What Do You Have to Show for Your Child’s Learning? (part 1)

Homeschooling Photo Journals
“Home Education Adventures” photo albums

Back when we were using curriculum in our homeschool, it was easy to point to the “evidence” that showed that my children were learning.  As we made our way through history, science and maths materials, they would fill in the gaps in worksheets “notebook pages” or assemble pre-fabricated lapbooks, and at the end of the term I collated their “learning” into neatly labelled volumes ready to wave at imaginary doubters – “See! I did teach my children science!”

But now that we’ve moved to a more interest-led homeschooling style, what do I have to show for their learning? If my daughter engages in an activity but doesn’t have anything tangible to show at the end of it, does that mean she hasn’t learned anything? Of course not.  But  that doesn’t mean that tangible outcomes don’t contribute to learning. As Lori Pickert puts it,

Your child represents his learning by making, and he learns while making.”

Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

There seem to be good and bad reasons for wanting our children to produce “something to show” for learning.  Representations created for good reasons deepen learning.  Bad reasons, on the other hand, may not have anything to do with our children’s learning, but instead stem from some extraneous factor like our own anxiety.

(Note that I am not talking here about compliance with homeschool reporting laws, which we’re lucky enough not to be subject to.)

5 Good Reasons to Have Something to Show for Learning

1. Creating deepens understanding

There are different levels of learning, all appropriate at different times.  For example, I read lots of books about homeschooling, but I don’t engage with them all in the same way.   I might adopt a couple of ideas from one book and then put it back on the shelf.  I might talk about another with my husband or homeschooling friends.  If I’m really inspired by a book, I might take notes from it or write a review.  Each of those actions represents a different level of engagement with the subject matter, and in general the more I have to “show” for what I’ve learned, the better I understand it. But that doesn’t mean I should review every book I read – some ideas inspire me more than others.

When C(8) was doing a project on electricity, she learned about Benjamin Franklin, lightening, circuits and electromotors. Of all the things I might have expected her to create, perhaps the least likely was an illustrated essay about electrons. She chose to create the piece as a way of consolidating her understanding and to share what she’d learned.  Like me, she learns best when she’s free to choose how deeply to engage with each subject.

2. As a by-product of learning a process

When we’re learning to write, we might produce stories and poems.  When we’re learning to paint, we create artwork.  But when we get hung up on the form of these “products”, we interfere with the learning. Sometimes it’s about the process, not the end result.

Children need time to master materials before they can work purposefully.”

Lori Pickert

Young children experiment with paints and paper because it’s fun.  Most adults never touch art or craft materials.  They’ve become so focused on the idea of the perfect product that they’ve forgotten how to play. They never write for pleasure because when they try, they discover their writing sucks compared with what they enjoy reading. Of course it does – to improve our writing skills, we need to spend time engaging with words without the pressure to produce the perfect novel.

Children need time and space to learn how to use materials without being required to produce defined outcomes. Then when they have something authentic to share, they’ll have the skills to produce representations that are pleasing to them.

3. Sharing what we know

Making representions teaches children to share what they’ve learned – a skill they’ll call on throughout their lives.  Whatever work our children choose to do as adults, it will involve sharing their knowledge and skills with others. They might share orally or in written form, using video or pictures or some other art form, and sharing might be live in person or asynchronously. As children, they need opportunities to practise different types of sharing, to build confidence and help them discover what they enjoy.

C(9) recently decided to post some of her paintings on her blog. She’s learning the communication and technical skills involved compiling and publishing blog posts, as well as sharing her art.  J(7) saw what C(9) was doing and wanted to start his own blog. He writes (dictates) about his favourite computer games. Both children were intrinsically motivated to represent their learning in a form they could share with other people.

3. To create a learning trail for a specific subject

When we recently studied Japanese history, I got out the lapbooks my children made when we looked at modern Japan last year. The lapbooks were wonderful visual reminders of what they had learned before. Connections were made at a faster rate; they were more quickly engaged.

It was great that in that instance we were able to look back on material made by the children. But that’s not a reason to insist that they create something in relation to everything they learn. Sometimes, as their mentor, I need to find other ways to remind them what came before. (More about this in part 2.)

4. To create a general learning trail

There’s value in being able to look back over past learning.  We get a sense of satisfaction, fun is re-lived, and learning is reviewed. While I think this is an authentic reason for wanting to have “something to show” for learning, of all the reasons I find this one the most susceptible to misappropriation.

If I look around my home and notice a lack of neatly handwritten notebooks on our shelf, anxiety can creep in about whether I’m fulfilling my responsibilities. If I’m not careful, this is when I’m prone to jump in and interfere with my children’s natural learning process by insisting they write something of my choosing.

I guard against this tendency by taking plenty of photos and keeping a learning journal. Yes, I want my children to have something to look back on to remind them of all the things they’ve learned, but in my experience the more intrinsically motivated a child has been to create a piece of work, the more likely it is to be treasured and reviewed.

What if they aren’t producing enough?

In part 2,  I’ll share some strategies I use when I get to worrying that I’m not seeing enough homeschooling “results”.

I also emphasise by way of disclaimer that this is an ongoing enquiry for me: I don’t have all the answers, I’m just sharing what’s working for us at the moment. And I most definitely welcome your thoughts and experiences on the subject – I need all the help I can get!

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21 thoughts on “What Do You Have to Show for Your Child’s Learning? (part 1)

  1. Wow Lucinda this is perfect timing – we’ve got the home ed inspector lady coming tomorrow, and I’m frantically trying to get T to produce some evidence of learning!

    1. Ooh – I hope it goes well! Just tell the inspector you believe in quality over quantity 😉

      I’m loving your Italy series… going to make time for a proper browse through your gorgeous gallery today.

  2. I think my main reason for wanting my children to produce pieces of work (other than the obvious joy it gives both Gary and I to look back on over the years) is that I need to see an on-going improvement. This isn’t necessarily at the level expected of their age, but I do need to know we are advancing (and hopefully in the right direction!). Watching their work changing and maturing over the years is very reassuring!!
    This is a great post, really well thought out and thought provoking!

    1. Thank you, Claire – as you may have guessed, this was my “out of my comfort zone” post!

      It seems like you guys manage it all – lovely photos of your fun hands-on activities as well as beautiful written work. I’ve noticed C(9) wanting to write more over the last year, and your older three are an inspiration when it comes to what’s possible (I sometimes show my C their work that you post :-))

  3. It is sometimes difficult to focus on learning as a process rather than a product, especially when it comes to the education of young children. Personally I *know* whether my child knows something or not through our frequent conversations and through observing his interactions with others. I have very little need for him to show me proof in terms of written paper, but keeping “evidence” of children engaging in activities is a very good idea, both for the parent as well as for any potential inspection.

    I look forward to reading part 2!

    1. Thank you so much for reading, Hwee. I absolutely agree about not needing proof. One of the many privileges of home educating is that we know our children so well and, as you say, can see first hand what they’re learning. I guess letting go of the need to see written “evidence” is part of my own deschooling!

  4. really inspiring and sooo helpful; please can you tell me a little more about what you mean by lap books?

    oh and can we meet for coffee soon!

    angela H

    1. Hi Angela, so glad you found it helpful! Lapbooks look like this (link to a Google image search – just in case it doesn’t work). My kids make little “minibooks” for each part of a topic they’re interested in. Lots of examples of minibooks here, then stick them onto a folder – hey presto, a “lapbook”!

      Definitely coffee soon! Lucinda x

    1. Thank you Susan, that means a lot! I think you must have been sharing your “writing it down” thoughts at the same time I was putting down these thoughts (it took me a while!). When I read yours it struck me how friendly and succinct your post was! (I’m a recovering lawyer – my writing is gradually becoming more readable but it’s an ongoing project! :-D)

  5. I can relate to on the perfectionism subject! Something I am trying not to pass on to my children, but I sometimes wonder if it’s genetic!

  6. Great post, thank you for sharing your thoughts! One thing I’ve often wondered while I figure out all this PBH stuff (I’m a huge fan of Lori’s) is why my children don’t seem to be producing or investigating any “subjects” like history or science. My 4 year old loves vehicles and that’s what he does all day. My 10.5 year old illustrates and writes stories about princesses and fairies. Other than collecting monarch caterpillars to release when they turned into butterflies and reading a lot about dinosaurs she doesn’t do any project work related to subjects. I keep suggesting ways for her to go deeper but she’s not interested. I’m wondering if this is because I haven’t really introduced any new subject material in science or history. Do you do any history or science that is seperate from project work that inspires them to turn it into a project?

    1. Hi Elizabeth and thank you for the compliment! I’m a huge fan of Lori’s, too 🙂

      Great question. I try to do one fun hands-on science experiment a week and we read The Story of the World and often do spin-off history/geography projects (like this one on Japan). I usually start with an activity in mind, but if my kids have their own ideas, so much the better!

      My 9 yr old daughter often does science-related project work (she’s looking at light and colour at the moment). Projects seem to come indirectly from the science we do together rather than as immediate offshoots, and I like that – it feels authentic and I like knowing she’s continued thinking about what we’ve done together.

      I suppose I see what we do in history and science as long-term “strewing”.

      It sounds like your children enjoy their projects. I love your daughter’s butterfly interest! Do you have a blog?

      1. I loved your link with your science experiments! That seems very doable. What I’ve been wanting to do is to simply read out of a science or history book every afternoon immediately after our 3 o clock snack time with the saints (just a catchy name for the time we learn about our faith). I want to alternate days for science and history but the reason I haven’t yet is because I get caught up in my perfectionistic tendencies thinking, “should I start chronologically or start with American…or Texas. Should I work with a spine, etc etc.”

        Ah yes, the butterfly project…that was actually one of the first questions I asked Lori about when she started the forum…I sort of hijacked that project. :-). Thankfully there was no permanent damage done and she went on to catch and release over 2o monarchs.

        “Do you have a blog”

        Lol. Yes and no. I dropped out of blogging back in February and haven’t been back since. I’ve been thinking about starting up again as a way to document our learning and PBH. It’s been really great to read about other PBHers through their blogs. I subscribed to your blog and I look forward to getting to know you through your posts and Lori’s forum.

        1. “Snack time with the saints” – what a lovely routine! I completely relate to not getting started with things because of perfectionism! I’m drafting a post about how we do science and I think I’m going to title it “Imperfect science” because I keep catching myself explaining why I’m not more organised about it (in terms of topics) and the reason is that if I just wouldn’t get round to it, and imperfect science is better than no science! 😀 I think that’s why I like The Story of the World, too. We’re doing the Middle Ages at the moment and using SOTW means I just pick a chapter, grab our giant map of the world, and start reading.

          I also relate to hijacking projects! But I always remind myself of Lori’s kind words about how we’re learning too and mistakes are a sign that we’re engaging with our children on proejcts. Thanks for the reminder about the forum, I sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount going on over there but it is a great source of support and I’d like us to spend more time on projects.

          Oh and you’ve inspired me to order a butterfly house – thank you!

          1. I’m very much looking forward to your imperfect science post because that’s what I need to do. For whatever reason, whenever I decide we’re going to do science, it always involves me sitting down and writing a whole years worth of plans…that I never get around to.

            My daughter used glass jars we had on hand for the butterflies if you’d rather do that. :-). And that way you can spend the money to get yourself a few caterpillar host plants (buy enough so that the butterflies can find them. (3-4 plants clumped together should work). Seriously that’s how my daughter had 10 plus caterpillars on 2 separate occasions.

          2. Now that sounds like a sensible plan for the butterflies – thank you!

            I’m so with you on the science plans! There’s just so much wonderful inspiration out there, I want to do everything and then I get completely overwhelmed. The only thing that works for me is to plan one activity at a time 🙂

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