Reflections on an ‘Unsuccessful’ Term


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!).