book review: project-based homeschooling

August 24, 2012

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Often, when I talk to fellow parents about how we homeschool, I hear things like this:

“What do you mean, you follow your kids’ interests?”

“My kids aren’t interested in anything.”

“How do your kids come up with projects?”

“I need to tell my kids what to do or they don’t do anything.”

These are complex questions and statements to respond to. I can’t explain in a few sentences how we got to this point in our homeschooling; there are so many underlying beliefs and habits that have brought my family to our ways of doing things. Which is why, for several years now, when it’s too much to explain, I send folks over to Lori Pickert’s blog, Camp Creek. Lori is a master at this project-based homeschooling thing and she explains it very well.

And now she has a book: Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners. Now when people question me, I can foist a book on them!

There is so much that I love about this book. Allow me to entice you with a few quotes.

“This book is not a recipe for how to homeschool that you can confidently follow to bake up a nice loaf of educated child.”

“When we talk about project-based homeschooling, we are moving beyond knowledge and skills and probing underneath for the machinery of learning. We are thinking less about the specific facts that will be learned (radius of Mars, exports of Peru) and more about what makes a person want to learn and how we can help them become adept at doing the things they want to do.”

“Never think that ‘playing’ doesn’t count as real learning, no matter how old your child is. Play enhances learning. Play reinforces learning. Play is how your child begins to use what he knows in a real way. Play is how children learn.”

“Hopefully, everything you want for your child, you also want for yourself: intellectual curiosity, playful learning, passion, and purpose. Let your life reflect your values, because your child will take his most serious lessons from the way you live.”

“Many parents and teachers agree readily that children have these abilities (inventive thought, decisive action, perceptive connections), but they want to believe they can (and perhaps should) blossom naturally with no interference from adults…Many parents want to believe it will happen if their child has adequate free time. They hope their child will drift naturally away from the TV set and the video game console toward literature, nature, and science. They know that their child is intelligent and creative, and they expect –or hope– that deep thinking, rich exploration, and a strong work ethic will follow.

We can do better than that.”

“The goal of project-based homeschooling is to support your child so he can direct and manage his own learning. The focus is on his interests and his ideas. You create an environment and provide the tools, materials, and support he needs to make his ideas happen.”

Do you get a sense of where Lori is going with this? This is a book about helping kids find and develop their interests. It’s about dedicating time in your day to fostering your kids’ projects. It’s about helping them become confident, independent researchers and (I love this phrase) relentless learners. It’s about learning how to mentor your kids, rather than teaching them, or simply deferring to them. It’s about cultivating a family culture and environment that invites and encourages authentic, meaningful work.

I wish I’d had this book when we started homeschooling, fifteen years ago. Funny thing is, our homeschooling evolved into something very much like what Lori proposes–but it took a long time. It took a few years of draining the former schoolteacher out of me. And while I recognized the power and importance of my kids’ interests early on, it took time for me to allow those interests to take prime real estate in our homeschooling lives. I had to work through all my wonderings about whether there was a place somewhere in between traditional school learning and radical unschooling that would work for us. I had to figure out how to hold on to the habitual learning time that seemed satisfying to my kids and to me, while still encouraging creativity and kid-directed learning. The entire process was a slow evolution. If you’ve ever read my how we homeschool post at the top of this page, you know what I’m talking about.

If I’d had Lori’s book fifteen years ago, we could have avoided lots of frustration, arguing, missteps, wasted time and pulled-out hair.

Lori digs in with lots of detail: how do you help kids discover their interests; what might a project look like; how do you set up a space to foster learning and independence? She answers these questions, but she also shovels deeper into the underlying family values and habits necessary to cultivate project-based learning. Lori writes, “This book posits a simple idea–that children need the opportunity to direct and manage their own learning–and then suggests ways that we adults can help them do that.” The book suggests many ways, many specific possibilities, often in sections labeled things you might do. It offers suggestions for where you might begin, but it will also inspire you and your child to find your own way.

This book is nothing like a curriculum; instead it’s a revolutionary vision of how kids can learn–and an idea book for making that learning happen.

Even as a parent whose family has embraced project-based learning for many years, I learned as I read this book. I finally recognized, for instance, that when I check out armloads of library books on my kid’s chosen topic of interest, and bring them home for the kid’s perusal, I’m denying him an important learning opportunity. My kid should be researching those books and selecting the most interesting ones at the library himself. How can he become an independent learner if I’m the researcher? I also appreciated Lori’s ideas for setting up a work space that makes tools and supplies accessible and inviting for kids. The desk we set up in Mr. T’s room–a room where he doesn’t spend much time at this point in his life–isn’t really cutting it. I’m excited with the notion of having T help design a space in our downstairs office that will better serve his beloved drawing, diagramming and computer research.

I have never read another writer of homeschooling matters whose approach aligns so closely with my own beliefs and experiences. And trust me, after more than fifteen years, I’ve read a lot! While Lori writes about learning in general, and I tend to focus on learning to write, I think we promote similar ideas. Lori writes that to discover kids’ interests, you should look at what they’re already doing; I say to help kids find engaging writing fodder you should pay attention to what they yammer on and on about. Lori writes about the importance of a family culture, “the combination of your values and your habits”; I write about the importance of raising kids in a literature-rich, word-loving home. Lori encourages parents to find their own meaningful work and “do as much of it as possible”; I tell parents that if they want to help their kids with writing, they need to write themselves.

Quite honestly, if you read Lori’s book, you might not need to read my blog at all. After all, I’ve been telling parents that if you want to encourage your kids to write, you need to help them find meaningful, authentic reasons to write. If kids grow up learning through Lori’s style of project work, meaningful, authentic writing will likely be built right in, a part of the process. The kids’ writing will develop organically.

Dang it all, I may be sinking my own project. But still I’ll say it: you should read Lori’s book. It describes the sort of learning I think every kid should experience. And it gives you the tools to make that kind of learning happen.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristin Olnes August 24, 2012 at 10:31 am

Goodness what a review. Makes me want to buy it and I’ve been homeschooling forever and feel like I know it all already. But of course I don’t.

Sounds like Lori puts it rather well and truly it is hard to encapsulate homeschooling, especially as quickly as people would like.

Certainly the ideas in Lori’s book would come in handy. I support her effort and it sounds like achievement in communicating a philosophy of learning for anyone, but still, I’d like to add that it takes time and mistakes to determine what works best and own it, and most of all, the flexibility and willingness to change.

You wrote:
“I had to work through all my wonderings about whether there was a place somewhere in between traditional school learning and radical unschooling that would work for us.”

There is no end to it either. Learning evolves. What I like best is that every homeschooling family approaches learning differently, and like an art work, everyone’s product is different and unique.

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patricia August 24, 2012 at 12:20 pm

True, true. I’m sure we wouldn’t have learned as much if a homeschooling approach had been handed to us on a platter, and if we didn’t have to work and struggle to discover what worked best for our family. Lori definitely covers the importance of mistakes in kids’ projects; surely families need to be allowed those same mistakes when delving into the grand life project of homeschooling.

Still, it would have been a nice head start to have had this book from the beginning. Which is why I want to share it with others!

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Jane A. August 24, 2012 at 8:27 pm

I’ve read Lori’s book (twice now, in fact) and my copy looks just like yours, gobs of post-its flagging almost every page (and copious notes inside). It’s a great read filled with so many inspiring ideas and it would have been nice to have it when my son was younger (he’s 11 now). Instead, I had your wonderful blog for wisdom and creative ideas and my boy is off to a great start because of it. As much as I love Lori’s book, I still want to read your blog. No. I NEED to read your blog, and I look forward to your forthcoming project, too.

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patricia August 25, 2012 at 9:41 am

Thank you for the very kind words, Jane! I’m so happy to hear that my blog has been a help to you and your boy. Don’t worry–I’m not going anywhere. I was just being a little silly in saying that Lori’s book might make my work here unnecessary. (But I do think that kid-based projects are likely to lead to meaningful writing. I know that’s how it’s worked out in my house.)

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Mike, Thomas' Dad August 25, 2012 at 8:13 am

Thanks for this engaging book review. We’ve got only four years of homeschooling experience, and I’ve really only gotten so far as to realize that project-based homeschooling is what would work best for us. Now that we’ve re-entered the public school system, I have to look at what homeschooling means. There’s an entire movement called “afterschooling” which I’m just learning about, but I’m thinking that project-based learning may be the perfect antidote/supplement to schooling, particularly if it’s child-led, as you and Lori are both advocating.

As for the idea that you might be sinking your own project, I’m not sure I agree. I even think you may be strengthening your position for a couple of reasons. The first is that the number of homeschooling resources has proliferated overwhelmingly. Homeschoolers at all stages of the game experience doubt over how to choose. Your book review (and your blog) provide much-needed guidance. Not only will they want to read Lori’s book after such a useful review, they’ll remember who guided them to it, and they’ll come back. I know I will.

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patricia August 25, 2012 at 9:50 am

Hi Mike! I know that a lot of people who have read and appreciated Lori’s book are not homeschoolers. I think it would be particularly useful to someone like you: someone who understands, appreciates and has experienced homeschooling. Seems like it would be a great tool in your goals of moving into “afterschooling” because it would help you hone in on the things that T. is most interested in, and help him delve into them more deeply and meaningfully, even if he does go to school. Also, the book really promotes Lori’s idea of a “family culture”; in other words, exploring the values and habits you need to establish in order to cultivate a family in which all members pursue interesting projects.

I really was just being half-silly when I said I could be sinking my own project. But I appreciate the words of support for what I do here!

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kort August 25, 2012 at 9:46 am

i’m headed over right now to re-read the “how we homeschool” post!

in the mean time….i’m absolutely intrigued with your phrase about “how to hold on to the habitual learning time that seemed satisfying to my kids and to me, while still encouraging creativity and kid-directed learning.”

any thoughts on how you did that or what it looked like?

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patricia August 25, 2012 at 9:54 am

I think that reading that post will explain a lot, Kort. But if you have any more specific questions about how we did it/do it, shoot them my way!

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Karen August 29, 2012 at 9:48 am

Like you, I blundered into many aspects of project-based homeschooling and having my child actively participate, even guide, the direction and set-up of our homeschool. She’s now in high school. Would you be so kind as to tell me whether there is much in the book about this type of learning at the upper age levels? I’ve kind of stopped buying homeschool philosophy and method books because we only have two years to go; but if this one still would have material to help me feel validated in how different our approach to learning still looks at this date, I would go ahead and buy it. Thanks!

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patricia August 29, 2012 at 4:33 pm

This is a hard question to answer, Karen. The book definitely addresses older learners, and discusses what projects might look like for them. But would you learn anything beyond what you’ve already “blundered into” (love that phrase!) yourself? I don’t know. Yet that isn’t what you asked; you said, “…if this one still would have material to help me feel validated in how different our approach to learning still looks at this date, I would go ahead and buy it.” To that, I would say yes! I think this book would be very validating–and it would probably give you and your daughter some new ideas. I know that it presented new options to me.

Another thought would be to request that your local library order the book. This is something that Lori has suggested to her regular readers. In this way, you could read her book, but others could discover it as well. Many libraries offer an order option online these days.

Thanks for reading along, Karen. It’s always nice to hear from fellow old-timers!

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Laura September 24, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Love this! I’m still finding my way homeschooling, now beginning my 3rd year. I find myself drawn to this philosophy, even though I can’t really define it and don’t fully know what it looks like it practice! I’m looking forward to reading the book so I can work throught it a little more in my mind.

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patricia September 25, 2012 at 8:21 am

Laura, you might enjoy joining the forum on Lori’s blog. It’s very active (and free!) and the examples there might help you gain a better sense of what this might look like in practice. It’s good stuff.

Thanks for saying hello!

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