Project-Based Learning

PBH Master Class Enrolling Now!

Published by Lori Pickert on August 15, 2016 at 08:48 AM

We are enrolling a new session of the PBH Master Class starting today.

We won’t be having another class until spring 2017!

Class will run from September 5 through October 15 (six weeks) and costs $175.

You can read a detailed class description and student testimonials here.

We’ve already done early-bird enrollment so space is limited!

If the timing isn’t right for you, you can join the early-bird announcement list for the next class.

Thank you, and please feel free to e-mail me with any questions! Hope you can join us! :"D)

Here’s an article I ran across this week:

Are we obsessed with children’s interests?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agree 100% with what the writer says here:

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

Giving meaning to those educational buzzwords

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

What skills will you need to succeed in the future?

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

I got an interesting comment:

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

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

How do solid skills become buzzwords?

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

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

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

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

So, back to what I said about this infographic:

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

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

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

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

What experiences does a person need to acquire these skills?

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


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

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

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

Critical Thinking

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Productivity and accountability

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accessing, analyzing, and synthesizing information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Global citizenship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Are the adults doing all the teaching?

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

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

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

Are kids encouraged to create learning tools for other kids?

Do adults have all the power positions?

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

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

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

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

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

Authentic learning is problem-producing and problem-solving.

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

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

- Do all of the projects look the same?

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

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

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

- Are kids following directions to complete a project?

Again we hear “You have to start somewhere!”

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

- Are children offered limited choice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real learning requires testing and revision.

- Are kids getting peer feedback during the making progress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Are extrinsic rewards are being offered?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation, around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they’re part of something important. — Dan Pink, TED Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Is your child the driver or the passenger?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, we need two things:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Different is good

Published by Lori Pickert on October 23, 2008 at 01:10 PM

The hundred languages are the many different ways children can learn and communicate:

• talking/telling stories

• dramatic play, theatre

• sketching, drawing

• painting

• sculpting

• constructing models

• writing/dictating books

• and so on.

Not only do children use the hundred languages for learning, but they also use them to express what they know to others.

Why is it important to give our children many different languages (forms of expression)?

Each new language deepens their knowledge.  Each new language engages their brain with the material in a new way.

Multiple ways of showing what they have learned respects each child’s individual strengths. In a group of children working together, each child gets to showcase his or her strengths, while learning from others in areas where they are not so strong.

(Being able to ask for and accept help, being able to learn from others — these are skills everyone should master, and they are as important as being able to help others and teach them what we know.)

A child who is allowed to take in information and express herself in a large variety of ways is connecting with her work — and life itself — in a much more interesting, diverse way.

Those hundred languages that we have learned to recognize as a richness, but that our “civilization” takes away from children and adults alike, thus impoverishing all of us.

— Sandra Piccinni, Commissioner of Education and Culture, Reggio Emilia

Project-based learning: A teacher’s perspective

Published by Lori Pickert on April 16, 2008 at 05:43 PM

My good friend Emily, who used to teach K-3rd at my tiny private school, left a great comment on my post Observational drawing: Where do we go from here?. It was so great, I’m going to reproduce it here in its entirety so more people can see it.

I know this comment is after-the-fact for this conversation, but I am a "late reader" and so I'm only seeing this for the first time.

As soon as I read your post, Lori, I knew I *had* to write a comment because I still think about all the wonderful things that happened during our instrument project. Learning the instrument families --- no! Becoming *experts* on instrument families, learning how sounds travels, making the ears, the "Keyboard Controversy," all of it was amazing. It's all become a magical memory for me. One that keeps me motivated to keep trying projects in a public school setting even if it is hard and sometimes frustrating. One that reminds me all that children are capable of --- so much more than I sometimes give them credit for. One that encourages me to challenge kids. One that makes me mourn the loss of that class, and the simple fact that my own son will not ever get to experience that moment with those circumstances. (Although I hope to recreate it for him at home.)

Thank you for giving me another moment to relive that year!

I also wanted to share another story related to the "keyboard controversy." As estea pointed out, the piano is a string instrument, and, of course, we knew that as well, but the PROCESS they took to learn that fact was much more worthwhile for them since they had to discover it on their own. They learned so much more than how to classify a piano. They learned that everything written in books isn't necessarily true, as you mentioned. They learned how to debate. They learned how to make hypotheses and conclusions. (In the end, they decided that a piano was, indeed, a string instrument, BUT an electronic keyboard was a percussion instrument since it doesn't have strings.)

The story I was thinking of happened about that same time. A child in the class became very interested in the Loch Ness Monster. He asked me if it was real, and, of course, I answered, "I don't know. Why don't you try to find out?" So, he did! He checked out books on the subject, interviewed his classmates to see what they thought, and we probably looked online for information too. And then all of sudden, one day, his interest was gone. *Poof!* No more discussions, no questions, nothing. When I asked him about it, he replied, "Oh, I asked my dad what he thought, and he said it wasn't real. So now I know." And just like that, he lost so many valuable learning opportunities.

And now I've rambled for long enough. Thank you again, Lori, for writing about this!

Emily, thank you so much for taking the time to share this.