PBL – Geography

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Student Choice

Most of my favorite “teaching methods” put students’ choices at the forefront of their learning.

I know!!! You must be completely shocked that a Montessori-trained educator would value choice and self-direction! All kidding aside, a lot of research is saying the same thing. It’s easier to learn something if there’s an interest and often, that learning starts with a question. For older students, there’s problem-based learning,  where students collaborate to find a solution to a problem (or answer a question).

At our homeschool co-op meetings, we’ve been doing project-based learning. Our students range in age from five-years-old through twelve. Each of them are going to approach a topic differently. We need to honor that. Last semester, the parents choice physics as the topic of inquiry. Then, we supported our children through various explorations into windmills, bridges and catapults.

This spring, we’re focusing on geography, specifically an in-depth country study.  It’s self-directed because students choose the country they would like to study. They also decide how they want to present the information that they’ve learned. In this way, it somewhat mimics project-based homeschooling. It’s not quite as open-ended as project-based homeschooling, but it can be a good way to stay on track with project-based learning.

As an educator (not just a homeschool parent), I think it’s important to allow students the freedom to decide how long they want to study their country – and require that they present their information to someone else. In this case, my children will present what they’ve learned to their fellow learners at co-op.

Although it is more structured than unschooling, there is a lot of self-direction and choice. Maybe we should invent a new word – Monteschooling? Lots of choice, but with some guided direction (constraints) and adult facilitators around to help continue the learning when they get stuck (or want to give up).

Part of the "city" project - the boys were laying out and creating their own city.

Part of the “city” project – the boys were laying out and creating their own city with clay.

Project-based Learning – Geography

On our first day of “class,” I stood in front of our students and let them know they needed to choose a country to research, and that by next week I wanted two books on their topic. Since almost all of these kids are younger than age twelve, I wanted them to stick with books. Web research is great, but it requires some higher-order thinking to be able to determine a safe, reliable and accurate web site. For now, books are key. The obvious exception is the CIA World FactBook, since it takes the guess work out of determining whether or not it is an authoritative site.

Picture of kids' books on egypt and ancient Egypt.

Most of C’s books are centered around Ancient Egypt…not necessarily present day Egypt.

Then, I started asking questions. I suggested that they might want to pretend they are going to visit their country. “What would you like to go see first? What language would you need to understand? What type of food do they eat in your country?”

None of these are required questions to answer, and there is no standard form on how to give their presentation. Instead, we left it as open as possible, allowing for the fact that some students will go into more depth, while others might just draw a picture and point out one or two facts.

Since we have a large age range of students, each family was free to put more constraints on their children’s projects. One of our parents is requiring her two children (ages 10.5 and 12) to complete a presentation every 3 weeks. I asked my children to choose one of the countries that still exist from our study of ancient times, but didn’t put a time requirement on their learning. If they want to study one country for the next 3 months, I’m perfectly fine with that.

Making clay models of the pyramids in Giza

Looking at a library book to make the pyramids at Giza.

My kiddos decided to study Greece and Egypt, although the six-year-old is pretty fascinated with ancient Egypt, and I’m not sure how much present day Egypt will feature in his final presentation. I don’t care because he is reading all sorts of books and creating items to reflect his learning. For my oldest, I have asked him to include a works cited page in his presentation, but otherwise, he is only limited by his imagination. I think a large part of his project might be devoted to Greek Mythology, since we have recently read Rick Riordan’s fabulous series on the Greek myths.

I try not to put my judgement on their ideas or choices, though I know it happens. I try to offer multiple suggestions and leave resources (books, videos, etc.) around the house for them to discover on their own (if they didn’t find them at the library). Since they don’t know everything that is out there (nor do I), I think it’s a bit unfair to step back and assume they will know where to look. That’s part of their training in teaching themselves – exposing them to resources (the library, the Internet, local businesses and government offices). It’s not completely self-directed, but I do try to (mostly) respect their choices.

Picture of a kid's desk - pencil, paper, and opened book

R has decided to make a book about Greece. I sketched out a storyboard so he could plan out his book.

As such, I was asking my six-year-old how he wanted to show off some of his knowledge about Egypt and threw out a number of suggestions – a drawing of the pyramids, a written poster, clay models of the artifacts he found. He immediately jumped on the idea of making clay models of the pyramids and I made sure to follow through when we were at home that week.

picture of homemade clay pyramids

We have a big slab of clay on hand, so it’s an easy way to extend the learning.

I even managed to make a connection between the pyramid from our Montessori geometric solids and the pyramids he was making. Nothing formal, just an observation about the pyramids and how many sides they have, etc. He made sure to point out the four sides on his pyramids and I quickly agreed. It’s a slight connection, a teaching moment in the midst of an innocent art project. But, it helps to solidify small connections of learning, while reinforcing the  the value of a teacher-facilitator.

We’re continuing with projects. My youngest is feeling that his might be coming to an end, and my oldest is trying to meet a 4-H deadline. This week promises to be a flurry of making, writing and organizing. I can’t wait.