The Sweet, Dragonfruit-Scented Smell of Motivation

You’d think I’d have learned from last year’s experience, wouldn’t you?

But no, a month into the school year, and I’m seeing the same pattern all over again: dusty worksheets and dead-end assignments and bizarre story problems merit glazed expressions and frequent sighs, while project-based learning (PBL) has them on their feet and clapping and shouting and working feverishly. I can be a little slow on the uptake at times, but I’ve seen enough; this is probably the last year of structured, ‘traditional’ learning for H&E. (And I’m only keeping them on rails this year because we’ve, ahem, invested in their online educational experiences.)

And so, after watching The Sighing Show for a month, with some increasingly strongly-worded hints from E – are we ever doing any projects like we did last year, Dad? – I relented and told them they were starting a business. Any kind they wanted. But they would be doing all of the hard work in getting it up and running, and they must make it perform at breakeven by the end of the year.

“Can we do a spa?” they asked.

“Sure,” I replied. And they were off and running. In the past few weeks, I’ve held out working on the spa as a reward for good effort in their other studies. If we have a good week checking the boxes and crossing the t’s for Traditional Schooling, they can work on the spa on Friday mornings. They’ve done their part, and so Friday morning has become spa business planning morning here at the casa.

So far, they have:

  • Researched demographic data to find the best available local commercial real estate;
  • Called the power and water utility companies to get estimates on monthly utility costs;
  • Done the floor planning for the spa and picked out fixtures and furniture;
  • Developed a monthly operating budget and estimated the amount they’ll need to borrow;
  • Built a wiki to track trends in spa treatments and prices

…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Subsumed under those tasks are mathematics, creative writing, spreadsheet design, social media, qualitative and quantitative research, and scenario development. They’re all the same subjects they’d be doing in any here’s-another-worksheet setting, but the very fact that they encounter learning opportunities as they move through the project makes each of those opportunities more meaningful for them. Put simply, they’re learning what they need to learn when they need to learn it, to advance their project forward. And, I’m finding, I’m getting more out of them when they do learn it.

Case in point. Here’s a worksheet problem: a square has an area of 121 square centimeters. What is its perimeter?

Here’s a story problem: a farmer owns a square pasture with an area of 121 square miles. How much fence is needed to completely fence in his pasture?

Here’s a PBL problem: you’ve decided that the optimal massage room has 121 square feet. How many feet of copper wire do you need installed in each room, if every wall needs an outlet?

Those three problems are essentially the same problem, with the same answer. The first two are real problems that showed up (with different areas) in E’s algebra book. The third is one that emerged through PBL. They all yield basically the same problem-solving strategy, but the third one comes with a built-in twist: the girls were incentivized to find the smallest possible perimeter for a given area, since copper wiring costs money – and more expense in construction means less available for massage tables and dragonfruit-scented oils. They tried a dozen different dimensions before concluding (correctly) that square rooms would, indeed, minimize their costs for wiring, and in that moment was an exploration of geometry and algebra – along with a hint of calculus! – that would never have happened in worksheet/story-problem country.

They have a stake in this endeavor. They’re not trying to figure out the area of some random square, or assist another mathematically-helpless farmer in the fence-buying process; this is their business, their expense, their creative cost-saving tricks. It’s hooked to something that they’re invested in, and that makes all the difference in the world in motivating them to learn.

And, with that, I think we’re going to cucumber-slice the eyelids of Traditional Learning, turn the lights down in its aromatherapy room, and move along. I’ve seen enough. It’s PBL for us going forward.

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