Lessons Learned

We are a small group of five families who are helping our children to direct their own learning (at least some of it) through a project-based approach. We set the topic – physics – but they are leading the way and mapping their own projects. Check out the previous posts – Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4 Week 5 and Week 6.

R is hard at work on his ever-expanding city map for an Ozobot robot.

R is hard at work on his next project — an ever-expanding city map for an Ozobot robot.

We finished all of the project presentations last week and so this past meeting we had kids wondering what to do next. To be perfectly honest, I thought they would just be done with this class for the Fall, but one our parents had a great suggestion. She told her kids that they needed to pick a new idea to research – and to create a new project and presentation. They were all for it. And, yes, in retrospect, that does seem like a pretty obvious next step.

The students are now familiar with the relaxed format of the class and many of the them began new projects this past week. I think I’ll be continuing the project documentation, but I have to limit it to my own children’s projects. There are just too many to keep track of otherwise.

In the interest of learning from our mistakes, miscues and general experiences, I compiled this “lessons learned” post about our first-ever once-a-week, homeschool co-op, project-based learning class.

1. Self-directed project-based learning is good. But, facilitators are important too.
Each child (or group of children) completed a project and were happy with their final results. The design, research and presentation skills that they practiced were well worth any perceived shortcomings. Since there were so many different projects, I don’t think the students reached the depth that is typical of many self-directed projects. In the experiences with my own children, I will often do some side research to find hands-on materials that might help them deepen their understanding. Until we tried self-directed project-learning as a class, I didn’t realize how much “behind the scenes” work I do to help move my children into deeper learning. Quite often, it is still their choice to choose which materials to use, but it helps to have an adult finding those hard-to-reach materials and activities…and leaving them out to be discovered by the kids. This didn’t happen for every group at our co-op. So, to fix that problem, I might suggest…

2. When working with a group, choose ONE topic or project.
This can still be chosen by the students, but I think it would make for a better understood topic. For instance, the kids could have chosen to focus on gravity and then figured out a way to create a project or presentation as a group. I think the learning would be deeper as they discuss ideas with one another and create a unified project. As the designated facilitator for this course, I had too many different projects to keep track of, to document and/or to help gently push along.

3. Space and supply access really do matter.
While we are quite happy with our borrowed space (it’s free, after all), we definitely lacked materials and the right supplies. Many of our projects were wood-working and that doesn’t exactly lend itself to portability. It was much easier to help my own kids at home when I knew where to find the hammer, safety glasses and wood glue. Being in a well-designed space was also much better for the last minute changes that often occur with a self-directed project.

4. Tinkering is great, but…
For the catapult projects, the tinkering that the boys did was great, but it seemed to limit the depth of their projects. Only at the end did they haphazardly throw together some written research and while I know that they learned a lot – I don’t think it was as much as they could have (but maybe that’s the parent in me talking). With their new projects, I have been encouraging my kids to do some reading and research before working on their “final” project. Sketches and designs are okay, but no full-scale models until we’ve done the research.

5. Different ages have different expectations.
This isn’t really something that we learned, but rather I think it’s important to point out. The group of two young boys (ages 5 and 6) had a completed catapult, but no “official” presentation materials, whereas the group of three nine-year-olds had a wooden catapult and a tiny presentation. They also did a lot of their own research and it shows. It wasn’t nearly as thorough as the 11-year-old’s presentation on gravity. Help your students…not too much…but more if they are younger.

6. Group learning is part of the project.
Sometimes I was part mediator, part teacher, part parent for a couple of the groups. With a clash of different personalities, learning to work together is just as important as learning about  the topic. But, they need help. It’s important that the louder, more organized group member doesn’t railroad the quieter or less-prepared group members. Each member is equal and it’s important for everyone to figure out how to work that out.  That doesn’t mean assigning jobs, but it might mean that there is more mediation, discussion and written goals to be sure that everyone is happy with the direction of the group. I can’t say that I did this perfectly, but I recognize that this is an area where I can improve.

Overall, the project-based class was a big success and the kids have already chosen their next projects. Some will choose science topics, whereas one of my children is studying cities and the other has decided to explore bridges. But, more on that next week…

Kid's drawing of a cable-stayed bridge

C’s next project is learning all about bridges…using popsicle sticks and a glue gun. Fun!

To read about the next self-directed project, continue to the post about bridges.