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Project-Based Learning in Montessori

If you’ve been interested in Montessori learning, you may have come across the concept of project-based learning in your research. There are examples of project-based learning throughout all types of educational backgrounds, from traditional to Montessori, and no matter the setting, it’s a valuable learning tool. To help make things a bit clearer, we’ve put together a little primer on Project-Based Learning and how it works within a Montessori learning environment.

What is Project Based Learning?

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a student-centered teaching method in which children learn by participating in real-world projects that are personally meaningful. For instance, if your child is exceptionally into animals, your Project-Based Learning might involve designing a zoo. Your children might see a zoo and think “that’s where the animals live”, but in Project-Based Learning, they’ll really see everything that goes into creating a zoo, including:

Where the animals live, and why (the gorillas are in a pit with climbing equipment versus the penguins in the pond – why)

The logistics of feeding, maintaining, and keeping your animals happy, healthy and engaged

Basic mathematical concepts aligned with costs, profit, etc

This particular example is a bit involved for little ones, but the goal is to show the in-depth and multidisciplinary aspects or that project-based learning. A child can want to learn about being a veterinarian, and discover all the interconnected disciplines that go into it. For a younger child, a better approach may start with learning about dinosaurs and end up being a unit about paleontology (learning is more fun when you can roar like a t-rex).

How to Start Project Based Learning

The Project-Based Learning process begins with what is referred to as a driving question, which is complex and challenging; how does one make a zoo, or how do we know about dinosaurs? This complex question is the catalyst for critical thinking and problem solving. In responding to the driving question, students conduct independent research in order to make their own decisions about the question or challenge, which are ultimately presented to peers or guests.

The following is a list of Project-Based Learning hallmarks:

  • Projects are authentic and realistic
  • Students are free to fail
  • Few, if any, project parameters exist
  • Experts are often involved for consulting and guidance
  • Opportunities for collaborative learning and presentation are provided

Is Project Based Learning Aligned with Montessori?

Project-based learning is absolutely aligned with the Montessori values of student-led education and development of curiosity and self-motivation. It’s important to remember, however, that in a Montessori environment, Project-Based Learning is not a substitute for Practical Life, Science, Sensorial, Mathematics, Language and Culture/Geography.

Instead, Project-Based Learning is a method that can be used to joyfully reinforce and supplement the child’s knowledge and skills in these areas. Since one of Montessori’s core values is to provide children the freedom to explore and learn that which interests them, Project-Based Learning is, in fact, a quite natural extension.

Project-Based Learning and Montessori

Here are a few examples of the ways in which Project-Based Learning can be used to supplement Montessori homeschooling curriculum:

  • As a way to passionately follow your child,
  • As a way to infuse excitement into the learning process,
  • As a way to offer skill practice authentically and realistically,
  • As a way to assess mastery of concepts,
  • As a way to develop critical thinking skills,
  • As a way to develop public speaking skills,
  • As a way to challenge students, and
  • As a way to document learning in your homeschool.

Why supplement with project-based learning in Montessori?

Project-based learning can be tricky to facilitate because it takes an exceptional amount of patience, flexibility and agility. There is no set curriculum, nothing to follow and it’s different every. single. time. There’s not even a scope and sequence to help! So, why bother?

The answer is simple: Research shows that education must be relevant to have meaning. Without relevance, effective learning can’t take place.

This means that the old drill-and-kill method is neurologically useless. It does NOTHING to build neural connections and long-term memory storage. Think about it… have you ever taught your child something only to come back to it a few months later and realize (s)he didn’t retain it? We all have. And, this is why!

If a kid doesn’t find an activity interesting or relevant, it’s probably not going to sink in because the concepts presented seem unnecessary or personally irrelevant.

One of the most important things we can do for our kids is to provide relevance. It helps them make sense of their world by giving them a context within which they can develop into engaged, motivated and self-regulated learners.

Project-Based Learning helps students understand, retain and apply what you’ve taught. And, perhaps more important, it can help them realize how useful all knowledge can be. The effort you put into incorporating Project-Based Learning into your Montessori homeschool will allow your students to discover that what you teach is actually interesting and worth knowing.

Getting started with project-based learning

At this point, we know what Project-Based Learning is, how it can be used to enhance our Montessori homeschools and why it’s so important for our kiddos. So, how do we get started? If you know me, you know what I’m about to say:

Begin with the end in mind.

Our end goal is to supplement what we are teaching in a way that makes learning personally meaningful to our kids and helps them see the value in ALL learning. This means we need a project our kids are interested in AND that fulfills an educational purpose. Effective and functional Project-Based Learning must be meaningful in both ways.

I’ve created a handy road map for you based on my research and experience. Steps 1 and 2, which are interrelated and really done simultaneously, are outlined below. You can get started with these steps the moment you are done reading!

Observe and Question

During observation, you will be watching, playing, reading and chatting with your child about the things they like, while simultaneously making notes on key elements of what you learn through the process. Warning: Please don’t make yourself crazy about the notes. It’s just a tool for you – to help jog your memory and stay focused. I’ll show you what mine looked like shortly.

Question Their Interests

This step may seem unnecessary at first, but please don’t skip it. Here’s why: you may instinctively know your child really likes dinosaurs. But, they are likely excited about certain subtopics you never even considered. These can be discovered during observation using open-ended questions.

For example, although my son REALLY likes dinosaurs, I discovered through observation and questioning that his personal subtopics of interest were related to the coming of life on earth and what paleontologists do for a living, from the dig to the museum display. I learned all of this by watching and asking open-ended questions related to our play.

These are the types of open-ended questions I ask:

  • What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about dinos/paleontology?
  • Tell me more about that.
  • Why do you think that is?
  • Will you help me understand?
  • What do you think? (And, why do you think that?)
  • What other information would we need to find out?
  • If you were a professional paleontologist, what would you be studying

 

Here’s an example of a Project-Based Learning Outline:

Christopher, Age 5.5 (at the time of observation/questioning)

  • DINOS
    • Herbivores v carnivores
    • Sizes of dinos
    • What did dinos eat?
    • Where did the dinos live?
    • Which dino would win in a fight?
    • How do we know what we know about dinos?
    • When did dinos live?
    • How do we know?
    • When did everything else live?
    • Did other things live before us that I don’t know about?
    • What was the first thing to live on Earth?
    • How do we know?

***2nd Great Lesson***

  • FOSSILS
    • What are fossils?
    • What do fossils feel like?
    • How do fossils form?
    • Where can we find fossils?
    • Is it hard to find fossils?
    • Are fossils big or small?
    • Are fossils all just bones?
    • How do paleontologists find fossils?

***“I want to study fossils like paleontologists do!”***

  • PALEONTOLOGY
    • How do dino skeletons get to museums?
    • Who puts dino skeletons together?
    • Is it hard to put dino skeletons together?
    • How do dino skeletons tell us things about dinos?
    • Where do paleontologists work?
    • Do they bring the fossils back to their offices?
    • How can I become a paleontologist?
    • Review and Analyze

Spend some time reading through your notes. Highlight anything that looks like a researchable question. Then, for each question, create a spreadsheet that links their questions to both real world activities and to your Montessori homeschool curriculum. Bonus points if you can reinforce things learned recently or cover topics not yet broached.

This may seem intimidating at first, but you will quickly see how easy it is to use your M3 record keeping rubrics to fill in the blanks. Don’t stress about being complete – things will come up and you will be able to adjust/edit/amend later. It’s important to just get a rough outline for now.

For example, my son loves measuring things. He just walks around the house with a measuring tape in his hands and has fun measuring – not kidding! And, he just told me he wants to study fossils like paleontologists do. BAM! He can estimate lengths and weights, use scientific instruments to discover things about the fossils and get accurate data, then round and record this data just like a paleontologist!

As I made my table, I realized this also opens the door for talks about symmetry, 3D shapes and more!

Prepare Your Materials

Print, laminate and trim your curriculum materials. Organize them according to topic and make sure they are easily accessible. You want them to be “at the ready” whenever your little Project-Based Learning-er is. I used an expansion file I already had, labeled each section with a sharpie and inserted the various materials. Keep this on you at all times during the project. You never know when you will need it!

 

Project Based Learning Supplies

Consider books, reference materials, puzzles, journals, art materials, furniture, volcanoes, fossils, posters, whatever!

 

The supply list for my son’s paleontology project looked like this:

  • Desk
  • Chair
  • Large tub
  • Sand for tub
  • Paleontology tools
  • Small fossils for him to dig up
  • Fossil reference guide
  • Paleontology outfit for dress up
  • Dinosaur themed early readers for him to read to me
  • World map
  • Map magnets
  • Digital scale
  • Measuring tape
  • Ruler
  • Scissors
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • Colored pencils
  • Intro fossil / dino books to read together
  • Dinosaur themed journal
  • Dinosaur stencils
  • Magnifying glass
  • Large dino STEM kit
  • Word wall materials (pocket chart and words with definitions)
  • Puzzles

This looks like a lot. But, if you’re thinking about Project Based Learning to supplement your Montessori curriculum, you have been homeschooling for at least a little while. You probably already have at least some of what you need. So, search your home and use what you have first.

Setting Up the Workstation

For my son’s paleontology lab, I repurposed an old standing desk for his workstation as well as a chair from a set we rarely use. His father donated a standing magnifying glass with light (for use with fossil inspection and analysis, of course). We had things like pens, pencils, colored pencils, rulers, measuring tapes, a world map and magnifying glasses.

I did buy a few things. First, I purchased a large plastic container from Target for $10 and sand from Lowe’s for $5 to create his dig site. From Amazon, I purchased a new reference book about fossils, a fossil kit, a dino journal, a digital scale, dino stencils and a few books. I also splurged on a paleontologist cargo vest and I’m so glad I did because he LOVES it! This project wound up lasting over 6 months, so I spent this all slowly, over that time.

I suggest starting with only what you truly need to see how much of a liking your child takes to the project, and how long (s)he will work on it. Then you can grow your supplies on an as-needed basis. Don’t be surprised if your supply list grows and changes over time. Also don’t be surprised if others get in on the action. We were gifted a beautiful fossil poster, some awesome books and several puzzles for his lab by friends and family.

Starting the Project

This is where the fun begins and you can experience the fruits of your labor. Watching your child immerse themselves in the Project-Based Learning curriculum you’ve created is tremendously empowering. You’ll find that their ability to connect concepts, think critically, and discover links between different disciplines within the project are dramatically strengthened. They will learn to more deeply explore new ideas and how they relate to past and future concepts.

Project-based learning is fun, immersive, and powerful

As far as educational tools and concepts go, project-based learning is one of the best. While it does take some effort and planning beyond the norm, it’s well worth the time you spend.

As I stated before, learning is essentially useless without relevance. If a child can’t see the interconnected nature of the concepts they’re exploring, the neurological connections aren’t strong. Drilling information into a child’s mind is probably the least efficient way to teach them, and Montessori education understands this concept. Because of how the Montessori Method approaches childhood learning, Project-Based Learning is a perfect fit.

Summary

Starting by identifying your child’s most prominent interests through observation and questioning. When you’ve developed a good amount of notes, you can prepare your curriculum and materials to start the process of introducing it to your little one. Since project-based learning is so open, it affords you the ability to pivot when their interests change direction, or more deeply explore a single aspect of the project.

Once you’ve established the curriculum and specific materials, you can develop a supply list and gather them for the project. Remember that you may have the supplies in your own home, and utilize your friends and family as well before you go out and buy all new products. For instance, if you’re heading into dino territory, you might have cousins that no longer need or want their dinosaur stuff from their youth. Project-based learning doesn’t need to break the bank; explore all of your options and buy only what you need.

When you’ve gathered everything up, now is the time to dive deeply into the world of project-based learning and see what it can offer your child. They will lead their learning as with any aspect of Montessori, but here you will really see the connections being made. As they learn and understand the interconnectedness of math, reading, writing, history, and science within a single concept, they will be able to use this understanding throughout their lives.

No longer will a lesson be its own single topic; they will see it for how it connects to everything else they know. That interconnectivity builds relevance, and relevance reinforces new concepts in a way that no other aspect of learning can.

 

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