What is The Project Approach?

The Project Approach, a specific kind of project-based learning, brings a number of advantages to any classroom and represents best practices in 21st-century education. It fits securely within both a long history of innovative teaching and learning practices—dating back, at least, to the 16th century—and within the framework of today’s growing body of research on what students need to find success and fulfillment in the current (and future) world.

About The Project Approach

The Project Approach refers to a set of teaching strategies that enable teachers to guide students through in-depth studies of real-world topics. Projects have a complex but flexible framework within which teaching and learning are seen as interactive processes. When teachers implement the Approach successfully, students feel highly motivated and actively involved in their own learning, leading them to produce high-quality work and to grow as individuals and collaborators.

A project, by definition, is an in-depth investigation of a real-world topic worthy of a student’s attention and effort. The study may be carried out with an entire class or with small groups of students—most often at the preschool, elementary, and middle school levels. Projects typically do not constitute the whole educational program; instead, teachers use them alongside systematic instruction and as a means of achieving curricular goals.

The Project Approach evolved from a desire to help students participate in and contribute to a democratic society. Studies indicate that democratic societies are more likely to flourish when citizens seek an in-depth understanding of the complex issues they must address and about which they must make choices and decisions.

Situated within a Constructivist-based theoretical framework, the Project Approach rests on the following beliefs:

  • All children come to school with a quest to understand their experiences; all children want to learn.
  • School is life, and teachers and students should experience their time in school as real life rather than seeing these two as separate and unrelated spheres.
  • Students construct their own knowledge but also need teachers to facilitate and guide this process.
  • Students have diverse strengths, weaknesses, interests, and backgrounds, and capitalizing on these differences enables students to learn from each other and to grow as individuals.
  • Students learn best when they have a positive self esteem and sense of purpose.
  • Students learn through a mixture of first-hand observation, hands-on experience, systematic instruction, and personal reflection.
  • Teaching and learning are interactive processes.
  • Social and emotional skills are as important as academic skills and knowledge.
  • Classrooms are flexible learning spaces that support and adapt to student needs.

The Project Approach fosters not only academic knowledge and skill sets but what many educators refer to as the whole child. The use of the word whole stems from research indicating that students need more than content mastery to succeed in the 21st century—they need to be physically, emotionally, and socially healthy; they need to be intellectually challenged and supported by caring adults; and they need to be interested and engaged in their school learning.

Though project work has long prepared students for health, happiness, and success—even as far back as the 16th century—it emerged recently as a prime teaching strategy of the 21st century. Headlines everywhere refer to a rapidly changing and more global world, and governments and organizations call upon students to lend their hands through service, innovation, and problem-solving. These calls to action require a new kind of education—one that inspires, connects, and empowers students. The Project Approach does just that by:

  • connecting students to their local and global communities—and providing them with real-world experiences beyond the classroom;
  • fostering what researchers refer to as essential 21st-century skills, including critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity;
  • providing opportunities to integrate technologies into the classroom—and to use technologies as tools for achieving specific purposes instead of as ends in themselves;
  • providing students with opportunities to apply the skills they acquire through systematic instruction;
  • building on the individual needs, interests, and strengths of all students—and allowing students to work, where appropriate, at their own pace;
  • giving students a sense of purpose and fostering self esteem;
  • providing opportunities for service learning and enhancing a sense of social justice and responsibility;
  • improving research skills by helping students not only to use print and electronic resources but also field work, surveys, interviews, consultations with experts, and firsthand observations and experiences;
  • honing literacy and communication skills by enabling students to use a variety of media to share the process and product of their project work with authentic audiences;
  • integrating content knowledge and skills from a variety of disciplines, so that students come to see and make cross-curricular connections;
  • enhancing the multicultural literacy of students by giving them opportunities to learn about and collaborate with people from other cultures.

Projects, like good stories, have a beginning, middle, and end. This temporal structure helps teachers align the progression of activities with the development of students’ interests and personal involvement with the topic of study. This structure also helps teachers integrate and meet curricula benchmarks—a crucial part of the process. Unlike a number of project-based learning strategies, which provide a theoretical framework but leave out the practical details, the Project Approach offers a step-by-step guide for planning and implementing projects—and for allowing the work to evolve with students’ interests and needs.

Below is an outline of the process involved in planning and implementing projects. More information, along with specific examples and advice from teachers in the field, can be found in two guidebooks two guidebooks written for teachers by Sylvia Chard: The Project Approach (Book Two): Managing Successful Projects and The Project Approach (Book One): Making Curriculum Come Alive. The material in these books is also presented in a .pdf format in a new series of six practical guides. Also download our free Project Approach Study Guide [link to Study Guide pdf].

First Steps

During the preliminary planning stage, teachers select a topic of study based on students’ interests, the curriculum, and the availability of local resources. Teachers also brainstorm (and represent) their own experience with and knowledge and ideas about the topic in a web. This web becomes a central part of the project process, with teachers—and students—using it to record the progress of their work.

Phase 1: Beginning the Project

Teachers discuss the topic with students to find out about their related experiences and pre-existing knowledge. Often, this process evolves over a few days, with teachers eliciting prior knowledge through the use of related stories, discussions, journals, or other activities. Students then represent their experiences and show their understanding of the concepts involved in explaining them. Teachers help students develop questions to pursue during their investigation; they also send a letter about the study home to parents, who are encouraged to speak with their children about the topic and to share any relevant personal experience of their own.

Phase 2: Developing the Project

Opportunities for students to conduct field work and to speak with experts are arranged. Teachers provide resources to help students with their investigations, such as authentic objects, books, magazines, newspapers, music, Web sites, and other research materials. Teachers then suggest ways for students to carry out their investigations. Meanwhile, each student is involved in representing what he or she is learning in a variety of ways; with younger children, this may take the form of basic skills, such as 3D constructions, drawing, music, or dramatic play, and with older children, this could include journaling, editing magazines, dramatic performance, experimental design, Web site development, I-movies, PowerPoint, comic books, and more.

Throughout the process, teachers use group discussions and displays to enable students to take note of the diverse range of work. The topic web designed earlier provides a shorthand means of documenting the many branches of the project.

Phase 3: Concluding the Project

Teachers arrange a culminating event through which students share what they’ve learned with others (parents, administrators, other classes, experts). Students spend several days preparing for the event and selecting appropriate materials and displays. Teachers help students in this planning process, and, in doing so, involve them purposefully in reviewing and evaluating the whole project. Teachers also offer students imaginative ways of personalizing their new knowledge through art, stories, and drama. Finally, teachers use the students’ ideas and interests to make a meaningful transition between the concluding project and the topic of study in the next project.

Note: This outline summarizes some of the common features of projects, but each project is also unique. The teachers, students, topic, and location of the school all contribute to the distinctiveness of each project.