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November 1994 | Volume 52 | Number 3
Strategies for Success
When children are free to choose their own projects, integrating knowledge as the need arises, motivation—and success—follow naturally.
About three weeks ago, in the safety of my classroom, a tarantula crawled up my arm. Needless to say, it was a unique experience. The tips of the eight hairy legs felt like the pads on the bottom of a dog's paws. The body was soft, with stiff hairs growing at a sharp angle. And the eyes, well ... there were eight of them.
This scene is indicative of the wonderfully eclectic experiences I have had with my 5th graders in our project-based classroom. Just three weeks earlier, the student, who had chosen to study these spiders for his project, asked our class whether or not we would let a tarantula crawl up our arms. (Fearing for my life, I answered no.) He proceeded to track down and interview a local biology professor, who then came to our classroom with the spiders. Based on what both of them said, I reconsidered.
Of course, the idea of project-based learning is not new. William Heard Kilpatrick, a popular professor at Teachers College, heralded the idea in the first quarter of this century. It was his prophetic vision that helped motivate me to create a project-based, democratic classroom.
Kilpatrick was an advocate of basing schools on child-chosen projects that engender “purposeful activity.” In other words, projects that originate intrinsically for a real purpose, as opposed to extrinsically assigned teacher and school-created tasks. He agreed with John Dewey that a school should not only prepare one for life, but be life itself:
As the purposeful act is thus the typical unit of the worthy life in a democratic society, so also should it be made the typical unit of school procedure (Kilpatrick 1918).
Our class has two one-hour project times each day. In the morning, students may investigate anything they choose, either individually or collaboratively. Students have used this time to study everything from hydrofoils to elephants to Claude Monet, as well as to repaint classroom bookshelves. Afternoon is for a class exploration. We alternate between student-initiated topics that are (after much discussion) selected by class consensus, such as “Equality and Prejudice” and “Our Urban Ecosystem,” and projects that are based on our 5th grade curriculum, such as “The Age of Exploration.”
Before students begin their projects, they must write a plan and have me approve it. These project plans are an integral part of our classroom. They communicate the importance of thinking through the project in its entirety before actually beginning work. The plans must include topic questions that the students want to answer, possible resources, how they will show what they've learned, when their research will begin and end, and when they will present their finished project to the class. After completing their projects, students must also write a self-evaluation to help them become metacognitively aware of their learning.
Our projects help create a rich learning environment. Two-thirds of the way into the school year, the students have completed more than 60 projects. Walk into our classroom during project time, and you might see children sprawled on the rug taking notes from books on the habitats of beavers or on medieval life, or two students across the room watching a videotape on Jane Goodall, or others conducting tests on the aerodynamics of paper airplanes. Go to the library down the hall (past students rehearsing a play they have written), and you might find members of the other half of the class conducting research on virtual reality or the history of Halloween. If you then go to the computer lab, you'll see, for example, one student inputting survey data while another learns to write a new computer language. In short, you never know what you might experience next, or, most important, what the students might experience next.
Children's experiences aren't confined to the classroom, however, or even to the school itself. One of the saddest notions of schooling is that it must take place within the walls of the classroom. The world is out there to interact with, and this past year, students have interacted with it in a variety of ways. They have, for example—
When the school year started, students were hesitant to use the classroom telephone to call for information. Now, hardly a day passes when some students aren't tracking down answers by phone.
Another powerful result of project-based teaching is the creation of a true learning community. When the work is really flowing, there is a certain ethos in the air; students are into their work so intently, so genuinely, and they are constantly interacting and collaborating with one another. One student conducts a science experiment creating a vacuum with a candle, a jar, and some water; and three other children come to watch. Two students research the history of shoes, and classmates wander over to listen to an interesting anecdote. Another student builds a model set for his animated film, and someone offers suggestions. There is something infectious about this spontaneous give-and-take.
My role in cultivating such an atmosphere is critical. I'm constantly moving from one student to the next—watching, listening, asking or answering questions, challenging, offering suggestions, or lending a hand. I am much less a teacher than a facilitator, guide, and resource.
Kilpatrick considered the social nature of project-based classrooms one of its most compelling strengths. It is a natural way, he wrote, for children to develop their moral character:
Children are living together in the pursuit of a rich variety of purposes, some individually sought, many conjointly. As must happen in social commingling, occasions of moral stress will arise.... Under the eye of the skillful teacher the children as an embryonic society will make increasingly finer discriminations as to what is right and proper (1918).
Our classroom owes its spontaneity and rich learning environment to other, no less crucial, learning strategies:
Projects can integrate and give meaning to other aspects of school and the curriculum...; projects can be phenomenally economical, doing double duty, triple duty, quadruple duty in fulfilling linear mandates and impoverished guidelines (1993).
We learn better—certainly as a rule—when we face a situation calling for the use of the thing to be learned. Other things being equal then, we shall try to teach our arithmetic as it is needed (1925).
For example, one student recently surveyed the class on their favorite basketball players. This might appear to be a frivolous use of learning time, but not to the child who conducted the survey—a girl who was struggling with math. She constructed a pie graph reflecting which players were most highly favored by the class. She worked hard to convert her fractions into percentages, and accurately drew the estimated pie chart after four attempts. Finally, she fed her data into a computer and created a graph—which very meaningfully matched her estimated graph. In her class presentation, she surprised me by having everyone huddle around the computer while she showed them how to generate a graph. Within a few days, three other students used the computer to create graphs for their projects.
The most important rationale for learning through projects is that they serve as an outlet for every child to experience success. By trusting children and allowing them to choose what to explore, they become intrinsically motivated—more than happy to work hard for the highest quality.
Kilpatrick stressed the critical importance of allowing children to choose (or plan) their own projects. In the following imaginary exchange, he illustrated just why he thought this was crucial:
Question: Don't you think that the teacher should often supply the plan? Take a boy planting corn, for example; think of the waste of land and fertilizer and effort. Science has worked out better plans than a boy can make....
Kilpatrick: It depends on what you seek. If you wish corn, give the boy a plan. But if you wish boy rather than corn, that is, if you wish to educate the boy to think and plan for himself, then let him make his own plan (Kilpatrick 1925).
Projects also help students succeed because they allow them to use all their “intelligences,” just as the “projects” of normal day-to-day living do. Therefore, I was not surprised to learn that Howard Gardner (1992), who has advanced the theory that there are multiple forms of intelligence, is a strong proponent of project-based learning. In their explorations, my students have drawn upon the gamut of skills and abilities. Among their creations: animated films, books, posters, graphs, plays, game shows, science experiments, interviews, computer programs, reports, videos, models, surveys, artwork, and demonstrations.
Success and self-esteem go hand-in-hand. My students take great pride in their work and accomplishments. One student who was struggling with math decided to survey his classmates on their favorite colors. After working hard to turn his data into a beautifully drawn graph, he quickly became the class expert, volunteering to teach others how to do the same.
Two other students—one with low self-esteem and the other lacking motivation—were given the responsibility of tutoring 1st and 2nd graders during project time. Both 5th graders grew in the process. At our parent/teacher/student conference, one of the students who repainted the bookshelves had this exchange with her father:
Father: Did you learn anything with this project?
Student: Yes, I learned to believe in myself. I didn't think we would finish it, but we did.
It is important to point out that giving students the freedom to explore what they wish to is not giving them carte blanche. Kilpatrick would have been the first to agree that it is up to the teacher to establish boundaries and maintain high expectations. To this end, I frequently discuss and model expectations with my students.
Recently I surveyed my students to better understand their perceptions of our classroom. I found that, overwhelmingly, their favorite part of our day was project time. Why? For the identical reason members of a 5th grade class in 1920 (Hennes 1921) said they liked it: “We get to make our own choices.” The students see the projects as being theirs, as being relevant to their lives. And entrusting them with the freedom and opportunities to co-create their curriculum gives them ownership and a sense of belonging to the classroom community. They have a real stake in what goes on because so much of it is their own creation.
Ayers, W. (1993). To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. New York: Teachers College.
Gardner, H. (1992). The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach. New York: Basic Books.
Glasser, W. (1975). Schools Without Failure. New York: Harper and Row.
Hennes, M. (1921). “Project Teaching in an Advanced Fifth Grade.” Teachers College Record 19, 2: 137–148.
Kilpatrick, W.H. (1918). “The Project Method.” Teachers College Record 19, 4: 319–335.
Kilpatrick, W. H. (1925). Foundations of Method: Informal Talks on Teaching. New York: Macmillan.
Steven Wolk teaches at Baker Demonstration School, National-Louis University, 2840 Sheridan Rd., Evanston, IL 60201.
Copyright © 1994 by Steven Wolk
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