Monday, April 29, 2013

Water Beads, II: Ancient Roman Aqueducts and project-based learning

Sometimes I try a little too hard to control things. I have a lot of faith in my own ways. Mostly, that's because they work well. I'm a good manager, and I have lots of good ideas. It's hard not to share them enthusiastically. (Maybe overenthusiastically?)

Sometimes, though, I manage to let someone else be in charge...and sometimes, cool things happen as a result.

I've been inspired lately by Lori Pickert's book Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learnersand her blog, Camp Creek. As we consider how best to support SuperSam's strong interests and voracious appetite for information, I have been reading Lori's work and the strong contributions of the other parents who contribute to the project-based learning community at the Camp Creek blog space. A big part of the concept of project-based learning is for parents to act as get out of the way and let children develop skills to problem-solve and think for themselves.

The comments on Lori's blog are amazing- there are thoughtful, interesting discussions happening there all the time. I recently read a post where a commenter had asked whether project-based learning creates self-centered children who think the world should revolve around them. This was (part of) Lori's response:

I believe children embrace learning and become enthusiastic, passion-driven learners only when they see how it connects to themselves .. how it helps them connect with their interests and their purpose. What is education for, if not this? And the rote learning, six hours at a desk a day .. what is that kind of education for? Not, I think, connecting you with your deepest passions and your purpose.
It is a shared relationship, a negotiated curriculum.
That message — that learning is for the child — comes with work, responsibility, trial and error, experimentation, work. The message doesn’t erase the work — it just puts the work into its proper context. Why should a child put his all into something that he cares nothing about, that is designed to please someone else in some inexplicable way? Project learning says this is about you .. then expects the child to give his all for something he cares deeply about.
Many adults are unwilling — or afraid — to share the power. They are unwilling to do the  work of helping children learn to be responsible for their power in the learning relationship.
Freedom and accountability come hand in hand. The critics think that children in this type of learning environment will be catered to — missing the fact that they have shouldered real responsibility for their own learning in exchange for real freedom. The critics see only what the child is given — and fail to see what the child gives in return.
--Lori Pickert, from the post Sharing the power at Camp Creek blog
Good point.

Want to know what happens if I manage to share the power and let SuperSam be in charge of his own project?

(I bet you do.)

Inspired by SuperSam's recent desire to swim in water beads, a friend presented us with some brightly colored Orbeez. We couldn't wait to use them!

We put them in a big bowl, added water, and waited. And waited. And waited.
(It takes 3 hours for them to get up to size.)

While we were waiting, SuperSam announced that he wanted to know what aqueducts looked like. (Where do these questions originate?) I gave my typical answer ("Let's Google it!"), and we turned to the internet. Our travels through web site after web site led us to a site about Rome for kids, and then SuperSam declared that he wanted to build his own aqueducts and run the water beads through them.

Although I started thinking right away of ways we could accomplish this task, I decided to just let him go for it.

For the next hour and a half, "What do you need?" became my refrain.

I got out a basket of recycled materials and prepared to follow his lead. He asked for toilet paper rolls and started trying to connect them. He asked for tape...and he used way too much.

I normally would have said, "Oh! You don't need that much tape! Don't waste the tape!" or something like that. (I have a thing about not wasting supplies.) Since this was an experiment in SuperSam-as-the-in-charge-decision-maker, I kept my mouth shut. An amazing thing happened...he realized that too much tape would stick to itself and mess up his project, and he started using less. All by himself. I can almost guarantee (from experience) that if I had told him to use less tape, he would have gotten mad or decided to quit.

Each time a problem arose, he looked at me for help, and I said something like, "Well, what do you think you could try? What else do you need?" Each time, he tried something new, and eventually he figured it out on his own. Imagine that! I didn't have to do much of anything except run and fetch materials.

He tried other things that didn't work:
  • He put the tubes together with gaps in the middle, and the water beads fell out. (He changed his design so the tubes were connected end to end with no spaces.) 
  • He tried running bigger balls through the tubes, and they got stuck. (He asked me to cut the tubes open at the top. Then he pulled the sides further apart so they would be wider.) 
  • He used heavy balls that made the toilet paper tubes pull apart despite the tape, which wasn't strong enough to hold them with the added weight. (He used more tape. It didn't hold.) He got frustrated.
This frustration led to the most stunning moment of all, when he decided to build supports for the lower end of the aqueduct. This was the section that was collapsing when the heavier balls rolled down. My plan (which I kept to myself) was to use popsicle sticks to construct supports under the trough. SuperSam used pipecleaners instead, twisting two of them together and making a "C" shape at the top that supported his aqueduct like a sling. He pushed the ends of the pipecleaners into a styrofoam egg carton to use as a base.

I was sure this wouldn't work. The pipecleaners were were they going to support the weight of the wooden balls? When he tried it, though, I was surprised to see that although the pipecleaners buckled under the weight as the balls rolled down the chute, they popped back up again. The bendy pipecleaners made his design flexible where mine would have been rigid. His idea worked better than mine would have.

I can't remember another time recently when I've been so glad to have someone else be right about something I thought I had figured out on my own. 

Here is the design SuperSam created:

And here's how the action went down:

His whoops of joy as he bounced around the kitchen were amazing. The pride he felt in his design and its success was all over his face. Our mutual satisfaction grew as we watched it work, over and over again, and I started to feel like I might be the right person to keep up with this boy's learning style, after all.

*This post contains an Amazon affiliate link...which just means that if you click the link to Lori's book, Project-Based Homeschooling from this post and then end up buying the book from Amazon, they will send me a few cents in commission.