Personal Project Planner for Free Inquiry Learning

Personal Project Planner for Free Inquiry Learning

By Matthew Barbercheck

During the first year in my new district, I was writing a CAD curriculum, middle school Industrial Arts curriculum, high school Industrial Arts curriculum, as well as a Spanish curriculum.

I was doing all of this on the spot. I was delivering the curriculum I was creating within the next week, sometimes even the next day, and most times the very next minute.

This experience led to the creation of the "Hawk Shop Personal Project Planner."

I would sit down at the end of the day, and knowing that I get more done using pen and paper, I would write out steps for planning a personal project. I would photocopy the steps and hand new pages to the students. The process allowed students to build anything in the shop with only the constraints of equipment, materials on hand, time, and ability.

In retrospect, this was a sink or swim approach, utilizing free inquiry as the main instructional tool. Free inquiry, while more difficult to facilitate, is much easier to plan.  

Here are the basic components of the the personal project planner, that can be applied to any personal project across subject matter. To download the PDF, click here, or scroll to the bottom of the post. 

The Cover Page Checklist

The cover page is a check list of all of the steps. The blank spots are for me, the teacher, to sign. Having the checklist upfront and personal as the cover page helps to remind students, as well as myself, exactly where students are. 

Time Timer Curriculum Personal Project Planner Checklist

The Two-Minute Brainstorming Challenge

Brainstorming has always been a goofy verb to me... and usually the start of a very long meeting. So, I put a time constraint on it. Two minutes to think of any thing you would have motivation to create. I use the Time Timer PLUS 5-Minute or the new Time Timer MAX with the 5 minute setting to help facilitate this.

Younger ages are better at this. I'm not sure what happens to creativity along the way, but I'm thinking of ways to better prime the students for this creative challenge.

Time Timer Curriculum Personal Project Planner Two Minute Challenge

Prioritization by Constraint

Next, we prioritize based on constraints. We acknowledge constraints in our ability, time, shop and materials and filter which projects are most realistic looking through a lens focused on one specific constraint. We compare the most realistic options and, with a partner, students decide which project to build. Prioritizing by constraints is something that usually resurfaces later, and I'm in the works of restructuring this book to favor a more cyclical manner of the steps, rather than a linear procedure.

 Time Timer Curriculum Personal Project Planner Constraint Worksheet

Encourage Accountability

Before starting the more detailed project planning, I ask my students to find a Support Partner. This gives them someone to bounce ideas off of and encourages learning from other's experiences in the less structured environment of free inquiry. A Support Partner is the person they will use for problem solving, discussing solutions, or for two-person operations or initiatives. However, this does not make it a team project, and student's are still expected to complete their own project on their own. This then allows them to decide on the final project with input, and begin to lay out the steps needed to complete it (reverting back to the initial checklist).

Time Timer Curriculum Personal Project Planner Support Partner


When to Introduce a Free Inquiry to Your Classroom

As a young, naive teacher I believed that any kid could motivate themselves to learn anything if they had a goal that they had decided on. If a kid decided he wanted to build a cabinet, he would be motivated to do the research on how to build the cabinet. 

I was shaped and influenced by having my peak learning years aligned with the novelty of the Information Age and taught myself many things through YouTube. I decided that's just how kids learned, because that's how I learned. 

Unfortunately, the individualized goal definitely does not provide all of the motivation to complete a project. 

There's a few barriers with free inquiry learning that I had yet to recognize: 

1. Students can't design/create with intent if they haven't consciously experienced the majority of the methods used within the medium.

I didn't have a strong woodworking background prior to teaching. I took a class in college as part of my coursework. The instructor reviewed wood joinery and then laughed, mocked the former teacher, and said. "I could just have you all make samples of these pictures. That's what the old teacher did."

As a student with limited woodworking knowledge, I couldn't help but feel..."Actually, that would kinda help me."

I've never had students simply make "practice joints" with no application, but I had asked students to solve their own design challenges without ever having true experience with the application of a rabbet joint, or a box joint. "They'll just look it up on YouTube," I thought, or "I'll expose them just-in-time." 

That's not a thing. Yes, as part of a free inquiry lesson plan, they've chosen their own goal, but only because a teacher asked them to. And, in my case, it's a goal within the confines of shop class. And if they are motivated by the fact that it's a shop project, they are even more so going to limit their design to what they know. Learning a technique and applying that same technique to work that 100% has your name on it... breeds a lack of confidence in understanding the trade as a whole and understanding the variety of ways it can be applied.

2. Autonomy increases motivation; Low confidence decreases motivation

After receiving critical feedback from me about their ideas and techniques they really wouldn't know of existing, as well as having nearly full autonomy for the first time in their school career, confidence was at a paralyzing low. 

My younger self would tell you, "Yeah, man, that's how kids need to learn. Free inquiry. Let them explore"

But over my years of teaching, I finely tuned my philosophy of education. Free inquiry has a place. So do the practice wood joints. But be cognizant of when free inquiry it is presented to the students. In the younger years of my teaching, I always presented it too early. Below is a picture that nails exactly what I mean by that:


About "Hawk Shop"

The Hawk Shop is the maker-space for Republic-Michigamme students and is available for use to 6th-12th grade students under the course title Industrial Arts. The shop operates using the original woodworking equipment to the building and is continuing progress to upgrade the shop to develop trade skill sets for today’s workforce.

Our mission: The Hawk Shop exposes students to the diverse fields within skilled trade, and capitalizes on students strengths and interests to prepare students for entering a skilled trade position, and/or to utilize maker skills as a healthy creative outlet.

About Mr. Barbercheck

Mr. Matthew Barbercheck teaches secondary education at Republic-Michigamme Schools in Republic, Michigan.  He is a worker bee jack-of-all-trades. His love for hands-on applied knowledge began his senior year of high school when he finally got the chance to take his first industrial technology class, Beginning Autos. He decided to pursue a career in teaching and has a variety of experiences with multiple trades, which includes metalworking, woodworking, building trades, design and repair. He is a learnaholic by nature, enjoys organizing his tool box, and has a deep appreciation for occasional solitude and downtime. 

Follow Mr. Barbercheck on :

Instagram @Jack.of.all.learning

Twitter: @JackOfAllLearnn

Facebook: @RMIndustrialArts

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