even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves? …

With such powerful forces leading us astray, it's not surprising we find it so hard to discover what we like to work on. Most people are doomed in childhood by accepting the axiom that work = pain. Those who escape this are nearly all lured onto the rocks by prestige or money. How many even discover something they love to work on? A few hundred thousand, perhaps, out of billions.

It's hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don't underestimate this task. And don't feel bad if you haven't succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you're discontented, you're a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial. If you're surrounded by colleagues who claim to enjoy work that you find contemptible, odds are they're lying to themselves. Not necessarily, but probably.

Although doing great work takes less discipline than people think — because the way to do great work is to find something you like so much that you don't have to force yourself to do it — finding work you love does usually require discipline.

Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it's rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it.


If you know you can love work, you’re in the home stretch, and if you know what work you love, you’re practically there.


— Paul Graham, How to Do What You Love

Why skills don’t trump passion

Published by Lori Pickert on October 5, 2012 at 11:12 AM

I recently finished reading Cal Newport’s new book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.

There is a kick-back against “finding your passion” and if you want to understand it, read this book. 

Many years ago, my husband and I watched a 60 Minutes segment about an automobile plant closing in Michigan and the effect on its workers, who had previously been making very nice salaries as union autoworkers.

They focused on a few workers and their post-layoff plans, and one woman they interviewed had settled on her new plan: to open a hot-dog restaurant. Selling only hot dogs — no burgers. They followed her around and asked her questions and the subtext was, “Brace yourself for the train wreck to come.”

Ever since then, our family code for an ill-thought-out plan is “hot-dog restaurant.”

In Newport’s book, the people who chase their passions are all would-be hot-dog restauranteurs. Meanwhile, his advice is to forget about passion and just settle down to acquire serious skills.  Stay where you are; keep doing what you’re doing right now. Be “so good they can’t ignore you.” You’ll build career capital and eventually earn more freedom and autonomy. That is where true career happiness lies, he says.

The problem is, by the end of the book, the examples given all blur together and people’s choices seem terribly similar except for how they are sorted: losers who failed were passion-chasers and winners who succeeded were craftsmen. The only thing that really separates them is the language Newport uses to describe their choices.

Lisa moved from an advertising career to start a yoga studio.

When Feuer left her advertising career to start a yoga studio, not only did she discard her career capital acquired over many years in the marketing industry, but she transitioned into an unrelated field where she had almost no capital. Given yoga’s popularity, a one-month training program places Feuer pretty near the bottom of the skill hierarchy of yoga practitioners, making her a long way from being so good she can’t be ignored. According to career capital theory, she therefore has very little leverage in her yoga-working life. It’s unlikely, therefore, that things will go well for Feuer — which, unfortunately, is exactly what ended up happening.

Giles moved from a successful programming career to pursue “a longstanding interest in filmmaking.”

“It’s not that the money was great … but just that it sounded like a lot of fun — one of Giles’ most important criteria for his working life. … Not long after I met Giles, after he had successfully scratched his Hollywood itch, he once again moved on. A publisher had asked him to write a book, and he had agreed — and why not? It seemed like an interesting thing to do.

“I talked to the recruiter about finding something I liked better, and he said I should be thrilled to have a job.” Giles being Giles, however, he ignored the recruiter, quit his job, and moved back to Santa Fe.

On the surface, both Lisa and Giles chased an interest — but whereas Lisa was described as “enthralled” and her choice as “ill-fated,” Giles’ choices were described as “remarkable” as he searched for his “mission” in life. Newport also made the point that Giles made use of his career capital — he incorporated computer programming into various jobs as he hopped around looking for something “interesting” to do. Lisa, on the other hand, was seen as losing all her career capital by moving from marketing to owning her own business — even though it seems like marketing skills would be an excellent base for a competitive small business. If her yoga business had been a success, that’s how her story would have been interpreted. If you fail, you were chasing passion; if you succeed, you just wanted to keep things interesting and be remarkable. A reviewer on Goodreads taught me the term for this type of convenient reasoning: retrospective coherence.

What does all this have to do with project-based homeschooling?

When educators take full control of curricula and leave kids entirely out of it — no self-directed learning, no long-term projects, no choice — they are building learning around 100% skills.

There are educators who say that project-based learning — or “child-led,” “interest-led,” or “passion-driven” learning — is too heavy on hot-dog restaurant emotion and weak on skills. This is the same argument Newport makes in his book: it’s not that skills trump passion (his subtitle!) but that skills are everything and passion should be entirely discarded.

The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it’s also dangerous. Telling someone to “follow their passion” is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.

Keep in mind, it’s okay to do things that seem interesting to you (see Giles above) — just don’t go crazy and feel passionate about it.

Can you teach kids skills without tapping into their interests (or passions)? Sure. That’s how it’s usually done. Does it work well? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

What happens when we couple deep interests (cough — passions — cough) and learning? Are skills thrown out the window? “Skills — who needs skills when I have passion?!” This is how a lot of people view this kind of learning: they think that when you let kids direct their own learning, they’ll be lazy. They won’t challenge themselves. They’ll stop acquiring and practicing real skills.

This is, of course, completely false. In order to do anything you want to do, you need skills. And children who have some say in what they learn are self-motivated; they want skills because they want to meet their own goals.

I heard an educator say the problem with allowing kids to learn through projects is that they won’t acquire any knowledge. “What happens to content coverage? These kids aren’t going to know anything!” As if you could spend months digging deeply into a topic and not acquire knowledge. Or skills. When they hear “interest,” educators like these imagine Newport’s version of passion: a fantasy that floats above your head in a pink dream bubble.

To really learn something, you need both knowledge and skills. You have to gather the knowledge and then you have to work with it. To discard passion (or authentic interest) is to drain the life force from the learner and therefore from the work. Am I going to bring my best efforts to something that holds no interest for me? Am I going to achieve flow? Am I going to strive to challenge myself?

The real issue, in the end, is interests. Teaching works best when you teach students who agree that they really want to learn whatever it is you have to teach. This means making sure that students are preparing to do things they want to do and actually will do. That makes teaching much easier for all involved. The one-size-fits-all curriculum doesn’t work because one size doesn’t fit all. Let detail-oriented people learn detailed kinds of things. Let artistic people learn artistic kinds of things. Let logical people learn logical kinds of things. Everyone would be much happier and all would enjoy learning a lot more if we simply let people be themselves.” — Roger Schank, Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools

Project-based homeschooling combines interests (or passions) with long-term, deep, complex learning. Learning means knowledge and skills. Doing interesting work that is meaningful to you motivates you to bring your best effort. The difference between kids who manage and direct their own learning and kids doing work that, and I’m quoting something I saw on Pinterest the other day, “doesn’t even require your kids to have ideas” is, to borrow Newport’s word, remarkable.

Newport wanted to write a manifesto (he says so in the book), so he strayed away from the simple message that passion must be coupled with real skills. That is project-based homeschooling. They aren’t pipe dreams if you have the skills to turn them into reality. You aren’t a fool if you know how to fuse what you enjoy doing with what the world needs.

Here’s my takeaway after reading this 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.

This advice doesn’t work for kids who are experienced at coupling their interests with real-world experience, knowledge, and skills. These kids have already deeply explored their interests. They already know what it means to get beyond the honeymoon period to the place where real, challenging work is required. They have experienced the deep pleasure of having real skills and doing meaningful work.

These kids have shared what they know with others. They’ve connected with their community. Their experiences have firmly planted them in reality. Their interests aren’t pipe dreams and fantasies — they are gateways to the nexus of “what I like to do,” “what I have to give,” and “what people will pay for.”

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. These books are aimed at kids who haven’t initiated their own projects, haven’t explored their interests deeply, and haven’t learned how to find their place in the world. A project-based homeschooler is already way ahead of the game. They don’t need to be told to dump their passions and buckle down to sharpen their skills at whatever job they find themselves in after graduation. They already know how to combine interests, knowledge, skills, and hard work to build something the world needs. They’ve already moved on to asking deeper questions about their purpose. They have experience finding their place in the world and figuring out what they can contribute.

Skills don’t trump passion. Skills are what you know how to do. Passion is where you start finding out who you are, what you’re good at, and what the world needs.

People who are in touch with their soul know what they’re supposed to be doing in the world and what their way of contributing to life is, in the same way that people know what music they love and food they enjoy — not just life-sustaining food, but food that has flavor, that makes you feel nourished, even inspired. — Michael Meade

Everyone needs some help learning who they already are. That’s the root of genuine education and the task of real culture. — Michael Meade

Abilities vs. activities: Why children need authentic art

Published by Lori Pickert on September 29, 2012 at 11:58 AM

Penelope Trunk wrote about my book and she said this:

I am very achievement oriented, so I see no point in a project that does not come with a big achievement at the end. Pickert's book is more small-scale and reasonable — like doing art projects

Penelope got it wrong in a few ways. One, projects are not “small-scale and reasonable,” even when done by three- and four-year-olds. A group of preschool-age children at my private school did a year-long project during which they wrote books, created posters, wrote and performed skits, made a roomful of models, built props, painted a mural, painted some large canvases, identified and labeled and organized seashells and deep-sea life, built a child-size boat with authentic details, created a ocean habitat that filled a stage, took multiple field trips, and on and on and on. That’s not small scale. And those were very young children.

Two, project work is all about achievement — but the achievement is defined by the one doing the work. The work is owned by the child, controlled and directed by the child, and assessed by the child. It’s not judged from the outside; the child develops the ability to assess his own work. A young child who sets himself to a task and meets his own self-set goals feels authentic achievement. There is a world of difference between receiving approval from someone else and feeling confidence and satisfaction from within. Project-based homeschooling focuses on the latter.

Finally, you cannot dismiss the importance of becoming fluent in authentic art as “art projects.”

Authentic art is of crucial importance for young children. They are not yet able to read or write fluently. Authentic art enables children to work actively with knowledge and build thinking, learning, and communication skills.

They learn while they create two- and three-dimensional representations. The act of creating, say, a physical model of a Mars rover allows them to examine photos, listen to books and news articles being read aloud, incorporate details they understand, compare their work to the work of their friends, and add new details as they understand them, as well as mastering the art medium itself: learning how to build a construction, how to make the wheels really turn, how to choose the best material for each detail, how to apply paint and glue, how to fix their mistakes and solve problems, and so on.

They express what they know. What they make reveals their understandings, their questions, their ideas. Talking to a young child, you can get an idea of what they know and understand; watching them create two- and three-dimensional art reveals much, much more. Art is an additional way for them to communicate; this is why Reggio treats each different art medium as a language.

They figure out what they don’t understand. As they draw, paint, model in clay, and build constructions out of cardboard and wire and papier-maché, they come across details that elicit questions. They find out what they don’t know. As they share their work with others, their peers’ and family members’ questions and comments reveal their knowledge and the holes in that knowledge. This process continually moves them to deepen their understanding until they become experts.

As children get older, they can add writing to their list of ways to communicate what they know. They can write stories and books, they can blog and podcast, they can create websites and wikis and films. This is, again, not “small-scale and reasonable” — this is real, authentic work done by someone who wants to know and understand and communicate with other people.

Education should be a ramp that takes a child from age 3 to adulthood. To respect that a small child is full of ideas that deserve to be shared means allowing them a multitude of ways to express themselves — authentic art and dramatic play included. As the child grows in ability and skills, he will fold in reading, writing, and technology. It should be a smooth transition, layering skills upon skills so that a child who is 13 is expressing his ideas and questions and opinions in the same way he was at age 3, but with new tools. The work he did at 3 helps him do the work he is capable of at 13.

Instead of crafts, children need to become fluent at expressing their own ideas. They will acquire real skills and abilities — not just how to paint, but how to express an idea clearly; not just how to sculpt, but how to make a plan and execute it. Compare this to the typical crafts that are offered to children — “cute” activities that keep kids occupied and produce an expected outcome. “Here’s what it’s supposed to look like” does not inspire the kind of creative expression and pride in accomplishment that authentic art offers. “Here’s how you do it” does not lead to meaningful planning or problem-solving. We need to spend less time preparing children’s activities and more time building up their abilities.

Many adults have a dismissive attitude toward the work children do. They can’t tell the difference between a piece of authentic, creative work that expresses an idea and a handprint turkey. To understand this requires getting on the child’s level and endeavoring to understand his thought processes, his questions, his ideas. It requires giving up your own ideas about what he should do and asking him what he wants to do. If you don’t believe children are capable of deep thought and hard work, it’s doubtful you’ll make the effort to see what they can do when allowed to make their own decisions, let alone what they can do when they are mentored and supported.

We have to commit to learning what our children can do. We can set them to a series of tasks or we can help them forge their own path. We can keep them busy with activities or we can help them build up their abilities. We can keep thinking of them as pre-adults or we can learn to respect them as strong and capable of building their own knowledge. It’s our choice. Our children will fit themselves to our expectations. They will see themselves the way we see them. So we should look as closely at possible — at them and at ourselves.

Perseverance and grit vs. knowing when to quit

Published by Lori Pickert on September 21, 2012 at 08:31 AM

In my book, I write about the importance of teaching your kids how to finish.

Many adults, let alone children, stall in the information-gathering stage of a project. They keep collecting inspiration and ideas without ever moving forward to the point of making something of their own. Forget about finishing — they can’t start.

Finishing is a key skill. The beginning part of a project is the least difficult and often the most fun. There are materials to buy and inspirational photos to look at. The middle is when things get harder. And sometimes we never make it past the middle. Everything gets shoved into a bag and then into the back of a closet, and we move on to another fun beginning.

Perseverance and grit are key traits for successful people. But prioritizing learning how to finish doesn’t mean you never, ever quit anything. An equally important skill is figuring out when it’s okay to not finish.

If we determine to never, ever quit anything, ever, then we will spend a lot of our time just gritting our teeth and stumping to the end of something we wish we’d never started in the first place. There’s probably not a lot of useful learning there. You can’t get where you want to go if you spend months trudging in the wrong direction after you figured out long ago you turned left when you should have turned right.

Good quitting requires

- being able to admit you made a mistake.

- recognizing when the path you’re on isn’t taking you where you want to go.

- being able to let go of the time and effort you’ve put in.

- accepting new information that changes your old plan.

- acknowledging you aren’t getting the results you were after.

- realizing you have better options.

So how do we balance the importance of finishing with knowing when to quit?

Persistence and fulfilling your commitments are character traits that are very important to most parents. We want our kids to go the distance. We want them to stick it out when the going gets tough. We want them to be determined, and we want them to meet their commitments. These are all good traits to have, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. What if our kids are in a bad relationship? What if their coach is destroying their love for a sport?

Do we want our kids to learn that if they start something, we will always make them stick with it — so maybe it’s better not to start, so you don’t end up doing something for months that you don’t enjoy? With all due respect to Tiger Mom, you’re not teaching kids persistence forcing them to complete something *you* want them to do. Perseverance and grit are traits that come from the inside. If someone else is making you persist, then you’re not developing persistence any more than a person being dragged by a rope is learning to walk. 

We need to learn to find our way — through exploring, through experience — to the richest areas for potential growth. This may require adjusting your sails, reworking your plan, replanning your route. We need the freedom and flexibility to shift to a path that’s going to give us a better outcome. This is a learned skill and an equally valuable trait: learning when to cut your losses, being able to recognize a better opportunity.

There is good and bad persistence. Good persistence allows you to forge ahead through difficulties to accomplish what you set out to do. Bad persistence keeps you on a nonproductive course because you can’t bring yourself to admit you made a mistake. You don’t want to lose the time and money you’ve already invested, so you end up losing more. It’s important to learn the difference between the two. It’s important to learn how to examine what’s happening and determine whether it’s in your best interest to stick with what you’re doing … or quit. And if quitting is the best course, then it takes just as much strength of character to make that call as to stick with a path that’s taking you in a direction you don’t really want to go.


Teaching perseverance and grit

Published by Lori Pickert on September 16, 2012 at 02:03 PM

How will your child weather the storms of life?

We’ve talked before on the blog about the importance of character traits. This is something that was a hard sell when I had my private school. Parents wanted grades. They wanted to know how their child ranked against the others in the class. They wanted a measurement, a reassurance that their child was literally “making the grade.” 

We developed an authentic assessment that included a list of habits of mind — traits we wanted to help the children develop. They included things like “accepts consequences for their actions,” “is willing to change ideas in light of new evidence (flexibility),” “asks good, meaningful, worthwhile questions,” and “stands by beliefs against a crowd.”

But most parents weren’t interested. They wanted a number, a letter, something that said my child is here and the other children are here.

Cognitive skill and IQ make a big difference. Vocabulary matters. But the scientists, the economists, the neuroscientists and psychologists who’ve been studying this and writing about it are really challenging the idea that IQ and standardized test scores are the most important thing in a child’s success.

There’s lots of evidence out there now that says that these other strengths, these character strengths or non-cognitive skills, are at least as important to a child’s success and quite possibly more important. But right now we’ve got an education system that really doesn’t pay attention to those skills at all. We’re very good at trying to build those cognitive skills, but most kids need a whole lot more to succeed. …

Schools just aren’t set up right now to try to develop things like grit and perseverance and curiosity. I think especially in a world where we are more and more focused on standardized tests that measure a pretty narrow range of cognitive skills, teachers are less incentivized to think about how to develop those skills in kids. — Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Angela Duckworth did a TED talk entitled “True Grit: Can Perseverance Be Taught?” The talk is interesting and worth listening to, but the question posted in the title is never answered. It’s an open question. Can we teach perseverance? She ends by saying, whatever it is we need to do to help kids develop this quality, we need to figure it out and do it.

Can we teach perseverance and grit? Is that something that fits into a curriculum? I’m reminded of a teacher who worked for me who tried to teach the children, very gently, how to improve their character at school — how to share, not tell lies, be good friends, and so on. She did this by enacting, at the end of each preschool class, a little puppet show that would highlight an incident that had occurred earlier that day. One puppet stole a toy from another or said something mean that made his friend cry. The children loved this. They ate it up. They booed the bad puppet. Did they see themselves in the story? Not even when it repeated things they had said and done to the letter.

Can we create a lesson that will somehow magically impart these important character traits that children need to succeed? If we could, wouldn’t we have done it already?

I do believe we can create circumstances under which children can more easily acquire and strenghten those traits. We have to let them pursue work that is meaningful to them. We have to let them set their own goals, and we have to support them and help them work through setbacks as they strive to meet those goals. We have to make it okay to fail and make mistakes. The environment we create can either help or hinder them. Our choices are crucially important.

In an interview on NPR, Paul Tough says that when children are very bonded with their parents, especially early in life, they develop psychological strength, confidence, and character that makes a huge difference in their success in school and on into adulthood. But love and affection are only part of the equation. It’s equally important that when children get a little older — as young as two or three years old — their parents have to make sure they have the opportunity to be independent, to be challenged.

Of course, when I read that, I think of project-based homeschooling. We need to love and support our kids, but we also need to create the circumstances under which they can do their own meaningful work. We need to help them make that work challenging and rigorous. We need to facilitate, but we need to let them fail.

We don’t need to worry about teaching our kids perseverance and grit. We just need to make it possible for them to learn it on their own.

Raising a person who will love what they do now — and later

Published by Lori Pickert on September 2, 2012 at 01:55 PM

Some quotes from 10 Reasons Why Some People Love What They Do:

People who genuinely love their jobs … are in touch with that kid who loved to write, or tell stories, or envision amazing buildings. The important part: what these people are doing in their jobs now may not be (and usually is not) a carbon copy of those passions, but they’re successfully integrated elements of those passions into what they do. In effect, they’re energized kids with the seasoned perspective of adults — and that’s a great place to be.

This is something that a lot of people struggle with understanding about letting kids seriously pursue their interests and passions. It’s not about whether their kid will really end up as a LEGO designer or comic artist or paleontologist. It’s about becoming a person who knows how to turn a passionate interest into something real. Once you know how to do that — once you know how to deeply investigate an interest and create original work, connect with other people, and express your own ideas — you can do it over and over again as you get older and your interests change and evolve.

[P]eople who genuinely love what they do don’t allow others to talk them out of it.

When we push kids’ interests to the side (to their slivers of free time) and tell them to concentrate on the curriculum, we’re letting them develop a habit of getting talked out of what they really want to do. They learn to let go of the things they really care about. We should be doing exactly the opposite: teaching them to keep a tight grip on what they care about and not give it up. In fact, we should be helping them learn how to dig into it and pursue it with energy and purpose.

We have got to let go of our focus on the curriculum and start putting our focus on the learner. We need to help our children become expert learners. What you need to learn changes — what’s important is your ability to learn. Part of being a successful learner is having tenaciousness and grit.

I have lost count, seriously, of how many managers I’ve watched try to talk a passionate person out of pursuing a path toward the thing that fulfills them.  The manager has a plan, and this person needs to fill a prescribed role in that plan, period.  But for a passion-driven person who loves what they do — or is trying to connect up with what they love to do — that plan will receive their deference for only as long as it takes them to navigate around it.

The adult has a plan and just wants the child to fill her role in that plan, period. What does the child want? She may agree to do what she’s told, but really she’s just biding her time to get back to what she really cares about. She saves her best effort for her self-chosen work. If we don’t support that self-chosen work, we may never know what she’s capable of. Worse, if we don’t give her the time and support she needs to explore her interests, she may forget about them altogether.

When we can let go of our tight grip on the minutia of the curriculum and allow our children to define some of their own learning goals, we can move the focus where it should be: on helping this particular learner develop her particular skills and abilities inside the frame of her particular interests and talents. That’s the education our children deserve.


What children want vs. what children need

Published by Lori Pickert on August 29, 2012 at 09:57 AM

There is a common misconception about what happens when you involve children in their own education: namely, that children will only learn what they want to learn.

“My child,” they say sourly, “would just [insert useless activity here] all day.”

Play with LEGO, play video games, watch TV, read comics — however their child chooses to spend their scant free time, they believe that child will fill whatever extra time they’re given with the same activity: usually something they deem mindless entertainment. And if not mindless entertainment, an obsession the adult would secretly like to purge: playing with plastic dinosaurs or wooden trains or cutting out paper fairy dresses. Haven’t they had enough of that yet?

Here is the key thing that is misunderstood: Project-based homeschooling isn’t only about what children want to learn — it is about creating a situation where children *need* to learn. It is about helping children explore their ideas in a deeper, more complex way. It is about helping them state goals and then work to achieve them. It is about awakening their inner self-directed learner — and their interest is the key.

A child with a desire to play video games just needs to be left alone. A child who wants to make his own video game needs reading and writing and math and coding, a library, a mentor, an ally, an audience.

A child who wants to play LEGO just needs everyone to stop complaining about the mess on the floor. A child who wants to build a model of a medieval castle needs books, a museum, internet research, a plan, a pile of sketches, math.

The people who pooh-pooh any type of “child-led” or “interest-led” learning are operating from a deep prejudice against both children and learning. They believe children are lazy and incapable of self-generated complex thought and action. And they believe learning is an inert and lifeless thing that must be delivered like a blow or a benediction. They fail to recognize the power of each and they completely miss the magic that occurs when you bring the two together. The learner and the opportunity to learn: they don’t require that much effort to unite. Mostly we just have to stop getting in their way.

We all start from a place of want. If we’re allowed to pursue our interests — if we’re supported and encouraged — we will quickly get to a place of need. We can hardly go a few steps down the trail before we meet up with the need for knowledge, the need to acquire or hone a skill. We *need* to challenge ourselves in order to do the things we really *want* to do. That’s where learning happens.

The myth of the reluctant learner

Published by Lori Pickert on August 22, 2012 at 08:41 AM

There is no such thing as a reluctant learner. If there was, you’d have a child who didn’t want to learn anything at all — nothing about Minecraft, Spongebob, Pokémon, or sharks. Nothing about fairy tales, superheroes, dinosaurs, or LEGO.

No child is reluctant to learn. Every child strives to learn as much as he can. There are only children who are strongly resistant to being told what to learn and how to learn it. There are children who are more stubborn about being forced to learn things that don’t interest them or don’t seem useful. There are children who are less able to tolerate boredom and children who are less able to tolerate sitting still for long periods of time trying to focus on something that has no importance or meaning to them.

It is both inaccurate and unfair to label a child resistant to a style of learning (e.g., sedentary, authoritative) as a reluctant learner. When we do so, we’re reinforcing the issue as an educational or intellectual one. We’re saying, “Hey you, you’re bad at learning.” Does that help the problem or exacerbate it? No child is probably going to mind being told that they’re bad at something they don’t want to do anyway. Meanwhile, they start self-labeling as hating learning or being bad at learning.

For parents even more than teachers, a child’s resistance to authority is upsetting. It feels like disrespect; it feels like defiance. It can be hard to control our own adult emotions and see the situation plainly for what it is: We have failed to connect with the learner. And he is letting us know.

I’ve written about my son the intractable learner. Intractable is not the same as reluctant. My son has never been reluctant to learn — he is a relentless learner. He just wants to be entirely in control of the process. Luckily, our goals have always been, if not identical, at least aligned. We all want him to direct and manage his own learning; we all want him to be well educated and properly skilled.

Working with this son, who demands autonomy and control, is very different from working with our other son, who is easygoing and compliant. Yet we work with both of them the same way. Ours is a negotiated curriculum. We take our sons’ interests, desires, and ambitions very seriously. We tell them what we believe is important for them to know. Then we hammer out a learning plan that meets each of our goals.

Never, at any point, have we considered our son’s reluctance to bow to our authority as a reluctance to learn. Instead, we see him as strong, independent, and confident. We don’t give in, but we are willing to spend the time to show him why we believe a strong foundation of knowledge and skills will benefit him and allow him to do what he wants to do. We’re pretty sure we couldn’t get away with anything less. We don’t abdicate control, but we are willing to share power and decision-making. We want him to be a part of the process; we want him to get experience managing his own learning.

As he’s grown older, he has become more (and not less, as the standard anti-teen propaganda might imply) open to what we deem important to learn. He takes our opinion seriously. Where at age eight he might have argued passionately against something in which he had no interest, at age 15 he says, “If you think it’s important, I’ll do it.”

We reached this place — where he respects our opinion — by respecting his. He has learned that we won’t waste his time. We don’t assign curriculum arbitrarily. We prioritize his unique interests, talents, and goals. We show him what’s required to meet his goals because we want him to understand it’s not about our whims; it’s about what the work itself requires, what the world requires. We want him to understand his place in that world and what he needs to accomplish to achieve the things he wants to do.

What will be required of our children in the future? They will have to be in charge of their own learning. As college students, as adults, as entrepreneurs, as tradesmen, as parents — they will have to make important decisions and figure out how to get the knowledge and skills they need. When do we start helping them learn how to direct and manage their own learning? When they are teenagers? When they are in college? We need to begin now.

In a discussion of MOOCs (massive open online courses), Peter Gow lists what is needed to be a good learner:

- genuine interest

- confidence

- comfort with the medium

- dedicated time

Will Richardson responds by wondering

I don’t think anyone knows exactly how this all plays out, but is it fair to say that if we’re not shifting our emphasis to helping kids develop as learners who can take advantage of these informal (perhaps soon to be accredited) learning experiences, we’re shortchanging them?

Turn that into a statement: If we’re not helping kids develop as self-directed learners, we are shortchanging them.

The successful learner isn’t going to be the kid who can sit and listen and regurgitate back on the test. The successful learner is going to have to be and do a lot more. He’s going to have to take charge of the learning process. And the first step is deciding what is worth learning.

Peter Gow expands on why genuine interest is a requirement for success:

I have to care enough about the course material to wrestle with the big ideas and small details — and the homework — all on my own. If I don’t actually care that much about what I am supposed to be learning, each task becomes drudgery. Without this, the rest is irrelevant.

“Without [genuine interest], the rest is irrelevant.” Genuine interest is absolutely necessary for success. If this is true for an 18-year-old, is it not true for an 8-year-old? 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.

We can start by crossing out “reluctant” and relabeling our child as a passionate, independent, ferocious, idea-filled learner. We can honor his interests and his desires by investing time and effort in helping him learn what he wants and needs to know. We can make him part of the process. We can help him begin to design his own curriculum. By allowing him to do the big things he wants to do, we can help him learn — on his own, without threat or coercion — that skills and knowledge are necessary to accomplish anything meaningful.

We can help him own the learning process, and we can help him label himself as a master learner — someone who knows how to get the knowledge and skills he needs to do the things he wants and needs to do.


How to tell if you’re bad at collaborating

Published by Lori Pickert on August 15, 2012 at 03:52 PM

1 - You don’t want to share your successes.

If you’re a teacher, this means you don’t want the person in the next classroom copying your decor, your bulletin boards, or the way you do independent reading. Those belong to YOU. You care more about getting the credit than you do about the kids in the other classrooms.

You want to have a little edge up on everyone else — that’s how you win, right?!

2 - You don’t want to admit your failures.

Failures and mistakes are something to hide, preferably in a shallow grave far, far away in the woods.

No way do you want to “share” what’s not going well and let these people see you’re not perfect. They’re your competitors. It’s all about maintaining a façade of effortless ease — no one respects a loser.

3 - You can’t tell the difference between brainstorming and having all the answers.

If someone offers you a suggestion, they must think they’re God’s gift to homeschooling/unschooling/teaching/parenting.

If someone shares an issue they’re having, they must want everyone else to do their work for them. Instead of tossing your ideas in, you take the floor to explain what they did wrong and how they should fix it. At least then everyone will recognize that you know what you’re doing.

4 - If you can’t be the pitcher, you’re quitting and taking your ball home with you.

If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes — so if you’re not the lead dog, you’re out the door. After all, without hierarchy, how can we tell who’s ahead of whom?

5 - You only respect people who are exactly like you.

There’s your way and the various multitude of wrong ways. If someone is doing something differently than you do it, it means they don’t respect you and they think you’re doing it wrong. They’re attacking you, so start defending yourself!

• • •

All of these things come into play when you collaborate with your child.

Collaborating doesn’t mean playing devil’s advocate or shooting down “bad” ideas. It means taking a non-perfect or partially formed idea and working together to make it better. Instead of hitting things head on (right/wrong, black/white), it means tapping them to change their trajectory. And everyone gets in on the tapping.

Bad collaborating = “That won’t work.”

Good collaborating = “What if…?”

Collaboration assumes that working together you can create something better than you could on your own. When we collaborate with our children, we help them build this skill: the ability to sit down with others and help each other, work together to refine ideas and find solutions. It requires respecting different views, different talents, and different strengths. It requires respecting other people’s ideas and other people’s perspectives. You can’t collaborate if you always have to be the one in charge, the one who knows everything, the one who’s right. Collaboration requires mutual respect — and humility.

Collaboration doesn’t mean getting other people to solve your problems for you. It means hearing other opinions and seeing things from a different angle. It helps you solve your own problems.

Collaboration is an attempt to leverage success for all. We can all help each other, so we all win. Rising tides lift all boats. When we come together to increase the number of perspectives, the amount of insight, and the sheer quantity of available ideas, we are investing in each other’s success. Collaboration recognizes that success is not a zero-sum game: you don’t have to lose so I can win. We can both win.

People who don’t collaborate well also struggle with learning — because learning requires the same abilities as collaboration:

- humility

- the desire to learn

- willingness to make mistakes

- willingness to mentor and be mentored

- an open, questioning mind

Helping your child learn to collaborate — by collaborating with you and other family members, then with peers — you help her strengthen her ability to learn, succeed, and help others succeed.

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas. — George Bernard Shaw

The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team. — Phil Jackson

If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself. — Henry Ford

Project-based homeschooling fits with any other method, from full-on classical to radical unschooling and everything in-between. It simply means dedicating some of your time to actively supporting your child’s self-directed work. (And technically it doesn’t require homeschooling at all.)

Personally, we don’t label ourselves as any particular kind of home- or unschoolers. I’m not into labels (and neither are my kids), and I rarely fit into a defined group. Project-based homeschooling is something we do, not something we are.

I’ve mentioned here on the blog (mostly in the comments, probably) and elsewhere on-line that we have biannual conferences with our sons to discuss learning goals and plans. Keep in mind our sons are now 12 and 15. This is how our learning conferences work.

Our “summer” lasts about six months — we start early and end late. The summer months are dedicated to personal projects.

Our “school year” begins around October. As each half-year begins to wind down, we have a conference to talk about plans for the next six months.

We discuss long- and short-term goals.

As parents, one of our goals is to have our sons ready for adulthood, and we want them to have their options open. We want them to be prepared to go to college or to be self-employed. (We’re self-employed ourselves and we don’t feel that our children must attend college.) Right now, one son is planning to go to college and the other is planning to be self-employed. We make sure they realize their plans might change with time and they should keep their options open.

So, we talk about our long-term goals for them and their long-term goals for themselves. We also talk about short-term goals: what they want to achieve over the next six months.

(We meet with each son individually.)

We ask them to reflect on skills they think they need to acquire or strengthen.

We ask, “Is there anything you think you need to work on?” When young children do project work, they will often notice a deficit and call attention to it on the spot. They see that they need a skill or ability they lack. “I need to know how to do this.” Now that our sons are older, our biannual conference is when we take time to reflect on any lack they may have noticed or a particular skill they think they need.

Often, they focus on something they’ve had a nagging feeling about — something they don’t think they know enough about (e.g., geography, learning a foreign language, learning how to cook more meals) or a specific skill they think they’ll need to help them with their own work (e.g., learning to type or use a graphic-design software).

The conference becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the boys know we’ll be having that meeting, they are already thinking about how they’re doing and what they need or want to learn. When you make it a regular habit to think about how you can improve your efforts and how you can accomplish your goals, you’re more likely to do both.

We have them articulate their goals for their own self-chosen work.

A big part of why we pursue project-based homeschooling is because we believe building a foundation of strong habits will help our sons succeed at whatever they want to do in life. One of these habits is reflection: How am I doing? Am I achieving what I set out to do? Am I pleased with my own progress? Are there any specific problems I need to address? Do I need to set new goals? Do I need to make a change or improve something?

Every so often we stop to check our progress and make necessary changes. Every six months, we use our learning conferences to take the long view: looking back over the previous year and forward to the next … and beyond.

We agree on a schedule and a plan for the next six months.

Ours is a negotiated curriculum. Any non-project work the boys take on is to meet our shared goals: for example, making sure they’re prepared for either college or self-employment. We come up with a plan for what will be done and a reasonable schedule to do it in. Around the holidays we’ll make sure it’s going well; if it’s not, we’ll make a new plan.

Note: We want the work to be rigorous, not the schedule. The majority of their time is spent on their own self-chosen, self-directed work.

We give the boys a lot of responsibility for managing their own work and schedule — but it doesn’t always go smoothly. Learning how to get your work done without being micromanaged is a real skill, and it’s built slowly over time. Mistakes help us learn.

They also talk about how they want to schedule their own project work. They apply the same habits to their self-chosen work as they do to their non-project commitments.

We talk about specific materials they will need.

A child can get much more out of researching by going to the library herself and selecting her own books rather than just looking through the basketful chosen by her parent. There is a whole other level of meta-learning when she makes a list of what she needs, talks to the library about where to find it, weighs her various options, makes her choices, then finds out whether those choices met her requirements.

A child can take be responsible for designing his own curriculum for his own self-set learning goal. He decides what he needs to learn and investigates his options for learning it: books, videos, on-line offerings, local classes and groups, mentors, field-work possibilities.

He can be given a budget for buying books and materials. (It can be a very small budget.) Now he needs to figure out what books he can get for free through interlibrary loan and which he needs to buy — and where he can buy them the most cheaply. Maybe he can post to a local message board and arrange to borrow some materials. He seeks out other people with similar interests and asks their advice.

In the end, he will learn about his topic, but he will also learn a tremendous amount by building his own curriculum and amassing his own learning materials.

We write it down and commit to it.

We commit to the plan, the work, and each other. We have a strong idea of what we’ll be focusing on for the next six months, what we want to accomplish, and how we plan to achieve it. We’re ready to go.

Note: Although this sounds serious when I write it all down, our learning conferences are quite relaxed and fun. No binders are involved. The bulk of our end-of-summer conference with the twelve-year-old occurred on the daily dog walk, thus the photo above!