Sylvia Chard is a Professor Emeritus of Elementary Education at the University of Alberta and coauthor of Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach, a popular book for teachers of young children on learning through projects. Visit Sylvia's website The Project Approach for resources and more information about her work.
- How do you define project learning?
- Why is project learning important?
- What impact does project learning have on children over time?
- What does project learning look like?
- Why is the presentation important?
- From the teacher's perspective, how does project work compare with more traditional forms of instruction?
- What role does project learning play in promoting "emotional intelligence" -- in other words, social skills?
- What role does technology have in project learning?
1. How do you define project learning?
Project learning is in-depth learning in which children can take some ownership of their work and through which they have choices that they can make -- but choices that are designed together by the child and the teacher so they're not entirely whatever the child wants to do -- but choices from among alternatives. And it usually involves in-depth study and can be specially tailored to the learning needs and interests of individual children, which is very difficult to do in any other part of the school program.
2. Why is project learning important?
One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life. In real life, we don't spend several hours at a time listening to authorities who know more than we do and who tell us exactly what to do and how to do it. We need to be able to ask questions of a person we're learning from. We need to be able to link what the person is telling us with what we already know. And we need to be able to bring what we already know and experiences we've had that are relevant to the topic to the front of our minds and say something about them.
You see this with a young class of learners who've not yet learned classroom behavior. Little kindergarten children all raise their hands at once, and you're lucky if they raise their hands. Usually they just break out and say something when the teacher tells a story about her experience because they want to share their experiences. This is how life is much of the time. And it's not that when children are doing that they're not learning. They want to be able to apply their natural tendencies to the learning process. And I think by giving children project work, we open up areas during the school day when children can speak about what they already know, when they can ask questions, they can express interests that are different from [those of] other children. And, I believe, where they can work on their strengths.
3. What impact does project learning have on children over time?
When we look at children who have had project work over a period of years and perhaps are now reaching fourth or fifth grade, often they appear to be more confident in the way they talk about what they've learned in school. They will look as though they've had ownership of some of their learning. They will be able to remember projects that they did in previous years. They will have highlights of their school career that they will remember quite easily. They're able to talk about school learning in a way that children who are mainly receptive learners in school find it very difficult to talk about.
4. What does project learning look like?
The first phase would be getting started, getting the children interested, finding out what their particular experiences have been in relation to the topic, finding out what they know about their experiences, how well they can explain them, finding out what questions they're interested in finding out more about -- pursuing.
In the second phase, the teacher can take more of an assertive role in providing experiences for children that are common to the whole group and may be new to many of the children. This often involves going outside the classroom and undertaking field work at a field site. And when the children come back from the field, the teacher then wants to find out what they found most interesting and what they would like to know more about, what secondary sources will be necessary to bring to the classroom to enhance their study. And then the children will be representing what they've learned with a view to teaching it to the rest of the class because not all the students choose the same questions to investigate.
In the third and last phase, the teacher is concerned about bringing the project to a conclusion. And in that phase, various work is finished off. And usually there's some kind of celebratory event to which people who have not been part of the project are invited.
5. Why is the presentation important?
The presentation is important because the children have worked so hard and so long on something that, usually, just to tell them, "Now that's the end of that, and we're going on to something different next week," is a kind of disrespectful way to debrief them on the experience. They often get very involved in the work they're doing when it's in-depth. It's very different from the kind of work they might do routinely -- a direct instruction sequence of lessons that might be prepared for the acquisition of skills in math, say, or language arts. In the project work, they invest a lot of their own energy and interest. And they appreciate being able to share with others what they've done.
6. From the teacher's perspective, how does project work compare with more traditional forms of instruction?
It's much easier to do all the preparation for a lesson before you get into the classroom and present the lesson according to your lesson plan, which may have times in it, and you're the boss, you're the director, you decide that the next forty-five minutes will be spent this way, and you can time it and make it happen. In project work, by definition, the teacher has to be responsive to the children as they engage in project work, almost any kind of project work. And that responsiveness requires of teachers that they think on their feet more than they would if they had everything pre-planned and were directing operations. In the context of a project, the teacher takes more of a guidance role. But as a good guide, she has to be very aware of what the learning potential of a study of the topic -- this topic -- is.
7. What role does project learning play in promoting "emotional intelligence" -- in other words, social skills?
As children work together, they have to negotiate who's going to do which part of the representation of what they've learned, who's going to watch out for which part of the investigation, who's going to be responsible. Children aren't all doing the same things, side by side, as they are in much of the rest of the program. So I think it helps them a lot with their communications with one another. And as they can bring this representation work to a conclusion and feel a sense of satisfaction about what they've accomplished, they share that satisfaction with other children. And then they're able to contribute it to the rest of the class.
8. What role does technology have in project learning?
There are two aspects of technology that are important for project work: One is in the investigation of a topic or an interest. Children can not only use Internet sites to acquire information but they can evaluate sites and look at the authenticity of the people who are claiming some knowledge of some aspect of the topic they're interested in.
The other aspect of technology is communication. Children can prepare presentations to help other children, help the rest of the class understand something which they have researched, which the others may not have researched. So that part of project work is sharing the information that you're acquiring as you engage in individual, small-group research. So technology offers many opportunities to prepare video or still photography or mix it with text and prepare a way to present your work to other children.