How to do project-based learning

I take my kids to a psychiatrist because I don’t trust myself. I had a terrible childhood and it makes me question my own judgment. He was surprised when I told him that I am not really teaching my kids any specific subject matter, but once I explained my rationale, I could see his brain moving quickly to adjust. Then he said, “The kids need projects with goals. Do they have that? A sense of accomplishment is very important to development.”

I said yes. I brought up cello and violin. I brought up 4-H. My son did a great job in that. But right now the kids aren’t that interested in 4-H, and I am worrying that I am not as project-oriented as the kids need me to be.

Lori Pickert sent me her book, Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners.  I thought the book would be a good way for me to get more focused on making the projects happen.

To be honest, I hated the book. But lots of you will love it. I am very achievement oriented, so I see no point in a project that does not come with a big achievement at the end. Pickert’s book is more small-scale and reasonable – like doing art projects – and the book will appeal to parents who don’t feel the need to force their  own proclivities onto their kids.

Still, the book made me nervous and I started making lists. My seven-year-old is very focused. He is taking cello lessons and he just added piano and he does dance and he has a dance recital each year that he adores. He is fine in the project/acheivement realm.

My ten-year-old is goal-oriented like me, so he thinks of his own projects. He taught himself Minecraft and now he competes with other kids in a kill-or-be-killed world. He had to spend weeks learning the ins and outs of Minecraft strategies in order to start winning these tournaments. Other kids make projects for themselves on Minecraft building stuff and being arty. My son just wants to win.

And he didn’t like 4-H because there is no way to scale a 4-H business. He thinks he can make more money running a business where he breeds pigs that people buy for breeding their own herd. I don’t know if he can do this. But I know a ten-year-old making his own breeding stock is an achievement.

So look. I don’t think I’m a project-based homeschooler. I’m too high-stakes for that. I’m an achievement-based homeschooler. My kids can do what they want, but they have to be remarkable.

If you think that is messed up, you’ll love Lori Pickert’s book.


30 replies
  1. Lori
    Lori says:

    i take it as a compliment that the book made you nervous. :)

    just to clarify — the book is NOT about doing art projects. art is a component of helping kids learn to work with knowledge, build skills, and share what they know with others. ideally, this starts when children are age 3 or 4, so art is an important language for them — they aren’t quite ready to express themselves by, say, writing a book or a blog.

    but project-based homeschooling is about mentoring kids so they can learn to teach themselves — and their projects take on impressive depth and breadth, even at a very young age.

    project-based homeschooling actually helps kids become goal-oriented, because they learn from a young age how to break down their goals into achievable chunks.

    my sons are turning 13 and 16 in a couple of months, and their projects go far beyond “small scale and reasonable.” one is a serious artist who has written comics, comic books, and literature, made films, and dedicated himself to honing his skills. the other is a talented writer who knows more about history and politics than most grad students.

    but they *own* their work. no one chose for them — no one said, “here, sit down and do this for 10,000 hours.” they learned how to dig deeply into their interests and develop skills so they could achieve their own goals. their habits of mind were achieved and developed authentically, under their own power and their own self-motivation.

    it’s this ownership that is the key component, in my opinion. children must own the work, and they must find their own meaningful work. why wait until you’re 18 or 22 to start that process if you can start now? my kids are so filled with *ability* that even if their interests shift as they get older (and whose don’t?), i have no doubt they can apply their expert thinking and learning skills to whatever they want to do and achieve.

    thanks for reading, penelope!

    • MBL
      MBL says:


      I loved the post. I loved that Penelope flat out said that she hated it but it ended up, for me, being a rousing endorsement of your book. I really don’t think that you need to worry that people will have gotten a mistaken impression. I will absolutely look into your book and website. They seem like great resources for me.

      I really believe that Penelope’s readership is likely to read:

      To be honest, I hated the book. But lots of you will love it. I am very achievement oriented, so I see no point in a project that does not come with a big achievement at the end. Pickert’s book is more small-scale and reasonable – like doing art projects – and the book will appeal to parents who don’t feel the need to force their own proclivities onto their kids.

      Still, the book made me nervous and I started making lists.

      and come away thinking “Hey, I don’t want to force my proclivities onto my kids. This is the book for me!!” than anything.

      Since Penelope seems to value and know that whenever an opposing idea “makes you nervous” it forces you to clarify your own values and is worthwhile.

      Furthermore, the combination of opening the post with “I take my kids to a psychiatrist because I don’t trust myself” and closing with “If you think that is messed up, you’ll love Lori Pickert’s book.” strikes me as pretty awesome for you!

      Again, I loved the post and think your book stands out all the more over a gushing endorsement by a person who received a promotional copy.

      All the best.

      • Jenn
        Jenn says:

        Lori, I like how you injected the “10,000 hours” example. Is it possible to be an outlier without all that effort?

        • Lori
          Lori says:

          the 10,000-hour rule seems to work pretty well as a general guideline. even early achievers started doing their work very early (and did it often). and some people who achieve success early don’t really reach their peak powers until that 10,000th hour has been reached.

          you can find people picking the rule apart, but there’s no real point — the general truthfulness stands. if you’re going to get really good at something, you’re going to work on it for a long time.

          a more interesting wrinkle is “deliberate practice” — just doing something for 10,000 hours doesn’t guarantee success. you have to have ability, and then you have to use your time well to improve steadily.

          i think the real key is to make sure that you like what you’re doing so that you enjoy those 10,000 hours as well as the success that comes after.

      • Angie Follensbee-Hall
        Angie Follensbee-Hall says:

        I am intensely intrigued by the idea of Project based learning. Its what I have been hoping the school would be doing when they initiated IEP and special ed services for my daughter. I see that its not how that works. They seem to use the IEP as a map of sorts, to continue with the curriculum they have already set in place, despite the fact that its just not working. So I am jumping ship, and starting my own adventure (this is a theme in my life, and I just love watching it happen!).

        I think one needs to decide what we are really trying to do here with this education business, be it homeschool or other. It would seem that perhaps we are preparing children for the “workplace”. The world of career and money, and making a “living”. Isn’t that why we bother with it all? Don’t we want to be sure that our children will be “successful?” won’t that mean that we succeeded at being parents? That we chose the correct education path for them? Who started that line of craziness??? Its soo much more than that. Its only one tiny component of life and living, and you know it its true, because it resonates with us on a deeper level. Despite every pore and cell that might scream “yes, but we need to eat and pay our bills!! We should do that in the most economically minded way as possible. I NEED a career that will prove it to the world that I am SUCCESSFUL”- how many of us are so terribly unhappy with life in general? With our “career”? I don’t think you will EVER be happy if that is the case. You will always be chasing your tail, trying to figure out if there is a better career, or some fancy shift of career that could better optimize your talents. Maybe I should sign up for this training program, or that, and THEN I too can be successful. Maybe I should make more money, better use my time. On and on and on… Why not do what you love. “Oh, that’s such a damn simple woo woo concept” Why? Is that true? When you are doing what you love, are you not content and happy? Search it out. IS it true? Why should a “career” be anything else? Why not Do what inspires you most? Serve the community in some way that moves your soul? What if that is your motivating force? Maybe it won’t make you a ton of money, and so you adjust your lifestyle to make that happen. Maybe today what moves your soul, isn’t what moves it tomorrow? Move on, Change it. Life is constantly moving and shifting, that is just what it does. Did you ever notice that?

        So if I decide that my own kids should do what motivates them most, create in the most unique ways they can, and find ways of sharing that with others, then I would feel like I did my job. That I showed them how maximize their living potential instead of their earning potential.

  2. Joanna Lodin
    Joanna Lodin says:

    I’m curious to know, Penelope, how you define “remarkable?” And do you think it’s possible that your boys won’t meet your expectation?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, it’s a problem, isn’t it?

      I think that I am tainted by the fact that I do so much career counseling. It is a really big problem to people later in life if they are the breadwinner and they are not differentiated in the workforce with some sort of specialty.

      So I am obsessed with teaching my kids how to understand their strengths and know how to get the guts to specialize early on. I am seeing that it takes commitment and belief in oneself that relatively few people learn how to do as a kid.

      I see that in life there are patterns – people who stand out as specialized and particularly good at something as a kid are comfortable finding that for themselves again when they are older. If you never learn to do this as a kid then you are not comfortable doing it in the adult workforce, and people who don’t specialize don’t do well at work.

      So I guess by remarkable I mean ability to stay employed over a long period of time…. I realize this is a weird definition of remarkable, but I have a weird vantage point to watch people handle their careers.


      • Joanna Lodin
        Joanna Lodin says:

        I think your focus is exactly right. Education should absolutely be about talent development and finding a specialty that will create one’s path in life. My children have never wasted time conforming to the “one size fits all” standards of industrial school, so they have no idea how to do that. Instead they put their attention to what gets them juiced and what they do best. Focusing on their specialties has, so far, helped each one reach their individual goals.

  3. Jim
    Jim says:

    I am very impressed with Minecraft, which my 13 and 15 year old sons both play, because it works on so many levels. My 15 year old, who even moderates a Minecraft server, plays it for achievement, while my 13 year old plays it more to simply explore and build — and both find plenty of satisfaction.

    • Lori
      Lori says:

      i think when penelope says

      “I see no point in a project that does not come with a big achievement at the end.”

      she means something that SHE identifies as a big achievement. whereas what is more important (imo) is that the child owns and controls the work and it’s an achievement for *him*. he should be setting his own goals and working toward them, then assessing whether he met his goals.

      and i agree with you — a project *is* working toward a (preferably self-set) goal. successfully reaching or surpassing that goal is the achievement.

  4. patricia
    patricia says:

    Hmm. I love to read what you say here, Penelope, and I also loved Lori’s book. I’m not convinced that what your sons are doing is so far from what Lori writes about.

    I think that learning to win at Minecraft could be considered a project. You’ve already noted all the research he’s done to get there. It doesn’t become a project simply because it’s arty.

    And making his own breeding stock is certainly a project.

    Based on what I understand from Lori’s writing, the difference might be in those lists you’ve begun making. I don’t know what you’re listing, but Lori encourages parents to pay attention to what kids are doing, so they can support them in their goals if necessary. For me, the act of watching what my kids do, and noting it, helps me see all of the small skills they’re developing. It’s easy to watch a kid do something like play Minecraft and assume they aren’t learning much. It’s only when you really pay attention that you see all of the real skills they’re working on.

    Lori seems to have made a conscious decision not to include a lot of project examples in the book; I assume that she wants families to keep an open mind about what a project might look like. I suppose my inclination would have been to include a wide range of examples. (I’m a big fan of examples.) More examples of projects from older kids might have helped you see that the projects Lori writes about don’t have to be small-scale and arty.

    When my oldest was a teenager, he became passionate about filmmaking. His films started getting entered in youth contests, and his goal became making a film “that didn’t look like a teenager made it.” At that point, my role in supporting his projects was minimal–but I still paid attention, and I still supported him at times. Mostly, I simply talked to him a lot about his filmmaking. Interestingly, the film he ultimately made won several prestigious awards, including Best Overall in the youth division of the Chicago International Film Festival. And I think it won as much as it did because it didn’t look like a typical teenage film.

    So there you go, Penelope: that was a project that fit Lori’s model–yet it still was achievement-oriented and remarkable! (Because my kid wanted it to be.)

    • Lori
      Lori says:

      there are examples given in the book, but i don’t go into great detail because parents (and teachers, for that matter) just starting out with project-based learning tend to struggle with letting go of their need to control and direct how the project grows. if i described a project in detail, some adults would think they needed to include all of those same activities. since the idea is to allow the child to direct and manage his own learning, the project should grow organically. too much focus on specific activities and products distracts the adult away from paying attention to his child’s unique ideas.

      “ So there you go, Penelope: that was a project that fit Lori’s model–yet it still was achievement-oriented and remarkable! (Because my kid wanted it to be.)”

      similarly, my kids’ work is very goal-oriented and remarkable. but they own it. they chose it. they persevered because they were determined to meet their own goals. that’s the important element that i think is missing when adults are the ones deciding what’s “achievement” and what’s “remarkable.”

      thank you, patricia! ;o)

  5. victoria
    victoria says:

    Penelope, maybe one answer is to frame your approach not as *project*-based, but as *problem*-based. (This is actually how a lot of medical school teaching is done — you’ll find very few Western medical schools that don’t have a pretty heavy PBL component in their curriculum these days.)

    The difference, to me, is in where you’re viewing the important work. When I hear the term “project-based” I see the final product, and its success and failure, as the important part of the work. And I imagine a situation where you have a successful outcome in mind before you really start — the piece, perfected, for a cello recital; the breeding business with x amount of gross profit and y customers.

    For “problem-based” the final outcome is less important compared to the approach you’ve taken and refined to solving the problem. And the new problems and questions you’ve uncovered along the way. (The big hope for PBL in medical schools is that students will learn in a more natural way how things fit together and be inspired to research on their own; there’s some evidence that it works like that in practice.)

    Of course every project worth undertaking limns problems to solve, and the correct solution to an important problem is an accomplishment in and of itself. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. But I think framing it the other way values more properly the act of thinking through and attacking the problem, regardless of whether it works or not.

    I’m not sure if I’m making any sense with this, but there you go.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really love this approach. It teaches kids to ask big questions. It’s a much more interesting approach to life than setting up goals and meeting them. Setting up problems and solving them is probably more close to how I live my own life, so it appeals to me more.

      It’s really hard for me to talk about child-centered learning because as a parent, I can’t help but be extremely limiting just by who I am. And it seems to me all parents are like this.

      Like, you can have a kid who is really interested in farming but you don’t live on a farm because you, the parent, are more interested in the city.

      Another example is workbooks and testing. I think parents who are good at school want their parents to learn math, reading, US history, etc. And parents who hated school are more likely to unschool.

      So I find problem solving much more interesting than project planning.


  6. Deirdre
    Deirdre says:

    I love this review because it gets to the heart of Lori Pickard’s book, the really revolutionary part of her approach (I obviously loved the book). It is about goals and achievement but defined by the child.
    My sons are in public schools, but I’ve still gained so much from Project Based Homeschooling (kinda think the sub-title is more accurate: mentoring self-directed learners). It’s helped me protect my sons’ time more so they can dive deep into their own interest. My 10 yr old has gotten all his friends obsessed with Star Wars Origami, based on a book he read, and the care and detail he puts into the directions and illustrations he makes for them far exceeds anything he would do for a class assignment—because he created the assignment for himself.

    I grew up in a house that demanded being remarkable. I’m grateful for the motivation and work ethic that gave me, but I see how all my siblings and I avoided risk, steered to what came easily to us because achievement was valued so much more than effort. I’m *trying* to praise and reinforcement effort and risk more than external achievement now—because my own life has shown that’s where real joy lies.

    • Kika
      Kika says:

      I didn’t grow up in a house that pushed me to be remarkable but it also didn’t encourage much risk taking or out-of-the box creativity and I feel myself lacking in these areas. I want my children, mostly to BE whoever they are meant to be (for instance, I have a very adventurous and creative daughter who detests tight scheduling which limits her freedoms and a son who is super linear and prefers being handed instructions or a timetable to follow). But I hope that they would both be willing to take risks, perhaps in varying degrees, in order to pursue those things that are meaningful to them. Thought it doesn’t come naturally to me I see great value in the willingness to risk, to attempt things, and not be overly worried about the end result. To recognize that making mistakes is ok and part of growth.

  7. p
    p says:

    Your blog is my number one resource for homeschooling. This makes me nervous, so I’ve ordered Lori’s book. Thank you!

  8. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Your timing borders on psychic, some days. We lapsed into an unschooling week (or two) starting this past Monday.

    My client load had swelled.
    One has practice & meets that siphon several hours from each week.
    My local food sources are overflowing with produce that I can’t turn down, so my kitchen counter looks like Ellis Island — all this variety waiting to be processed.
    Either food rots or I let go of “doing school” for a short while.

    Without pointing out “We’re not doing regular stuff!”, I asked them what they want to work on.

    First, we made a layer cake demonstrated on YouTube.

    One is working through Video Game Apprentice–reading through text so small and dense, it would otherwise put him off.

    The other is leafing through Family Fun magazine: owls from cupcake liners and toilet paper tubes. Then she draws plans of rooms for her stuffed animals. She learned how to multiply large numbers because she wanted to know “How many days old are you, mom?”

    The willingness to dive into their work is palpable.

    Yesterday they set their own goals for the day. As we neared bed, I asked if they had met their goals. One looked up from downcast eyes. He shook his head.

    The urge to lecture rose like a belch.

    I asked, instead, “What happened that distracted you?”

    Checking YouTube subscriptions. Watching cartoons.

    “What’s the best way for you to work: in small bites or ’til it’s done?”

    Definitely ’til it’s done.

    “Do you work better in the morning or evening?”


    “Hmm. Okay. Well–you know what you have tomorrow, then.”


    And then I fell off the wagon: “You know if this were a job…?”

    I’d be fired.

    “Or you wouldn’t get paid. That’s all.”

    We read a chapter from our book and went to bed. It was not mentioned again.

  9. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I just finished her book too. It scared the crap out of me. It sounds messy and big and basically told me to keep my opinions to myself. I really love telling my kids what I think. :) It’s not the way I like to do things, but it’s the way my husband and son do things. Both of them work in projects in exactly the way that Lori describes them in her book. When I finished it I felt like I actually understood them better. So we’ll be doing a lot of project-based learning at our house. I’m going to be stepping out of my comfort zone and keeping my mouth shut while they show me a thing or two. I’m still scared, but I already know it’s a great way to learn.

    • Lori
      Lori says:

      “basically told me to keep my opinions to myself” —hey, hey. i said it *way* nicer than that. :)

      mentoring children to have their own opinions and ideas and solve their own problems is like teaching them how to box. if you KO them every time with your superior strength, they’re not going to learn to do much other than protect their face.

      mentoring them to direct and manage their own thinking and learning means eventually they’ll be able to hear your ideas without immediately caving in to them. you’re making them stronger so you can spar with them intellectually — and they can hold their own. ;)

      • Kika
        Kika says:

        I’ve seen your book mentioned various places online and had decided it wasn’t for me right now but I’ve changed my mind :) I don’t know if this is exactly what you write about but my middle child – right brained, very project-oriented, creative, messy, adventurous… – she taught herself to sew by breaking ALL the rules. She doesn’t like patterns although enjoys pinterest inspiration. Certain women have tried to impose why she ought to learn to follow patterns and I refuse to impose this – at just 12 ys old it is amazing what she creates. This is the way she learns and tackles life. I will not hold her back. ( although I insist upon her messes being cleaned up at some point :)) She simply wilts under too many restrictions or too rigid of planning. What a joy to watch her in action!

        • Lori
          Lori says:

          a lot of adults suffer from tunnel vision — they don’t consider kids to be succeeding unless they’re doing things the “right” way. it’s wonderful that you are supporting your daughter to find her own path. *if* she wants to learn how to do traditional pattern-making later on, i’m sure she will be able to learn it quickly, coming from a place of authentic knowledge and self-confidence. whereas forcing her to learn it the accepted way at the outset would probably have killed off her interest.

          i’m glad you changed your mind about the book. ;) come find me on twitter or on my site later and tell me what you thought!

          • Julie
            Julie says:

            I had actually ordered your book (not sure you’ll read this, because I’m a little late to the party) a couple of days ago before I found this post. Now I’m glad I did.

            I have homeschooled my sons for a while now, really starting when they were little. I taught them via art projects and somewhat whacked-out science projects that they enjoyed a great deal. They had a lot of control over what projects we did, and I was always impressed by how much they learned just by doing what seemed like very simple art projects, just by hands-on going through the process of “how do we put this together so that it looks kind of how it’s supposed to or at least how we want it to look.”

            But this year, we had a massively chaotic year (house burned down, displaced, lost pets, etc.), and I didn’t have the energy or time to focus on keeping track of the kinds of messy, disparate projects we used to have, and so we opted into an online charter school, which is very structured (and free! because it’s public school) but we have hated it. None of the subjects are connected anymore. My son is loving the history and science curriculum they offer, so that’s good, but then we get so caught up in adhering to their schedule in the totally unrelated language arts and all that, that we don’t get to go deeper into the history and science that fascinates him. He’s frustrated, and I’m frustrated. So, I ordered your book to try to come back to terms with how I used to teach him and get a sense of how to do this for older kids (he’s only 8, and he does still love art projects of various kinds, but he needs more, too–I think he wants to be an engineer or something, and he has and wants to develop skills that I don’t have, although my husband does–so I need help figuring out how to guide him through projects that are meaningful to him).

            Having read this and your comments here, I cannot wait to get the book, and I cannot wait to start. I’m so excited to do this.

            For now, we are going to find the time to tie history and science together by building a catapult. It should be great.

          • Lori
            Lori says:

            julie — great! hopefully the book will help you figure out how to incorporate his interests while learning in a meaningful and rigorous way. come find me at my site/forum after you read it — we have a friendly and supportive community there. :)

  10. Tr
    Tr says:

    I can’t even relate to a fellow homeschooling mom who openly admits that her kids have to be remarkable and that you spend so much time being focused on outcomes and acheivements…

    There’s something profoundly wrong with that….and so sad….

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