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Project-Based Learning for the Homeschooler

Project-based learning is a big buzzword in education right now, but the theories behind it are nothing new. Aristotle was one of the earliest advocates of learning through doing. Socrates wrote about learning through questioning, inquiry, and and critical thinking. One hundred years ago, child development researchers Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori published findings that confirm what every parent knows: children learn best through hands-on learning.

Today, many schools around the world use project-based learning. Howard Gardner of Harvard University is one of the most vocal advocates of the philosophy. The Reggio Emilia schools in Italy use a project-based approach almost exclusively. The expeditionary learning model also uses a project-based approach at the core of its philosophy.

What is the project-based approach?

A project-based approach to education weaves traditional studies into a hands-on, project-based format. Reading, math, history, and science are integrated in meaningful ways. For example, say you’re learning about early American history. You may opt to design a colonial garden or build a small replica of an early colonial home. Kids are interested in these types of projects because they can relate to them. The subjects of home and food are concrete, real subjects that are important to kids and families today.

As part of your project, you’ll read books, visit Internet sites, and even go to museums to learn about how the colonists lived. You’ll practice writing skills as you keep notes, write stories, or record a journal. Read poetry from the era and learn about early leaders. As you design the garden, you’ll use math to calculate the space and science to improve the soil. In building a replica of a home, you’ll measure materials and study basic engineering concepts.

Although the project-based approach is flexible, the following concepts are important to understand:

  • In choosing projects, watch for the emerging interests of your children. You can guide the project-selection process, but the more interested your children are, the more successful the project will be.
  • In the project-based approach, everyone (including you) is a learner. View the world as one big classroom and enjoy asking questions and exploring.
  • Time and space requirements for project-based learning are very fluid. Some projects last only a week, while others may last for months. Allow your children to spend as much time as they need working on projects. You may find that your kids become so engrossed in a project that they continue working for several hours. Forget the idea of the kitchen table as the classroom. Chances are, your classroom will spread to the garden, the wood shop, the family room floor, and the world beyond.
  • Use resources in your community to enrich your projects. Ask friends, neighbors, and community leaders to share their expertise with you. Visit museums, hospitals, and retail stores to answer questions.
  • Document your learning. Project-based learning doesn’t use traditional assessment methods like testing and worksheets, but it’s still important to record what you learn. Make a portfolio for each project. Include photos, video, written work, and art projects. Write down your children’s comments and questions throughout each experience. These records reveal highly insightful and articulate learning.

What are the benefits of the project-based approach?

Depth of learning. If you attended a traditional school as a child, think back on your learning experience. Which learning activities do you remember most vividly? Chances are your favorite school memories are of hands-on learning projects—the science fair experiments, a favorite book report, or an exciting art project. Do you remember much of what you read in textbooks? Probably not. The most profound benefit of the project-based approach is the amount of true learning it offers. When children learn in real, meaningful ways, they remember what they learn. Project-based learning is driven by a process of inquiry, whereas in a traditional learning model, the teacher decides what the student should learn and gives the student the answers to memorize. In project-based learning, children focus on one subject and study it very deeply. This depth of knowledge is much more valuable than learning a few tidbits about a lot of subjects.

Love of learning. Since project-based learning is inquiry-based and student-driven, you’ll find that your children are excited to begin school each day. Project-based learning capitalizes on our innate curiosity and love of learning, increasing motivation and interest.

Can homeschoolers effectively use the project-based approach?

Absolutely. In fact, you’ve got a definite advantage over a teacher in a traditional classroom. Since project-based learning is hands-on and intense, it works best with small groups of children. Teachers need a good understanding of their students’ interests to choose projects successfully. As a homeschooling parent, you know your “students” better than any teacher could.

How can I get started with project-based learning?

Project-based learning is less structured than a traditional book approach, but it’s important to develop some sort of organizational system. Use a notebook to record ideas for projects. Once you select a project, make a list of questions you hope to answer through your inquiries. Have a morning meeting at the beginning of each day with your kids to go over your questions and learning goals.

As you work through a project, make notes about the activities you complete and the skills you learn. In this way, you’ll ensure that you cover all fundamental skills.

Watch your children closely. If interest begins to lag, it may be time to introduce a new element to the project or perhaps wrap the project up. As you gain experience in using the project-based approach, you’ll learn how to pace projects.

Check your local library for books on project-based learning. Visit sites about the Reggio Emilia schools, expeditionary learning, and project-based learning approaches to learn more.

What are some possible projects for homeschoolers?

  • Learn about water treatment facilities. Visit a water treatment plant, build a cistern at home, or raise funds to build water treatment centers in undeveloped countries.
  • Learn about soil conservation and food science. Grow a garden, visit a farm, talk with food manufacturers, or go foraging.
  • Explore a specific type of animal. Read books, visit a zoo, talk with experts, and write a book about your findings.
  • Take up a hobby—photography, sewing, sculpture, woodworking, or cooking. Learn everything you can about your chosen activity.
  • Become published authors. Learn about the components of good writing, pick your favorite books, visit with a published author, and write some stories yourselves. Publish them through an online scrapbooking or book publishing site.

Project-based learning is a wonderful, intuitive way to teach your children. Use it as your sole curriculum vehicle or combine it with more traditional learning methods. Either way, both you and your children will reap the rewards of relevant, meaningful learning.

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