Susan came into my office a couple months ago to talk about how to teach her four children (ages 6-11) during the second half of the school year. The family would be spending six months traveling through two different regions of the U.S. and two countries in Europe before returning to their ministry assignment in Asia by the beginning of next school year. Should she buy the correspondence courses her children had used previously in Asia, or buy the textbooks they were currently using on furlough so they could finish out the year with consistency?

Both those options seemed overwhelming when Susan considered the bulk and weight of materials they would have to carry around and the amount of time required to keep up with four complete grade levels worth of courses. Also, Susan had been reading about learning styles and was realizing that some of her children would probably enjoy “school” more and learn better if they were not limited to the textbook/workbook approach. She felt the teaching experience would be more positive for her, too, if the methodology could be varied.

The situation seemed right for moving “beyond the textbooks” to more real-life, project-based learning! Susan became more and more enthused about the possibilities of using the travel they’d be doing, rather than textbooks, as the content organizer for the last half of the school year. Why not study, as a family, the U.S. regions and the European countries they’d be visiting? This would help build appreciation for and understanding of their home country as well as other parts of the world. Since another major goal of furlough was to build family ties, they could also incorporate projects that would enhance their relationships with the family members they would be visiting.

In subject areas such as math and beginning reading, the children would continue with their textbooks. But everything else—reading/literature for the older children, writing, science, social studies—could be integrated around their travels. As all four children would be studying the same themes, many of the resources they would use, the discussions they would have, and the experiences they would include would serve to teach at all four levels.

An Example

Susan used a theme outline (the Nations unit) to help her come up with the kinds of questions appropriate for her children to answer as they traveled to the different regions of the U.S. and the two European countries. This would give them a format for studying any region or country of the world and for organizing what they learned. The format would also provide a structure for comparing and contrasting different places—finding their similarities and appreciating their uniquenesses. Following are some of the possible questions:

  • What is the geography and climate of this place? How does that determine the kind of plant and animal life we see here? What natural resources are available? How do all those affect the lives of the people who live here (housing, clothing, occupations, etc.)? How are they factors in the history of this place?
  • Who were the peoples who lived here in the past? How did they live? Why did they come here? How have things changed since earlier days? What do you see today that reflects their influence? Who were some important people in the history of this place? How did they make a difference?
  • What groups of people live here today? Why are they here? Are different cultures represented? What languages do they speak? Does the way of life differ between groups (dress, housing, occupations, etc.)? What are their religious beliefs? Are they known for unique things they offer the community?
  • How do people make a living here today? What influences their occupational choices? Do some unique products or services come from this region? What are the steps in creating one of these products or providing one of these services? How have natural resources, geography, climate, and history influenced the economy of this area? What kind of monetary system is used? Who buys the products and services? How do the products and services get to the people who want them?

Gathering Information and Presenting What was Learned

  • Visit parks (natural and historical), gather brochures, question park employees, jot down notes of information learned that answer the questions above.
  • Go to the chamber of commerce or tourist information center to gather materials and get ideas of good places to visit; ask people you visit what they recommend you should not miss.
  • Write letters to state offices or tourist bureaus requesting information.
  • When visiting people/relatives, ask questions about their occupations, how life has changed since they were young, why they live where they do; later write thank-you notes mentioning a particular thing you enjoyed learning from them.
  • Keep a list of occupations of all the people you interact with; list businesses observed; if possible, visit a factory or business for a tour; make a diagram or diorama.
  • Eat at different ethnic restaurants or buy typical food items at grocery stores.
  • Buy postcards, take pictures, save small souvenirs that could be included in a scrapbook along with brochures and self-written material.
  • Read historical novels about the area, biographies of its famous people; pretend you are one of the characters and answer questions about your way of life, your contributions to the area, or some historical event you witnessed; write a newspaper article about a historical event.
  • Get a newspaper and choose one item about the area to read and summarize for the others.
  • Keep a list of vocabulary you learn, perhaps a word for each day.
  • Learn a typical craft if you have time, or cook a typical dish; write out the steps involved; make diagrams.
  • Learn common phrases in the local language (greetings, thank you) and use them when appropriate.
  • Buy a tape of typical music.
  • Make maps, charts, and graphs showing information learned.
  • Make models, dioramas, murals, drawings; dramatize a process, procedure, or happening.
  • Present what you’ve learned to parents or relatives; make up a quiz show to see if they know what you know!

Fears About Moving Away from Textbooks

  1. The biggest fear most parents and teachers express when considering moving away from textbooks is that the children may end up with “gaps” in their knowledge. I believe this is a valid concern, at least in the area of skills. With today’s information explosion and that predicted for the future, it is becoming much more important that children learn how to learn than that they know a particular set of facts. Using nontextbook approaches, children effectively learn a tremendous amount of information, but they also develop life-long learning skills. Gaps in skills may be assessed in many ways—achievement tests, analyzing errors in children’s work, noticing difficulties in doing particular tasks, and questioning to find out where the trouble lies. Planning teaching on this basis can be much more efficient than going through someone else’s prepared curriculum, page by page. The year before returning to a traditional school setting would be an especially good time to assess for gaps and then to tailor curriculum to fill any holes.
  2. The other big fear is that moving away from textbooks will take more parent time. Teaching through projects and theme units does require more preparation. If children enjoy the textbook/workbook approach and are successful with it, a parent may not feel it is worth it to spend time planning other kinds of activities. Much depends on how important parents feel it is for their children to develop other kinds of learning skills, organizational abilities, creativity, and presentation skills.
  3. Parents of children who do not handle textbook/workbook activities well will probably be more motivated to change their approach. The differences in children’s attitudes about “school” and about themselves in relation to learning may well be worth the extra time invested.

Advantages of Moving Beyond the Textbooks

By moving beyond the traditional, grade-level textbook approach, families can:

  • take advantage of unusual learning opportunities.
  • combine children for group theme studies rather than have every child doing a separate course.
  • help children develop group interaction skills—listening, discussion, positive feedback, skills necessary for working with others.
  • develop skills of self-direction, planning, research, presentation.
  • address a variety of learning styles; capitalize on different children’s strengths, especially for more active, hands-on learners and those talented in nonverbal ways.
  • broaden the view of learning to include direct observation, interviewing, imitation, mentors, and use of other media.
  • connect learning to real life and apply knowledge through projects that make a difference in their own world (encourage service to others).
  • increase excitement about learning, breadth and depth of understanding, long-term retention of concepts, and the ability to apply knowledge to real-life situations.

How Could You Do It?

usan decided to jump in with both feet and do a theme-unit approach for all subject areas except math. She wanted to take advantage of the unique learning opportunities their imminent travel would provide. Most families do not feel comfortable taking that leap all at once.1 Following are some ideas for making it manageable.

  1. Try it at first for only one subject area or one topic and for a limited time period. As you try the new approach, assess the kinds of changes you see in your childen’s motivation, involvement, and depth of learning to decide if it is worthwhile to continue.
  2. Substitute the project or theme study for regular textbook schedule/assignments. Even though project or theme-study activities are usually more interesting and children love getting involved in them, it becomes too much to add those to a child’s regular textbook assignments (though you may use sections from textbooks as one of the informational resources).
  3. Choose something that can be done with all your children. You will obviously expect different levels or areas of understanding and performance from each child, but the same types of learning activities and assignments can be done with all. This can save you a great deal of preparation time.

Children at all grade levels can write a report (with you individualizing skills instruction at the level of each), do hands-on geometry or measurement activites, make a model, prepare an explanation, participate in the same field trips, interviews, observations, books read aloud, and discussions related to the theme topic. Some of the assignments can be family projects with each child doing a piece to contribute to the whole. This type of academic interaction is a key benefit to many families, adding to enjoyment of learning, closeness, and appreciation for one another’s gifts and talents.

Helpful Resources

Permission to copy, but not for commercial use.

  1. J.G. recounts her family’s more gradual transition in her article, Project-Based versus More Structured Curriculum.