Reflections on an ‘Unsuccessful’ Term

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When we first tried out project based learning, I knew somewhere deep inside, that this would forever change the way we do school.  And I was right.  It remains a good choice.  However, this term has not been as successful as last term.

The premise of project based learning (PBL) is autonomy, which has always been the goal of our little home school.  Yet it is this very autonomy which has brought the challenges this term.  Autonomy, much like everything else, is relative.  I have always given the children a lot of say in what they learn, and to a lesser extent how they learn it.  This year’s project based learning has brought with it a significant increase in terms of the role the children have to play in their own education, and a corresponding decrease in my role as their teacher.  I do maintain control over the topic they are to study, and I suppose on the resources available to them to study it with.  Apart from that though, they are on their own, unless they ask for help.

Last term, despite the relative success of our experimentation with PBL, I had highlighted a few areas of improvement.  These included:

  • Shortening the term.  Twelve weeks was too long for such a concentrated effort, so we shortened it to six weeks.  This has been a huge improvement and seems about the right time before we need a break.
  • Ensuring L11 got the support she needed.  L11 works well independently and is very sure of what she wants to do and how to go about it.  However, she likes to have the reassurance of my presence and the availability of help should she need it.  Again, this has worked well this term and she has produced some lovely work, unhurriedly finished and enjoyed from start to end.
  • All of us, bar T12, felt that we needed to define the project with more precise parameters.  The girls hoped this might help to rein them in a bit and not feel too overwhelmed.  This worked well for both C11 and L11.
  • T12 wanted to be totally autonomous with no input at all from me.  I was more than happy to give him that, given in the past he has shown me nothing but hard work and reliability with some fabulous results.  In retrospect, I think it was too soon.  Without any accountability at all, he had no one to help keep the momentum of the project going, and found he had little time to finish his final film.
  • C11 and I had discussed and agreed that her project would be much more defined and specific, and well within her capabilities.  Last terms project had overwhelmed her, and she had required a lot of help from me.  This had the effect of stealing the joy she would have had if the work had been primarily her own.  This term she chose to concentrate on writing which is her strength.  This was a good choice and in terms of writing she did well.  However, she too, along with T12 struggled to maintain the enthusiasm she had at the start of the project.  And again, like T12, had to rush to finish her final project
  • C11 and I had also discussed the need for me to be involved at every stage.  And it is here I feel I really let her down.  Each time I asked how she was getting on she would reply ‘brilliantly, I’ve almost finished’ so I left her to her own devises content she was doing well.  It was only in the last few days I realised she was not quite as on the ball as she would have had me believe.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think she was being deliberately deceptive.  I think she probably believed she had almost finished.  It was her own inexperience which prevented her from realising she was getting behind.

Whose education is this anyway?

It continues to be a huge learning curve for both the children and for me.  When we get it right, there is much joy which comes from learning lots; when we get it wrong, we are finding much the same thing.  This is because even when things don’t go well, we are still learning as much, if not more, than we do if things go well.

This term the final pieces of work have not been of the highest of standards and I have found it hard not to be disappointed.  I expressed my disappointment to C11, making sure she understood I was not disappointed in her, just disappointed that she hadn’t produced the type of work I know she is capable of.  She walked away, head down, returning minutes later to say sorry.  It was at that very moment a light bulb went off in my head.  And I saw with absolute clarity that it was not my job to be disappointed.  Their ability to produce high quality work should have no affect on me.  It should, however, have a huge affect on them.  The bible teaches us  ‘whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men’ (Colossians 3:23) and ‘whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might’ (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

Gary and I have brought up our children to work hard.  They know that laziness is not accepted.  But in that moment I realised that often they worked to please man (me in this case).  C felt she had let me down.  This was one of those key moments in their upbringing and for me as their parent.  I was able to share with them that the quality of their work only reflected well or badly on them.  That it was their responsibility before God to their best, to ‘work heartily’, with their heart and soul and with all their might, as if they were working for God.  And that I was here to help them do just that.

I hugged my girl tightly as I shared with her that it wasn’t me she needed to apologise to.  She hadn’t done anything to me.  I asked who she felt she was letting down, to which she replied herself.  And God.

True autonomy is this.  It is working to standards, not set by man (even if that man is your mother), but standards one sets oneself, based upon those things which are important to that particular individual.  I asked C if she was happy with her work.  She replied that she was very happy it was her own work, with no help from me.  She was also content with the research and writing she had done.  However, she said she felt she had let herself down with regards to her scrap-book, that it wasn’t her best work and that she had lost interest and not bothered towards the end.  This, she said, did not make her feel proud.

I talked to T12, who had experienced the same loss of interest and he said that he much preferred the feeling last term of a job well done.  He said he was proud of his work last term and couldn’t wait to share it with everyone, but could not say the same of his work this term.  He felt as if he had let himself down a little.

And me?  Well, I felt a return of the feeling that I am above all their mummy, not their teacher.  That my life is mine to live the best way I know how, and my job is to encourage my children to do the same.  I will continue to expect the best out of them, but I am happy to  allow them true autonomy whereby they are allowed to set their own standards for their life, and learn through trial and error to do their work ‘heartily’ and ‘with all their might’.

I will be sharing their work, probably next week sometime.  I need to change their word documents into pdfs in order to share them (and I haven’t done that yet!).

22 comments

  1. Funny thing, Claire; I was having this same talk to myself about my children this very morning. Your post helped reassure me that I was on the right track. You have such a way of writing that comes right to the point, while my mind wanders around trying to figure out what I want to say.

    Thank you for sharing things to don’t work. I think that is one of the things I appreciate about your blog. You are so very honest. All is not always sunshine and roses in home school, and it is nice to know others have the same experiences.

    I believe you are such a wonderful mommy and teacher. Your children are so very blessed to have you, and so are we!

    Have a lovely day, Claire.

  2. It is very interesting you hear your thoughts on the the good and difficult aspects of PBL. It has always been an interesting idea to me, but my kids are woefully reluctant to be independent. It is interesting to see that this aspect is difficult even with naturally independent children.

    1. Being naturally independent doesn’t always equate with being naturally diligent. To be honest, it might have been that the subject wasn’t interesting enough. Hopefully next term will be brilliant with Da Vinci – who could fail to keep their interest studying him?

  3. I love that you take time to evaluate how things went and what could change for the better. I always enjoy reading about your family’s project based approach.

    1. I guess PBL is still new to us all so I need to reflect, evaluate and re-evaluate in order to move forwards. Thanks for popping by Tristan.

  4. To implement a new way of doing things is always a learning process for all involved. This post has provided good insights to the teething issues of implementing the project-based learning. I also appreciate your honesty in sharing the challenging aspects of this approach and how you are working to overcome them. It sure beats the picture-perfect homeschooling experiences that tend to dominate the blogosphere! 🙂

    1. There’s no such thing as picture perfect in this house, and (thankfully) I’m no perfectionist so I don’t mind sharing my (many) failures!! Although to be honest it’s the failures which teach me the most and grow us all as people the most – so I’m kind of thankful for them (if you know what I mean?)

    1. Thank you, Kris. That’s very kind of you to say so. I just know my own education began after university, when it became very interest led and I discovered to my astonishment that I was rather creative – I hadn’t had a clue up until then! I’m trying to give my children those self same freedoms now rather than in 10 years time, so they might discover their God given gifts.

  5. Aren’t those light bulb moments amazing? They’re one of things I love most about home-educating. We’re all in this together – kids, parents and this lovely community, each of us finding our way to doing our best. It sounds like everyone in your house learned a huge amount this term – about themselves as well as their projects. I feel so blessed that our children get to learn these kind of lessons now rather than years down the line when it’s so much harder to change. A very successful term, I’d say!
    I love reading about your evolving homeschool. Thank you for taking the time to share from the heart.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Lucinda. I’ve come to conclusion that homeschooling is ever evolving and will always be so! Just as I think I’ve got something sorted, something else rears its ugly head asking for attention. But you’re right – that’s half the fun!
      Did your daughter get T’s email? (I love her name, very cool!)

  6. This may or may not be a duplicate comment, we’ll see…… My computer has been acting flaky lately on commenting.

    You’ve really given me some food for thought on who the kids should be working to please, me, God, or themselves, and what balance should be.

  7. I love reading about your schooling and life with your kids. There is always so much for me to hunk about and use in our life. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I was enjoying reading your reflections on your spring term this morning because I stumbled across them looking at one of your other posts. I’ve been in a reflective mood, and this suited it 🙂 My children being younger, I find that I have to “encourage” them and work with them through each stage of a project and it becomes “our project” meaning mine and whichever child or a whole family project. I tell myself that the work that I put in now will pay dividends in the future, so I enjoyed your reminder that a job well done needs to be one that is their best and one that is God-honoring. 🙂

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