Friday, March 06, 2015


The call went up from the group of kids working on a project near the sandpit, "We need someone who can tie knots! We need someone who can tie knots!"

This project began as a collection of "beautiful things," with one child curating while the others collected. During the children's process of ongoing discussion and debate, it evolved into a picnic and then a store.

They weren't looking for a grown-up; they were looking for another kid, one of the dozen or so who has mastered the art of knot tying. In pursuit of their project, they found they needed a knot. Through discussion, they discovered that none of them had yet acquired the skill, so they were determined to recruit such an expert. 

This project began as a space ship, but as it got taller and less stable, engineering challenges began to supplant dramatic ones as the kids, as a group, decided they wanted to create a structure that allowed them to climb safely to the top.

It happens all the time as the children pursue their projects: "We need someone who can read!" "We need someone who can climb the tree!" "We need someone to help us lift this!"

This is a project was inspired by the "third teacher," the environment. The presence of tubes, funnels and water, became one of those ongoing cooperative explorations in which individual projects joined together. We've carried these projects out over the course of the week.

We call what we do a "play-based" curriculum, but many schools that do more or less the same thing, call it a "project-based" curriculum, which makes sense because that's pretty much all we do around here: gather together around a mutual interest, then pursue it through processes that include cooperation, conflict, discussion, invitation, and accident. 

This is the kind of cooperative project that reflects the adult world directly: traffic play. The kids set up roads, negotiated over vehicles, made impromptu rules to manage traffic flow, gave tickets to those who broke the rules, and found ways to have satisfying, meaningful experiences with limited and shared resources.

Discoveries are made, impediments are overcome, challenges are engaged, dead ends are reached, questions asked and sometimes answered, and both success and failure are meaningful outcomes.

Another project inspired by day-to-day adult life.

If education is about children preparing for the day when they will assume adult roles in society, then this is the best preparation imaginable. This, projects with the other people, is pretty much what most of us do with our time on the planet when we're not engaged in the drudgery of our rote chores or dreaming of escaping them. So much of what passes for school in our society is designed, intentionally or not, to prepare children for the worst of adulthood -- the repetitive, mundane tasks of life -- when it is the projects with other people that really make life worthy of its name.

Someone in our neighborhood is feeding peanuts to the squirrels who are leaving the shells scattered all over our playground. We are a nut free school due to severe allergies. This is the latest attempt at building a squirrel trap. If you doubt the intricacies of this, ask one of its creators: he can describe how it works in minute detail.

There are many who claim that we do children a disservice when we give them the freedom to pursue their interests in this way, that they won't be prepared for the discipline of "hard work." What they mean, of course, is the discipline of sticking to necessary rote tasks or those imposed on them by others. No one, no matter what their age or experience, is ever eager for drudgery and obedience, and it doesn't help to get used to it early. This unfortunate approach is mostly about preparing children for the worst of adulthood. 

By the same token, I've never observed a child engaged in a self-selected project who was not working hard. If the goal is to learn the value of "hard work," then there is no better teacher than a play-based, or project-based, approach. And if the goal is to prepare children for the best of adulthood, then this is the only way.

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Judi Pack Thinking About Kdis said...

Exactly. That's why I always balk when teachers say that children do not have long attention spans. Watch them at play or exploring a puddle with a stick--
They only have short attention spans when required to do what doesn't interest them.

Anonymous said...

"I've never observed a child engaged in a self-selected project who was not working hard." Unfortunately, some students never get experience in the PBL experience. I've had fifth graders struggle with what they want to learn about - they know they want choice in their learning, but they just have a hard time with the process of choosing. Of course, this is when they start "goofing off." As Alfie Kohn would say, "If a child is off-task, then perhaps it's not the child, it's the task." This would be true in a case such as a fifth grader goofing around when left to his own devices - it's not that he's trying to get into trouble, or even that the task is bad. He just doesn't understand the task - he has so little experience in self-selected learning, he doesn't even know how to learn for the sake of learning.

This is also true when a teacher asks a student to select his own book to read. When parents ask me about why I allow students to read what they want, I tell them: "As we were growing up, the teacher always told us what to read - for reading, social studies, science, etc. If we ever had a choice in our reading, then it was a period of fifteen minutes, two times a week. We need to have kids figure out what they like - I didn't realize what I like to read until I was in college."

There is hope, however! Many teachers are finding time to have Genius Hour in their class. GH is based on Google's 20-Time, where they give their employees 20% of their workweek to work on projects they are passionate about. For our GH this year, students have studied manga art, designed video games, completed surveys about the best FIFA goals, wrote a report about favorite bears, wrote a weekly blog, and the list goes on.

Kids have gotten so good at "playing the game of school" that they struggle with learning for the sake of learning.